Time flies…

By Tom Ormerod

So, after five years as Head of the School of Psychology, I come to the end of my term.  It has (mostly) been a genuine pleasure to hold the role, and there cannot be a better School of Psychology anywhere to lead.  I have loved working with colleagues, and feel genuinely proud of our students and the things they and my colleagues have achieved.  When I arrived five years ago (from Lancaster, where I was Head of School for six years, via a brief sojourn at Surrey), I was apprehensive about how I would be received. My anxieties were reinforced when a social network analysis of research topics and links within the School revealed four tightly knit clusters with lots of interaction between them, and me as a complete outlier! My fears have proved unfounded: I have never felt like an outsider for a single day, such is the strength of the school community.

Tom opening his card at his leaving do
29.07.2019

What’s it like to be a Head of School? It is undeniably busy. In term time, my diary has on average 24 hours of meetings per week, of which at least 12 are scheduled by people from outside the school. As Head of School, I am a member of the University Leadership Team, and this takes up a lot of time and energy. In addition, there are lots of unscheduled things like student and staff complaints to handle, unexpected visitors and dignitaries to greet, people wanting advice about promotions, dead seagulls to remove from the toilets (advice to the incoming Head – always keep a pair of Marigolds in your office: you have to do the jobs that no one else would want to), etc.. The best bit of the job is the problem-solving. There is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to deal with a problem and have someone leave my office much happier than when they arrived.  The worst bit? Apart from the interminable emails, 5% of the people bring 95% of the extra workload, and there’s not a lot one can do about it because it’s just in their nature! But overall, the good bits far outweigh the bad bits.

What has been achieved in the past five years?  I took over in August 2014 from Pete Clifton who had done a magnificent job in leading the department of Psychology into becoming an independent School. This was a hard act to follow, but I was incredibly lucky in having a team of directors and subject leads who really have functioned as a team to guide changes in the School. Since 2014, the School has doubled in terms of student numbers and in monetary turnover. We got our Athena Swan bronze, in the process greatly increasing the number of female professors and women in senior roles. Our research income has also doubled, and we continue to produce large numbers of 3* and 4* research outputs, and will be in a great position for REF 2021. Our PhD students and research staff continue to provide a strong research culture within the School. The appointment of a group of teaching fellows (now lecturers/senior lecturers, since the titular distinction is being removed) has enabled us to cope with increasing student numbers while enhancing the learning experience they receive.  Innovations such as the placements scheme, retreats and houses are the envy of the other schools and are largely down to these highly committed colleagues.  We have radically reshaped professional services in the school, and have the best group of professional services staff I could possibly imagine, with all of them taking a leading role in enhancing the student and staff experience across the School. I think the thing I am most pleased about is that, despite the growth and concomitant increases in workload, we have maintained a collegiate, caring and professional spirit in the school. I wanted to name-check individuals in this blog for their particularly notable contributions, but I realised that the list would include almost every member of the School! These achievements are a result of the whole School working together professionally and collegiately.

Not everything has worked out as I had hoped, and there is still much to do.  Our strategy for growth was based on raising revenue to persuade the University to invest in a refurbishment and additional space for Psychology. Although the need is now recognised by the centre, we are still some way from any action on this front. We also need to do something about our NSS, particularly around assessment and feedback, which despite innovations and enhancements continues to hold us back in the league tables. Robin Banerjee takes over as Head of School at a very challenging time for Higher Education (well, a very challenging time, full stop!).  He will need the very high levels of support you have shown me during my tenure.  

Wishing Tom good luck for the next stage in his life

What’s next for me? After my sabbatical I will continue as a Professor of Psychology in the School, doing teaching and research (and admin I guess!). When I first arrived, I held one-to-one meetings with faculty, and in those I realised the huge potential for collaborations with colleagues, but I just haven’t had time to follow them up.  So, lock your doors if you don’t want me annoying you with collaborative research and teaching ideas! I’m really looking forward to having time to talk to people, join in with research groups, and generally make a menace of myself!  Finally, thank you to everyone who has been so welcoming to this stranger parachuted into the school five years ago.

Best wishes

Tom

Posted in Uncategorized

Psychology in the Media: June 2019

The month of June started with an article about Ian Hadden’s research on the Times Education Supplement: “Positive writing “boosts poorer pupils’ maths scores”. Ian and his PhD supervisor Dr Matt Easterbrook investigated whether self-affirmation writing exercises could improve the performance of low socio-economic status school students. Their study found that a series of short targeted writing exercises can reduce the attainment gap for students from low-income families by 62%.

Only five days later, on the 10th of June, the 2019 Active Learning Network conference took place on campus. The event, organised by Dr Wendy Garnham, attracted a large number of professionals interested in active learning who were able to network and discuss innovative pedagogical methods.

New research led by Dr Silvana De Pirro from the Sussex Addiction Research and Intervention Centre (SARIC) shows that drinking just one pint of beer or a large glass of wine is enough to significantly affect an individual’s sense of feeling in control of their actions. The study has significant implications for alcohol limits and safe driving. Since their research paper was published at the end of June, several national and international journals have covered this important discovery, including The Daily Mirror and The Daily Express, as well as specialised publications such as DevDiscourse, Slashgear, Medical Xpress and Scienmag.

June was also a good month for our developmental psychologists, and several of them were contacted by journalists to provide their expertise:

The Guardian interviewed Dr Jessica Horst for an article on the latest Teletubbies’ film, which came out last month. On the article Again again! Why the Teletubbies film may not be all that it seems, Jessica explains the role of contextual repetition on child development.

Max Lui interviewed Prof Alison Pike for his article in The Guardian Escaping my messy childhood: ‘There were apple cores down the sofa and slugs in the sink’, where he recounts his experience of growing up in a chaotic household.

Prof Sam Cartwright Hatton was interviewed by Claudia Hammond in an All in the Mind feature about Sam’s Flourishing Families Anxiety Clinic on 25 June. The episode is available to listen to and download on BBC Sounds.

Posted in Psychology in the Media

There are no rioters in Hong Kong

By Patricio Saavedra Morales

In June this year, thousands of Hongkongers hit the streets to protest against a controversial extradition bill promoted by the Chief Executive of the former British colony, Carrie Lam. During those days, Hongkongers, as well as people worldwide, cried out in fury after seeing how riot police beat peaceful protesters and indiscriminately threw tear gas canisters into the crowd. While some protesters remained peaceful, many others fought back against police brutality. Under these circumstances, each day more and more people joined massive demonstrations not only to show their disagreement with the bill but also to complain against the authorities’ measures regarding protests. Despite the fact that on 16th June the Chief Executive declared the extradition bill would be suspended, protests continued to demand Mrs Lam’s resignation, an independent investigation of police brutality during the previous days, and the withdraw of the controversial extradition bill (see “Hong Kong protests”, 2019, for an overview). 

Although most of the subsequent protests were aimed at the Hong Kong government and its failure to satisfy protesters’ demands, it worth noting that a different group of people (alleged supporters of the Mainland Chinese Government) organised a series of rallies to support the Hong Kong police’s actions against protesters (Zhao & Zhang, 2019).   

This summary of the actions that took place before 1st July in Hong Kong is useful for three reasons. First, it highlights the crucial role of authorities (i.e., the government and the police) in setting up the scenario where protests take place, and how people’s perceptions about this scenario may lead people to support protesters’ actions and join demonstrations. Second, it shows that during mobilisation processes, people may carry out different actions (i.e., non-violent and violent) depending on the restrictions people need to confront and the interaction between protesters and the police. Third, it provides context for the situation Hongkongers had to face on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, on 1st July 2019.

In terms of research in collective action, although Lee and Chan (2018) have reported that the use of tear gas against protesters was one of the main reasons for people to join the ongoing demonstrations during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, researchers have barely explored how non-participants may support protesters’ actions in relation to perceived restrictions authorities impose on the right to protest. In an attempt to address this gap, my PhD research at Sussex University (which includes data from Chile, Germany, and the UK) has demonstrated that non-participants will support the use of violence against the police the more they perceive the authorities try to hinder demonstrations and that public opinion legitimises the occurrence of protests. More interestingly, we found that under those circumstances, people support protesters’ violence against the police as self-defence after facing a dilemma between the pervasive idea that protests need to be peaceful and the principle of defending the right to protest. The dilemma implies that people may hold contradictory ideas about protest violence; and similar to what happens with actual protesters (ESIM; Drury & Reicher, 2000; see Drury, Ball, Neville, Reicher, & Stott, in press, for a review), non-participants may change their norms about the use of violence depending on protesters’ interactions with the police, public opinion’s legitimisation of protests, and the measures authorities take to guarantee (or not) people’s right to protest. To put it differently, people’s support for protest violence is contextually situated.

We think that there are three main implications of considering the support for protesters’ violence as contextually situated. First, support for protest violence may not only depend on the efficacy of peaceful (alternative) actions to reach protesters’ goals (e.g., Saab, Spears, Tausch, & Sasse, 2016) or grievances on the issue (see Thomas & Louis, 2014) but on the restrictions imposed the right to protest by a third party, authorities. Second, norms about the legitimacy of different protest actions can change within a single mobilisation process. Thus, actions previously forbidden may gain legitimacy among protesters and non-participants. However, this does not mean that every action is allowed. For instance, even though people had the capability to throw petrol bombs at the police, this action might not be by any means acceptable for Hongkongers, but admissible for some part of the French of population, for example, or even appropriate for those who fought against the Chilean dictatorship. In other words, what protesters can do is culturally and historically situated according to the interactions people have had with authorities (see Tilly, 2008, for a discussion). Third, even though media outlets are fundamental mediators between protesters’ actions and those who do not take action (see Cammaerts, 2012, for a discussion), it does not mean that non-participants are passive receivers of media information. Instead, non-participants are active readers of collective action who may support or join protesters’ actions after evaluating the political scenario protesters have to face. The latter idea represents a direct challenge to some approaches that, without considering the political context where collective action takes place, have argued that protest violence necessarily represents a backward step in terms of influencing others to participate (see Stuart, Thomas, & Donaghue, 2018) and support collective action (see Feinberg, Willer, & Kovacheff, 2017; Simpson, Willer, Feinberg, 2018).

We think the ideas mentioned above are useful to understand what is going on Hong Kong in recent days, but especially to know what may happen next considering the events that took place there on 1st July. In short, on that day, around 550,000 people turned out on the streets to protest against the Hong Kong government (see Zhao, Cheung, & Chan, 2019). Whereas some people took part in non-violent protests, others clashed with the police. However, the most eye-catching action happened at the end of the day when a group of young protesters decided to lay siege to a strategic location, the Legislature Council (LG). Unlike what happened a couple of weeks ago with the siege of the Hong Kong Police Headquarters, this time protesters decided to occupy the LG. During the occupation, protesters carried out selective actions including smashing pictures of some past authorities, raising the British colonial flag, spray-painting the symbols of Hong Kong, and displaying banners such as one that read ‘there are no rioters, only a tyrannous government’(see “Hong Kong protesters occupy”, 2019). In the meanwhile, instead of trying to prevent the escalation of this situation, authorities were busy condemning ‘the mob’ and the ‘radical’ protesters.

Once the police officers took over the LG and protesters left the place, Mrs Lam expressed the idea of a broad dialogue with all sectors, while she announced that the police would pursue those who took part in the occupation (see “Angry Hong Kong leader”, 2019). In light of this announcement, we suggest that the Chief Executive was not able to understand the reasons behind people’s decision to occupy or support the LG occupation. In particular, what Mrs Lam and other authorities have neglected is there are no ‘rioters’ in Hong Kong but only people that have decided to go beyond non-violent actions in response to the imposed restrictions on the right to protest and authorities’ unwillingness to respond to people’s demands. Consequently, what comes next in Hong Kong will mainly depend on how local authorities set up the scenario for protests, although if there is no significant change, Hongkongers’ actions would not be so different to what people worldwide saw on 1st July 2019.   

Patricio Saavedra Morales is a doing a PhD in Social Psychology under the supervision of Prof John Drury. His research focuses on how perceptions of the political context can predict people’s support for protesters’ violence against the police. This post was originally published on the Crowd and Identities Research Group blog.

References

Angry Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam emerges after day of unprecedented violence and slams protesters but she is willing to listen (2019, July 2). South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com

Cammaerts, B. (2012). Protest logics and the mediation opportunity structure. European Journal of Communication, 27(2), 117-134. doi: 10.1177/0267323112441007

Drury, J., Ball, R., Neville, F. Reicher, S., & Stott, C. (in press). How crowd violence arises and how it spreads: A critical review of theory and evidence. In J. Ireland, C. Ireland, and M. Lewis (Eds.). International handbook on collective violence: Current issues and perspectives. Routledge.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2000).  Collective action and psychological change: the emergence of new social identities. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 579-604. doi: 10.1348/014466600164642 

Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Kovacheff, C. (2017). Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements. SSRN. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2911177

Hong Kong protesters occupy legislative chamber after smashing windows, vandalising corridors. (2019, July 1). Hong Kong Free Press. Retrieved from https://www.hongkongfp.com

Hong Kong protests: Thousands surround police headquarters (2019, June 21). BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk

Lee, F. L. F., & Chan, J. M. (2018). Media and protest logics in the digital era: The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  

Saab, R., Spears, R., Tausch, N., & Sasse, J. (2016). Predicting aggressive collective action based on the efficacy of peaceful and aggressive actions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46(5), 529-543. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2193.

Simpson, B., Willer, R., & Feinberg, M. (2018). Does protest violence backfire? Testing a theory of public reactions to activist violence. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 4, 1-14. doi: 10.1177/2378023118803189

Stuart, A., Thomas, E. F., & Donaghue, N. (2018). ‘I don’t want to be associated with the self-righteous left extreme’: Disincentives to participation in collective action. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 6(1), 242-270. doi: 10.5964/jspp.v6i1.567

Thomas, E. F., & Louis, W. (2014). When will collective action be effective? Violent and non-violent protests differentially influence perceptions of legitimacy and efficacy among sympathizers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5, 1-14. doi: 10.1177/0146167213510525

Tilly, C. (2008). Contentious Performances. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Zhao, S., Cheung, E., Chan, A. (2019, July 1). Anatomy of a divided city: extradition protesters say frustration with government brought them to the streets. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com

Zhao, S. & Zhang, K. (2019, June 30). Hong Kong police supporters turn out in force to counter extradition bill protests, but clash with rivals and assault journalists. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com

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Posted in PhD research

Sussex Psychology in the media: May 2019

May was a really productive month for the School of Psychology in terms of media coverage, from local publications to interviews on international tv channels.

“We are drawn towards equality” – Jo Cutler told The i. The newspaper asked Jo about altruism and what moves people to donate, in relation to MacKenzie Bezos’ announcement that she would give half her multi-billion dollar divorce settlement to charity. Jo Cutler is a PhD student in the Social Decision Lab, where she studies the neuroscience of charitable giving, altruism and decision making under the supervision of Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn. Jo also researches how our brains process good and bad news, which was mentioned in the May issue of Brighton’s Viva Magazine.

Why do we love some animals, but loathe others? Emeritus Professor Graham Davies says that disgust is a learned emotion, probably transmitted socially, culturally and within families. Graham’s research into phobias received international coverage in May, including the Manila Times, the Inquirer and Yahoo News.

“Koala” by abigella is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dr Sophie Forster explained why parents believe their babies have the most delicious smell in the world in The Phoenix Newspaper and Bounce Magazine. Sophie was asked to comment on the scientific evidence of the new market research by eco-cleaning brand Ecover that showed that 70 per cent of respondents preferred their baby’s natural fragrance to their favourite perfume or aftershave.

Research carried out by Prof Anna Franklin’s Baby Lab inspired a theatre play for babies aged 6 – 18 months called Kaleidoscope, which was performed at the Northern Stage in Newcastle Upon Tyne on 18 May. And Alice Skelton, who researches infant colour perception and colour categorisation in Prof Anna Franklin’s Colour Lab, spoke with The Daily Telegraph about how brands like McDonald’s use bold primary colours to influence consumers.

Amidst the controversy of the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show, the New Scientist published an article on the accuracy of lie detectors. Polygraph machines have long been discredited as reliable lie detectors, and professionals use alternative methods focusing on behavioural and linguistic cues. The article mentions an experiment carried by Prof Tom Ormerod (who is stepping down as Head of School in August), and Dr Carol Dando (from the University of Westminster), where they asked 200 people to pose as passengers and lie at airport security. Officers looking for behavioural signs detected less than 5 per cent, whereas those agents using Ormerod and Dando’s interviewing method identified 60 per cent of the lying passengers. You can read more about the experiment in their research paper: “Finding a needle in a haystack: towards a psychological informed method for aviation security screening.”

Dr Darya Gaysina’s study into the link between anxiety, depression and Alzheimers was included in a feature in Turkey’s Daily Sabah. You can read more about Darya’s research in the post on Psychology in the Media from March 2019.

Prof John Drury was interviewed live on air by Kay Burley on Sky News on 7 May to explain why passengers stopped to collect their luggage when escaping from a burning plane in Russia. In the five minute interview, he explained that public transport operators need to rethink how they instruct people in emergency situations, to address them as a group with responsibility to others and not as a collection of individuals. His research into crowd behaviour was also quoted in this thoughtful blog, How a crowd crush occurs (and 10 tips to survive one) published on Scroll.in and originally written for The Conversation.

Prof Drury was also interviewed by Indus News in Pakistan regarding the increasing number of lynching incidents against minorities in South East Asia. John challenged the term ‘mob mentality’ and the idea that people become more emotional and irrational in crowds, which leads them to do things that they would not do on their own. Rather, John explained, being in a group empowers individuals to enact beliefs that they already had as they feel supported by other like-minded people.

Posted in Psychology in the Media

Green exercise and wellbeing: make the most of campus!

By Dr Megan Hurst

As part of the Psychology Student Experience team’s wellbeing events during the assessment period, we’ve had several nature walks, exploring the many walking routes on the beautiful University of Sussex campus.

In case you missed them, here’s a summary by Dr. Megan Hurst on the benefits of getting some exercise in natural environments during the assessment period.

Recharge your batteries

Green exercise might be particularly helpful if you’re currently studying and revising hard. This kind of focus is referred to as ‘directed attention’, and it takes cognitive energy to maintain it. Attention restoration theory (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989) suggests that green exercise encourages ‘soft fascination’ – a form of involuntary attention which is not so draining. Natural environments with greater biodiversity may be particularly associated with these feelings of restoration (Marselle et al., 2016).

Boost this benefit: aim to walk in areas with lots of different plants (and animals!). You can also purposefully extend your attention outside of your body while you are exercising – what can you see around you? You might find the woodland portion of the boundary walk (near the Falmer Sports Complex) a particularly nice place to do this.

Focus on feeling

One of the great things about having a campus in the South Downs is the incredible landscape, which sometimes comes with some impressive hills to climb, or tree roots to clamber over. The challenges posed by the outdoors can help us to focus on our experience within our bodies and how they feel, rather than how they look. Lots of my research investigates how focusing on appearance in exercise settings can have negative consequences for how we feel about ourselves (e.g., Hurst et al., 2017). Avoiding this appearance focus can be easier away from classic exercise environments, like gyms or fitness centres (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008).

Woodland in the South Downs

Boost this benefit: as you are walking, focus on how your body feels, and what you are experiencing right now. You might notice and enjoy the sun on your skin (if you’re lucky!), the burning in your legs or the rasp of your breath as you climb a hill. There’s a good one at the north end of campus on the Boundary walk for just this experience!

Master the challenge

The ecological dynamics approach to green exercise (Brymer et al., 2014) suggests that exercise in natural environments is good for us because of what these environments encourage. Natural surroundings provide more opportunities to engage in challenges (like those hills we mentioned earlier!) and in simple, enjoyable activities. Interviews with recreational road cyclists highlight the ‘uncomplicated joy’ experience by tackling physical challenges with nature as a backdrop (Glackin & Beale, 2018).

Boost this benefit: Take a moment to appreciate the view, and what you’ve achieved when you reach the top of a hill – like the beautiful view out over Stanmer Park on the Boundary Walk. Or indulge your inner child by running down the hill in the woods at the northeast end of campus – wheee!

Fulking Hill in the South Downs

Finally…

Research suggests that just 10 minutes of green (vs. indoor) exercise can be beneficial for wellbeing (Focht, 2009), so it is worth taking even a short break outside while you’re revising in the assessment period, or if you’re one of our PGT students writing up your dissertation over the summer.

You can see more information about walking and running routes on campus here.

Dr. Megan Hurst is a Lecturer in Social Psychology and module leader for the final year option “Psychology of Exercise and Wellbeing”. Outside of work, Megan enjoys walking in the South Downs, and further afield, tackling long distance routes like Hadrian’s Wall Path and classic challenges like the Lyke Wake Walk.

Posted in Uncategorized

Sussex Psychology in the Media: April 2019

Research carried out by Dr Graham Hole with Dr Gemma Briggs and Dr Jim Turner from the Open University shows that using a hands-free mobile phone while driving is as dangerous as calling on a hand-held device. Gemma and Graham wrote a post for the blog of Brake the road safety charity last month explaining the results of their research and proposing that the use of hands-free devices behind the wheel should be banned. The Evening Standard includes a prominent quote from Graham in an article saying that drivers are four times more likely to crash when taking phone calls.

LADBible, the biggest publisher of news on Facebook, interviewed Dr Richard De Visser for a piece they were writing on how people should prepare for Bachelor parties. According to The Guardian, at least 30 British men died on stag dos between 2008 and 2018, while many others have suffered severe injuries. Richard pointed out how stag and hen dos tend to be seen as timeout (especially if the celebration involves travelling abroad) where the usual individual limits are lessened, and how this might lead to risk-taking behaviours.

istolethetv from Hong Kong, China [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Prof Robin Banerjee discussed the nature of kindness in Positive News: “Time to be kind: why kindness matters.” Robin, who is the director of Sussex Kindness, explained that kindness is subjective and that what is a kind act for some might be an unkind act for others. The same article mentions PhD student Jo Cutler’s research on altruism. Jo and her supervisor Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn examined fMRI scans of more than 1000 people making kind decisions, whether for strategic reasons (i.e. expecting something in return) or completely altruistically. The study showed that both types of kindness activate our endorphin-reward system, but purely altruistic acts made other parts of our brain to become even more active, creating what it has sometimes been described as a warm glow.

The popular science website IFL Science talked about The World’s Favourite Colour Project, a collaboration between the paper merchant G. F. Smith and the Sussex Colour Lab led by Prof Anna Franklin. The IFL Science article focuses exclusively on the most relaxing colour (spoiler alert: it’s navy blue) and quotes Anna’s blog post on Theories of Colour Preference.

Posted in Psychology in the Media

What is the Psychological Methods MRes actually like? – A student perspective

Robert Avery is a student in the MRes in Psychological Methods. A dual citizen of the United Kingdom and Switzerland, Robert studied a BSc in Psychology at the University of Fribourg and is now planning to do a PhD. He is interested in the influence of gendered languages on adolescents’ gender construct and job aspirations. We asked Robert about his experience studying our MRes and how the course has helped him prepare for his next career step.

What I like the most about my MRes in Psychological Methods is that it does what it says on the box: most of our days are spent working on different statistical and research methods. The course includes several modules designed to broaden our methodological knowledge of specific areas of psychology, but the main focus is on general research methods. I particularly enjoy the quality of the teaching: the School of Psychology at Sussex is a research-intensive institution and many of its faculty members are highly regarded for their research. All this transpires in their teaching. Being part of such a deep pool of keen and important minds is definitely inspiring.

As expected, this Masters course demands high discipline. This particular MRes can be quite intense: the deadlines for the various assignments are spaced out, but the work each one of them requires comes on top of the course content. This can be hard to juggle and you need to stay focused the entire year.

The teaching is of high quality, but I think that a 1-year Masters (as is the custom in England) is not enough time for students to take modules that would help them cover psychology topics in more depth. In other words, this particular Masters is a route towards a career in research, and not towards a thorough understanding of psychological areas (e.g. social psychology, cognitive, neuro, etc.). It feels like the MRes course has replaced those taught psychology-focused modules with a year-long research internship; this is precisely the hands-on experience that first attracted me to the course. A valuable process for those like me who want to direct themselves towards academia.

The emphasis on research (that spans over both terms) required me to organise my time and be pro-active. It is well-known that we get what we put into things and this is no exception: the more invested in the projects you are, the more experience you get. Your own motivation combined with staff’s proficiency provides the potential to learn the required skills to conduct your own research. Time management is essential to complete the course, but the MRes does allow you to organise your time and there are always opportunities to take part in the various activities the University and Brighton have to offer.

So far, my time spent at Sussex studying Psychology has met my expectations. I have made the most of the well-trained staff’s knowledge, and the course has also enabled me to get to the forefront of current research methods (through the multiple statistics modules, for example). The MRes has also given me the confidence to write my own PhD grant application. Thanks to academic contacts facilitated by faculty, I was able to reach out to several universities and approach potential supervisors.  I have ended up writing a PhD project with one of them and submitting it to the Swiss national fund for research.

A course well worth it for those who have the drive to take their academic career into their own hands!

Posted in Uncategorized

Sussex Psychology in the Media: March 2019

When you think of the School of Psychology, you probably picture your lecturers in front of a class or giving you advice during their office hours. But not everything is teaching. This post is a brief summary of some of the School activities that made the news in March.

In her professorial talk last month, Prof Alison Pike provided an interesting and funny account of her twenty-five years researching parental and sibling relationships. Ali spoke about the genetic and environmental aspects of these relationships, and the active role that children play in both parenting and influencing their younger siblings’ behaviour. You can listen to the whole talk here: Happier families: The kids (and mum & dad) are alright (audio only).

Prof Pike is currently studying how children’s behaviour change when they have a baby brother or sister. Lauren Moss interviewed Ali and one of her young participants for the BBC in early March. Ali and her team are still looking for more participants. If you have a toddler and are due to have another baby in the next few months, please contact 3to4study@sussex.ac.uk.

The EDGE Lab led by Dr Darya Gaysina have discovered that repeated episodes of depression in the first three decades of adulthood are linked to memory loss later in life. Darya’s team analysed data from the National Child Development Study which studied the life of 17000 people born in 1958 from birth into adulthood. The accumulation of episodes of depression and anxiety experienced by participants during their twenties, thirties, and forties was a strong predictor of decrease in memory function by the time they reached fifty. These findings highlight the need for higher investment in mental health support for young adults to prevent future risks of dementia. 

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The national press covered the discovery, including The Spectator and The Express, as well as regional broadcast media after PhD student Amber John’s interview with Sky News Radio was syndicated across the commercial radio network. Amber also recorded a video for the University with practical tips on how to look after your mental health.

Are you yawning yet? Prof John Drury was with Claudia Hammond in ‘All in the Mind’ explaining how social identity affects non-conscious behaviours such as yawning:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p067c4t1

Social identity also plays a role in why we ignore fire alarms. John spoke with FM Industry about how people behave in emergency situations: “Is Anyone Listening?” John’s research shows that crowd members in emergencies quickly identify themselves as part of the same group and self-organise. Although this is in general positive, it can sometimes have dangerous consequences. A key problem is that the alarms do not provide enough information (e.g. what the emergency is, where the danger is, etc.), and they are not always reliable (e.g. is there really an emergency or is it a test?).  As a result, people look around at how others react to the alarm and this can delay the evacuation.

The University news broadcast picked up on an event organised by the Psychology Student Experience Team. Part of One World Week, Desserts of the World celebrated the cultural diversity of the School. The event was very popular: many staff and students contributed home-made desserts from their home countries and many more came to Pevensey 1 to try them.  The University article talks about the winner of the Most Inspired Dessert competition, Bianca Popescu who made Moldovian style munecini: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=48313?ref=email

Posted in Psychology in the Media

Desserts of the World

To support the University’s One World Week, the Psychology Student Experience team hosted ‘Desserts of the World’ in the Pevensey 1 building. This event was aimed at celebrating our diverse staff and student population and using food to learn about different countries, cultures and traditions. Faculty and students were invited to make or provide a dessert from their home country with a prize for the student who supplied the “Most Inspirational Dessert”. Information about the desserts and why they were chosen was provided by the participants. Countries represented included Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Germany and Spain, alongside many from the UK.

Our Head of School serving up his Sticky Toffee Pudding

The event was a success with students enjoying the homemade element of the event and being able to learn about new cultures. And all desserts were eaten.

Members of the Student Experience team serving up the desserts

The winner of the Most Inspirational Dessert 2019 was Bianca Popescu, a first year Psychology student, who made mucenici (Moldovian style) also known sfințișori, which means ‘little saints’ in Romanian.

We asked Bianca about the history of this dessert and why she had chosen it, and this is what she told us:

I was reading my emails when I spotted the one from Student Experience team announcing the event. At first I was only thinking what an interesting event the team had put together but then I decided that I could also help out by providing something unique, traditionally Romanian.

In Romania, many religious traditions have their “corresponding food” that is closely associated with it, and it was quite hard for me to figure out what to choose. After some research and consulting my grandmother, I came upon mucenici, and when I saw that they don’t appear to be seen in any other cultures, I jumped at the idea of cooking them. 

As a child, I always looked forward to this festivity. The sweet honey, combined with toasted walnut and chewy, binge-worthy dough wasn’t like anything else. My mom would wake me up with the freshly baked pastry and invite me to have coffee with her in the kitchen, which was always filled with the smell of rum essence and melty honey. I decided to make the Moldavian version as it is the closest one to my heart. The dough recipe is very similar to the one used to make another traditional Romanian dessert (cozonac, a type of sweet bread).

As so, on a sunny Sunday morning (after waking up at 11 am, panicked that shops close early on Sunday) I was just casually shopping at Asda, looking for 3 bags of walnuts, lots of flour, 10 eggs and a mountain of sugar (doesn’t sound healthy, but the dessert is worth the blood sugar spice). Then I arrived home, started to clean the surfaces (because, trust me, you need that space) and asked my boyfriend to come down and help. The first accident happened when the yeast started fermenting and was suddenly everywhere. We sorted that out and left the dough to rise for a couple of hours. Then we started kneading the dough in turns (as it is a demanding process only our grannies are trained to do from start to finish). Then we formed shapes of 8 and baked them. Finally, we drowned the 8 shaped pieces in syrup and covered them in nuts. The whole process took me a day to complete, but it was worth it! I still have no clue how my mom was able to cook this before I even woke up. She probably woke up very early in the day (NB. she’s my superhero). 

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Breaking down the psychological barriers to success at school

Looking into how carefully-targeted low-cost interventions can reduce the psychological barriers to success of some groups of school students and help them prepare for a happy and productive life.

by Ian Hadden

It only takes a quick glance at GCSE results across the country to see that some groups of students don’t do as well as others, notably boys, students from some ethnic backgrounds, and students from poorer families. Some well-known structural barriers to success, such as poor nutrition and low-quality housing, play a crucial role. But social and cultural factors that students experience in their everyday environment can create other, more subtle, psychological barriers. Here’s a quick look at how three of these factors can lead to barriers that affect some groups of students more than others.

Barrier 1: Low expectations leading to lower confidence. There can be widely-held expectations across society that certain types of student will do poorly at school. This can either be across the whole curriculum (e.g. “white working-class boys just don’t do well at school”) or in certain subjects (e.g. “girls aren’t cut out for maths”). Unsurprisingly, these expectations may cause students to doubt their ability to thrive academically. The result can be a vicious circle of lower confidence leading to lower performance and further reduced expectations.

Barrier 2: Lack of role models leading to a lower value placed on school. Now consider students who look around them and don’t see people like them – family members, members of their community – doing well at school and progressing into high-status universities or occupations. For example, when only 6% of doctors describe themselves as being from a working-class background, students from low-income families may not see the medical profession as a realistic life path for them. Such a lack of role models with whom they can identify may lead them to question the value of doing well at school.

Barrier 3: Mismatch in values leading to a lower sense of belonging. Finally, research suggests that people from different national, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds place different emphasis on independent versus interdependent values. Is it more important to flourish as an individual, or to play your part in a tightly-knit family or community group? If school emphasises one of these sets of values, then students from backgrounds that emphasise the other set may feel a distinct lack of ease. This sort of mismatch can lead students to feel that they don’t really belong in school, with predictable consequences.

Researchers have tested a wide range of low-cost, simple-to-implement interventions aimed at reducing these types of barriers to success, and many have resulted in surprisingly large improvements across a range of outcomes. For example, I recently trialed a very low-cost intervention aimed at increasing the confidence of a group of underperforming Year 7-9 students. The intervention reduced the stress they reported experiencing and raised their academic performance; as a result, they closed well over half of the pre-existing gap in maths scores with their peers.

So, how might any particular school benefit from all this? Well, I’m currently testing a three-stage process: diagnosis, design and trial.

1. Diagnosis. The first stage is to ask the school’s students, teachers and parents about their experiences through a series of surveys and focus groups. This will help unpack the social and cultural factors that the students are experiencing and build a rich picture of any psychological barriers that might be suppressing outcomes for some.

2. Design. Based on this diagnosis, I aim to identify an environmental factor or psychological barrier that seems to be most suppressing outcomes for some groups of students, and design a simple but potentially high-impact intervention aimed at reducing it. This is likely to be based on a proven intervention from prior research, tailored for the specific social and cultural context of the school.

3. Trial. Finally, the school will test the intervention in a randomised controlled trial across a school year. Depending on the results, the intervention could potentially become embedded in the school’s curriculum or working practices in subsequent years.

My work is, of course, just the start. While a good deal of evidence has already been accumulated, most has been in the US and it’s not clear how it will translate to the different contexts of different schools in England. We will need an extensive programme of research in order to fully understand in what contexts these types of intervention are effective across the country.

This is an exciting time for research that has the potential to make a substantial difference to the lives of many young people.

Ian Hadden is a PhD student under the supervision of  Dr Matt Easterbrook and Prof Pete Harris. He is also part of the Self Affirmation Research Group (SARG). Other posts by Ian: Grouping by attainment in schools: can psychological interventions help turbo-charge poor students’ performance? and An appetite for bringing research into practice at ResearchED

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