What is the role of shared identities in the aftermath of floods?

By Evangelos Ntontis

As a PhD student at the School of Psychology of Sussex University, I recently had the honour of winning the 2016 PhD poster conference. Of course winning is accompanied with writing a blog for the School’s website, so I’ll take this short space to briefly write about my overall research.

Currently I am starting the second year of my PhD and my interests fall within social psychology. I am a member of the ‘Crowds and Identities’ research group led by John Drury, and our focus is on large-scale events that usually involve crowds (be it riots and protests, migration and refugees, mass emergencies and disasters, collective action etc.).

My PhD project focuses on flooding and the role of shared identities in the response and recovery of communities. Putting it simply, a vast amount of research has shown that belonging to and identifying with groups is good for our well-being, since it provides a sense of belonging and we are more likely to offer and receive more support from other group members. Also, from studies of events like earthquakes and bombings we know that the shared experience of adversity can unite people with no previous affiliations and they come to see themselves as sharing a common identity and group. Applying these principles and findings in flood-hit communities, we are investigating if and how the shared community identity arises, the role of identification with the broader community and its effects for the provision of support to those in need, the heightened expectations of future support, as well as the impact on individual well-being and perceptions of the community’s ability to recover efficiently.ctis-_dweaanpni

I focus on the city of York, which was affected by floods in December 2015. I visited York for one week and interviewed York residents in order to get a better idea of the situation, and the poster described my first complete interview study which is currently being prepared for submission in a peer-reviewed journal. Our participants reported that a sense of unity was felt during the floods because of the shared experience of the floods, because of experiencing common problems which led in having shared future goals, as well as because of identifying with those affected, even without sustaining any damage. People also reported various types of social support that were provided to those affected, like practical support, emotional support, coordinated support which individuals themselves would not be able to accomplish, and heightened expectations of future support.

We also need to emphasize the important role of rhetoric for the recovery process of communities in the aftermath of disasters. During the emergency events people come together and form groups, which as we saw can have individual and collective benefits. However, it can take a long time for communities to fully recover, and certainly the problems do not disappear straight after the waters recede and the emergency responders leave the affected area. Groups and the sense of collectivity need to persist over time so that all types of social support keep flowing towards the affected residents. This can be achieved through invocations of the community and the collective, as well as through broad community group boundaries that will include both affected and non-affected residents. Thus people who identify with the community will tend to see others as fellow community members regardless of their status, which will make the provision of support easier and with prolonged benefits for the recovery process.

Overall, these findings are a good first indicator of the positive role that shared identities can have during the recovery period, and a solid ground for us to move on and investigate those identity processes from more methodological approaches such as surveys and ethnographic analyses.

With regards to the poster itself, I need to say a big Thank you to Khalifah Alfadhli and John Drury for their useful tips. To Khalifah for constantly scolding me and persisting that I reduce the amount of text (and it was really difficult for him to be satisfied, especially when taking into account that it was an interview study with lots of extracts!), and to John for insisting that I use more background pictures.


If you want to know more about poster presentations, you can read a post by Ellen Thompson, the 2015 PhD Poster Presentation winner, here: Do multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lead to anxiety and depression in later life?


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Language, Cognition and Gender

by Prof Alan Garnham

This summer we published an E-book with Frontiers Media:

Garnham, A., Oakhill, J., von Stockhausen, L., Sczesny, S., eds. (2016). Language, Cognition and Gender. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88919-892-4

The E-book is a compilation of papers from a Special Topic we edited in two sections of Frontiers in Psychology: Language Sciences and Cognition. The Special Topic was, in turn, a showcase for research conducted as part of an EC-funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN), Language, Cognition and Gender in the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013, grant agreement n° 237907), together with a small number of closely related papers submitted in response to a call for papers for the Special Topic.screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-15-54-23

The Frontiers review process is a complex, iterative, one. However, we think that, in the end, we have done a good job of bringing together papers that are not only on related topics but which are, for the most part, by a group of researchers who interacted closely over a period of four years.

The ITN, which ran from 2009 to 2013, was spearheaded by Lisa von Stockhausen (then at the University of Heidelberg) and Sabine Sczesny (University of Bern). We secured funding at the third attempt, so if you are applying for an ITN, and getting positive feedback (but not funding!) it is worth persevering. The ITN included 10 European universities in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, together with 12 associate partners in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The research conducted within the ITN was organized into four work packages, addressing the questions of:

  • how languages shape cognitive representations of gender
  • how features of European languages correspond with gender equality in European societies
  • how language contributes to social behaviour toward the sexes
  • how gender equality can be promoted through strategies for gender-fair language use.

At Sussex the grant funded one Early Stage Researcher (PhD Student, Eimear Finnegan) and one Experienced Researcher (Postdoc, Paolo Canal).

The ITN was inspired by the observation that gender inequality remains a contentious issue in many societies, despite legislative, and other less formal attempts to tackle it. It is perpetuated, in part, by gender stereotyping. It is also an issue of considerable interest to EU policy makers. Furthermore, we know that language contributes to gender inequality in various ways. For example, gender-related information is transmitted through formal and semantic features of language, such as the grammatical category of gender, through gender-related connotations of role names (e.g., manager, secretary), and through customs of denoting social groups with derogatory as opposed to neutral names. Both as a formal system and as a means of communication, language passively reflects culture-specific social conditions. Furthermore, language can also be used to express actively, and can potentially perpetuate, those conditions. Tackling these issues successfully depends on a proper understanding of their cognitive and societal underpinnings, but also on understanding the effects of attempted interventions. It was with these points in mind, that we proposed the ITN, to address a range of questions about language and gender inequality.

The ITN explored these questions both developmentally (across the life span from childhood to old age) and in adults. The contributions to the E-book present work conducted across a wide range of languages, including some studies that make cross-linguistic comparisons. In keeping with ITN LCG’s multidisciplinary approach, the contributors to the E-book include both cognitive and social psychologists and linguists. For the most part the contributions report original research, with a wide range of methods, from surveys to electro-physiological studies. Most of the contributions address questions about either the cognitive representation of gender or the use and effects of gender-fair language. They present a range of complementary studies, which make a substantial contribution to the understanding of these important issues.


Alan Garnham is Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Jane Oakhill is Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex

Lisa von Stockhausen is Professor of Psychology at the Universität Duisburg-Essen 

Sabine Sczesny is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bern

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What’s in a name? A Call to Abandon the Use of the Term ‘Abnormal Psychology’.

By Cassie Hazell

Universities have a duty to provide quality education and training to those who want it, and create a community that reflects all the best parts of society.  Consequently, universities and their students have worked hard to stamp out prejudice and discrimination.  Although, unfortunately instances of sexism, racism and homophobia may still occur within our higher education institutions, the wider community agrees that this is unacceptable.  University policies are clear as to the seriousness of such actions, and firm (I hope?) about the consequences.  But, what about mental health discrimination?

Yes, I am sure many universities will argue their discrimination policies cover this – yet the linguistic norms used to teach students about mental health demonstrate otherwise.  While universities are generally places where the boundaries of current knowledge are questioned and challenged, this is one domain where they are more than a little ‘behind the times’. only-us-logo

I invite you to enter the phrase ‘university and abnormal psychology’ into a search engine; now scroll through the pages that it returns.  You will see just how many institutions offer modules, courses, and degrees labelled ‘abnormal psychology’.  Some of the world’s most prestigious universities are on that list.  But what even is ‘abnormal psychology’?  If you take a deeper look at the course content, you will find that they purport to teach their students about mental health (also more sympathetically known as clinical psychology).  How can these courses teach their students about the latest research, when the course title is stigmatising and fundamentally wrong?

The dictionary defines abnormal as: “deviating from what is normal or usual, typically in a way that is undesirable or worrying”.  The suggested synonyms are rare, freak, deviant, weird, unexpected… as well as a host of other offensive terms.  Ignoring the issue of stigma for a moment (although I believe this is the most important issue), I hope to prove to you that the use of this term to describe mental health is inaccurate.

Abnormal could be taken to mean that mental health problems are rare or unusual.  This is false.  The Time to Change campaign in the UK reports that 1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues.  I would argue this figure is actually far too small.  The ‘1 in 4’ figure is based on the results of the 2009 UK National Household survey; but only those with a recognised disorder were included in this analysis.  Many people experience mental health difficulties without a clinical diagnosis (Baumeister & Morar, 2008) – so it is highly likely that there will be a lot of people experiencing mental health problems that were not counted.  Also the effects of the recent economic crisis on mental health (Karanikolos et al., 2013) is likely to inflate this figure even more.  Consequently it is probable that more than 25% of the UK population will experience mental health difficulties. So, are mental health problems rare? I don’t think so.

Another understanding of abnormal could be that those with mental health problems are somehow different from the rest of the ‘normal’ population.  The flaw with this assumption relies on the understanding that mental health issues can be reduced to a dichotomous entity – you are either ‘abnormal’ or ‘normal’, you are either a ‘freak’ or ‘ordinary’.  This does not reflect reality.  For example, taking the dichotomous approach, we could describe someone as being either happy or unhappy.  But in practice people can be just a little bit happy, or their happiness could fluctuate over the day.  In line with this thinking, the most recent understandings of mental health argue that mental health can be best understood as part of a spectrum or continuum (e.g. Cuijpers, de Graaf, & van Dorsselaer, 2004; Tylka & Subich, 1999; van Os, Linscott, Myin-Germeys, Delespaul, & Krabbendam, 2009).  Everyone has a place on the continuum, with the potential to move either up or down the scale.  If we all have the capacity to be at both the most and least extreme points on the continuum, then how can mental health be viewed as ‘them and us’?  Either we are all freaks or none of us are.

A final possible implication from the term ‘abnormal’ is that the development of mental health problems is an anomaly.  In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that mental health problems can be interpreted as a reaction to stressful or traumatic life events.  This is supported by an overwhelming pool of evidence demonstrating the link between stressful life events and the development of mental health difficulties (e.g. Carr, Martins, Stingel, Lemgruber, & Juruena, 2013; Kraan, Velthorst, Smit, de Haan, & van der Gaag, 2015; Lindert et al., 2014; Nielsen, Tangen, Idsoe, Matthiesen, & Magerøy, 2015).  Evolution has taught us the value of reacting to extreme stress on a cognitive, emotional and physical level so that we can learn about ourselves, and the world (Baldwin, 2013).  As many people will experience a trauma at some point their life (Lukaschek et al., 2013), it is then plausible that the event will trigger mental health difficulties for some people.  What is so surprising about that? only-us

The most pertinent problem with the term ‘abnormal psychology’ is its inherent stigma.  Mental health stigma can stop people from seeking help or support (Corrigan, 2004), cause feelings of shame (Corrigan & Miller, 2004), worsen mental health symptoms, and reduce treatment adherence (Livingston & Boyd, 2010).  I believe using the term ‘abnormal psychology’ within universities is discriminatory.  Its continued use will teach students that prejudice is acceptable, and increase self-stigma amongst those students experiencing mental health problems.

I am aware that I have been predominantly negative thus far – I hope I can reassure you that change is possible.  At the University of Sussex (where I study), as recent as last year the Psychology department offered an elective called ‘Abnormal Psychology’.  However, lecturers and students challenged this, and the course title has now been changed to something that is more accurate and less stigmatising (the course is now called ‘Clinical Psychology and Mental Health’).

The aim of this blog is somewhat a ‘call to arms’.  If you are part of a university that still uses the term ‘abnormal psychology’, why not challenge it?  You may be able to see through the fallacy of this terminology, but I can assure you there will be others who won’t.  The continued use of the term ‘abnormal psychology’ will only reinforce the lie that people experiencing mental health difficulties are to be feared.  This is not an issue of political correctness; it is an issue of social responsibility.

If you are able to bring about change in your university I would love to hear about it.  Please feel free to tweet me @MissCHazell.  For more information, the British Psychological Society has a great resource on language in relation to mental health: http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/Public%20files/guidelines_on_language_web.pdf

Also I am a big supporter of the Only Us campaign.  They embody everything I have tried to say here – they believe “there is no them and us; there is only us”.  Check them out on twitter: @OnlyUsCampaign


Cassie Hazell is currently in the final year of her PhD with the University of Sussex, supervised by Dr Clara Strauss, Dr Mark Hayward, and Dr Kate Cavanagh. Her PhD looks at the effects of a guided self-help cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for people who hear distressing voices (also known as verbal auditory hallucinations).

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A busy week

By Dr Sarah King

This is a fun but busy week for the Director of Doctoral Studies (DDS), the job I have recently taken over. I have been meeting all the new PhD students and signing their forms to approve the stats and methods courses they are taking to support their PhD studies. Today was my first Research Degree Committee, a formal meeting where we discuss all things PhD related and make School level decisions. Today we discussed how to make sure everyone fills in their attendance records, whether we should set up a formal PhD mentoring scheme, and the best way to advertise and market our PhDs. But, for this week the best is yet to come… Tomorrow it is the annual PhD post9946er conference, which the whole School turns out for. I have always really enjoyed this event, it’s an opportunity to really find out what people around the School are doing. For the students transitioning from first to second year this is often their first opportunity to present their research outside of their research group, and they get to do so in a friendly and supportive environment. There is a poster prize awarded democratically by attendees. The winner will hopefully be relaying their experiences of their research and the poster session on a future blog. The poster conference is followed by the Great Psychology Bake Off where not only do we get to carry on talking all things Psychology, but we get to do it over incredibly tasty cakes, biscuits and other treats. Finally on Thursday the Psychology Colloquia is taken up by research talks by those second years (going into third year) who weren’t able to present earlier in the Summer. It is weeks like this that I am reminded why I agreed to take on the DDS role. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a new generation of researchers enjoying and talking about their work, and now I’m paid to do it!

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My experience studying Psychology at Sussex

By Ruihan Wu

For the past three years I have been studying a BSc Psychology with Cognitive Science at Sussex. For the next two years, I will be doing a master programme in the area of neurodevelopment disorders, first at UCL and the second year at Yale. If I say that I have never doubted myself, I would be lying. Before this summer, every time I saw students in their graduation gowns, I felt not only excitement but also panic because I was not sure if I was competent enough to face my future. When I eventually attended my graduation, I felt calm and peaceful. This is the most precious thing Sussex has given me: the confidence to realise my dream.

Getting a degree and good scores in the UK was not an easy thing for me as an international student. After I graduated from high school, I did consider studying abroad, but it was not my first choice. The reason that made me challenge myself was my passion for psychology. At that time, I learned that Sussex had one of the UK’s largest schools of Psychology, and that it was located in Brighton, one of the most beautiful seaside cities in England. I have never regretted my decision.

Ruihan on her graduation

Ruihan on her graduation day

When I first arrived at uni, I knew that this was an exciting beginning, but that the road ahead was full of difficulties. The first one was my lack of English and academic abilities, which soon became my greatest disadvantages. Frankly speaking, before I came to the UK, I had never used English apart from in classes, and when I arrived here I found out that the educational system in the UK was very different from my country. In China I had only learnt English for exam-oriented purposes rather than for communication skills or personal interest. So I am really grateful to Ms Lynn O’Meara, an advisor in Student Life Centre, who helped me register in a course on Academic Development and Better Writing to improve my English and academic skills. We have been in touch ever since; her constructive advice and encouragement have given me greater confidence in overcoming difficulties and really helped me a lot.

My second difficulty was the lack of basic knowledge in my subject area, and the limited opportunities before uni to access knowledge about psychology and research. Fortunately, even though some of my course mates had already taken psychology in A-level, some had not. All the lecturers and tutors tried their best to meet everyone’s expectation and offered in-time feedback and resources to make sure we were all on track. It is not always possible to understand everything in a lecture, but the faculty, both during their office hours or on the forum, were always available for students, which was really helpful. No matter what kind of questions, they always answered patiently and told us where we could find more information. I especially want to thank my academic advisor Dr Ryan Scott who was really supportive. His suggestions about academic development and his encouragement meant a lot to me, and helped me overcome many difficulties. During the first two years, therefore, I got a relatively comprehensive insight of different psychological schools of thought, and found that autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) is the area in which I am most interested and on which I would like to focus in the future.

In the third year, an extensive range of modules was available, and I could tailor my own course and follow my passion. In terms of the final dissertation, each student can be supervised by one of the leading researchers. I used to be worried about my third year empirical project, but the solid research and knowledge foundation that I gained in the first two years were really helpful. I really want to thank my supervisor, Prof Jane Oakhill. She not only allowed me to do the topic that I was interested in, but also gave me lots of helpful suggestions on literature review, proposal writing, material preparing, experiment conducting, data processing and analysis, and report writing. During the spring term, Jane was very busy, but she still managed a regular meeting to help me keep the project progress on track and never missed responding my emails.

Throughout my degree, no one has ever pressed me in my study, but whenever I needed help there was always specialist support for me. The knowledge and skills I gained in Sussex make me feel confident to face and create my future, which is the most valuable thing. I have never regretted choosing Sussex and majoring in psychology; and I will never regret to follow my passion and commit my life to ASCs.

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By Dr Alison Pike

Welcome (or welcome back) to your studies in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex! Whether you are part of the new Foundation Year, an incoming 1st year, a returning 2nd or 3rd year, or a postgraduate student, I wish you a productive, interesting and exciting learning journey for 2016-17.

I love the start of the academic year. Crisper mornings, an excuse to buy new stationery, and New Academic Year resolutions aplenty! As the Director of Teaching Learning, I have oversight of all of the teaching, learning, assessment & feedback provision within the school.A Pike

I would like to take this opportunity to suggest a few practices to make the very best of your learning experience (apologies for sounding like your mother; I can’t help myself).

Here are my top 10 tips:

  1.  Go to lectures! I know that we record them, but in a study I conducted I found that students who binge-watched before exams did significantly worse. There is nothing like a live performance to inspire, engage, and cultivate understanding.
  2. Please, please make use of faculty office hours. The easiest way (IMHO) to find out when these are is to Google the name of the member of faculty, go onto their Sussex profile page, and click on ‘student feedback and drop-in sessions’. We are here and happy to help, but do be proactive!
  3. Ditch the tablet/laptop during lectures. For taking notes, handwritten is best! Research has shown that students retain information much better if they write notes by hand. This also has the added bonus of removing the temptation of checking Facebook, twitter, etc.
  4. If you have a question, ask. If an issue arises, please talk to someone about it sooner rather than later. If you don’t know whom to approach, start with your academic advisor or a student advisor from the Student Life Centre. Do not let anything fester!
  5. Prepare for the unexpected. As a recovering procrastinator, believe me, I get it. Seriously, do not leave submissions to the last minute. Things can and do go wrong. Computer or printer failures are not a valid excuse. Avoid the stress and give yourself an earlier internal deadline.
  6. If you have a question about a mark that you receive, or the feedback, please do ask. We all want you to do your very best, and are here to help. It is your responsibility to ensure that you get the most from the marks and feedback provided.
  7. Get adequate sleep. The findings are robust – a tired brain is cognitively impaired. To do your best, it is almost always better to get a decent night’s sleep and focus the next morning. As an added bonus, people who are well rested are less likely to over-eat!
  8. Keep moving! Not only is regular exercise good for us, sitting in the new smoking. Do take regular breaks to walk around. You are more likely to have creative insights and keep focussed this way.
  9. Set an end time to your day. Before I had children, I often stayed at work into the evening. Now I always leave by 5. Do I get less done? No. Am I more focussed and productive during the day? Yes. Do I enjoy my evenings? Absolutely!
  10. Happy students are successful students. The biggest predictor of happiness is having emotionally supportive social bonds. Take the time to cultivate friends on and off your course, and engage in some of the many activities open to you.

I wish you all a fabulous 2016-2017 academic year!

PS. Note that this is a blog post, and not an academic essay. If it were an essay, I would have looked up all the studies mentioned and referenced them correctly!


Dr Alison Pike is a Reader in Psychology and the Director of Teaching and Learning. Her research focuses on family relationships and child development. Alison co-directs The Nurture Lab with Dr Bonamy Oliver.

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Reflections on the first 2 years of studying psychology

By Judi Luxmoore

I have just finished the second year of my degree and it is overwhelming to think about how much knowledge I have gained, and how much I have grown as a person. I have worked hard, partied hard and also had time to be lazy, as us students are known to be.

When I was first thinking about where to study, I didn’t know much about the University of Sussex, but I came to visit some friends who were already here, and I remember having such an amazing couple of days that I fell in love with Brighton, and decided to come to an Open Day. The course sold it to me immediately because I liked the wide range of the topics offered, and how students had a huge array of modules to choose from in the 3rd year. But mainly, I loved how you could pick elective modules each year alongside the degree. This gave me the opportunity to learn Spanish, the psychology of Forensic Analysis and Investigation, and Advertisement. As a result, I put Sussex as my first choice when applying.

Freshers year was one of the best years of my life! Coming to uni can be very scary for a lot of people, but first year is all about getting everybody up to the same level and settling us in to the course, giving you enough space to enjoy the year and party hard! The Student Union organised numerous events, making it easy to meet loads of people. The course itself was fantastic. You learn a wide range of topics, from psychobiology to developmental psychology, everything being so interesting that you’ll make your friends and family bored of hearing you constantly saying “Did you know that…?”Judi

Having a campus that is situated in the South Downs means we are surrounded by beautiful greenery, making the campus a wonderful place to live during your first year. Not only that, but a short bus ride in to Brighton and you have the beach, and the quirky, vibrant shops and lanes that Brighton is famous for. What more can you want?!

The second year of the degree was very different. You have gotten to the stage where you feel at home at the university and gained knowledge into all the basics, and this is where you get down to business! This year is a lot harder, but also more exciting, because you’ve had so much practice in writing lab reports and essays that you feel like you can conquer the world! With this school being one of the largest in the UK for psychology it can sometimes feel like you are a small fish in the ocean, but the staff are so helpful and caring to every student that you can get support from many different places, and somehow feel part of a community.

In the 3rd year you design your own course by picking what you enjoy the most from a huge list of modules, and decide what project you want to do for your dissertation. I cannot wait for this year to come because I know I’ll be gaining specialised knowledge into the stuff I am most fascinated with!

Judi has already chosen the modules that she will be studying next academic year: psychology of appetite, self-regulation: the science of achieving your goals, clinical psychology, and economic and consumer psychology. For her dissertation project, she will be working with Prof Pete Harris in Health Psychology, particularly focusing on self-affirmation theory. 

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Reflections of a first year PhD student

By Mateo Leganés Fonteneau

Doing a PhD was never my lifetime objective. When I finished college I started studying an engineering degree, but I realised quite soon that it wasn’t what I’d expected. I then went on to study Social Work, hoping to help drug addicts when I finished. As the economic crisis was hitting Spain and my employment opportunities were scarce, I decided to study Psychology. It was at this moment when I started collaborating with some of my teachers, and when the idea of doing a PhD grew on me.

As I thought I needed some more research experience if I wanted to achieve something without getting an MSC, I decided to go to Poland for a research internship, working on emotion and memory. Then, shortly before its deadline, I applied for a PhD at the University of Sussex on Drug Addiction and Cognition with Prof Dora Duka. I thought that this topic suited me perfectly, having experience on both fields. After a week writing a research proposal and another one preparing for the interview… Voila! I got offered a PhD position.

September came really fast; moving to Brighton and finding a flat (good luck with that!) didn’t allow me to explore the city before starting to work, but I promise, Brighton and the Uni are amazing.

So, if you have some research experience, doing a PhD is basically the same, but with an overall plan in mind that should include 5 or 6 experiments. In practical terms, you will also have to keep higher quality standards compared to any undergrad experience you may have, piloting every detail of every procedure before running the real thing. The most important difference is that your research becomes your responsibility. It is true that your supervisors will give you advice and directions, but it will be entirely up to you to develop the procedures you want to use and to find solutions to all the issues that appear when conducting research.

Mateo with his colleagues, about to win a race

Mateo with his colleagues, about to win a race

Over the past 8 months, I spent the first 2 months solely reading and trying to develop a comprehensive framework for my research. As reading is not that fun, I gradually started to develop the tasks I would include in my first experiment and to pilot them. Shortly after the Christmas break I was already running my first experiment. That actually took me just a month, as it is quite easy to get participants for experiments.

Then came long sessions of data analysis trying to figure out the meaning of the results and how to follow up my experiment. Luckily, my supervisors are superb and with their help I was pretty quickly piloting my second experiment. This time, as I am trying to improve previous procedures, I am piloting and redesigning details more than I’d hoped I would, but that’s the only way to evolve in your PhD, being really conscientious about details.

Doing research can be at times overwhelming as it’s a lonely path which doesn’t require much social interaction on a daily basis. For that reason taking some of the courses from the doctoral school, participating in lab meetings, and working as an associate tutor is a good way of clearing your mind and thinking about something else than your research while still being productive. And the experience (and extra money!) is really valuable.

During this year not everything has been research and work. I have also had quite a lot of fun with my colleagues, enjoyed some of the events the University of Sussex puts in place for post-grads, and I even had a decent social life!

The key for me is to treat this as a job, trying to be as disciplined as possible. Nobody is going to check what time you come in or leave, but I would advise you to be in your office at 9 a.m. every morning and leave at 17:30. I have followed this plan and I’ve never had to work during the weekends. Also I didn’t spend more than 10 or 15 evenings working till late in the whole year, which is quite good taking into account how hard we imagine a PhD to be.

In short, this first year has been amazing. I’ve had the chance to learn more than in 5 years of undergrad and managed to find some interesting results that I will soon present in a conference. So, if research and autonomous work are your things, doing a PhD is definitely a good path to follow.


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Explaining involuntary influence: Beyond contagion

By John Drury


A recent article on the Brexit debate suggested that there is a fear among Governments that Brexit would lead to ‘referendum contagion’. The term ‘contagion’ here denotes not only the idea of behaviour spreading rapidly, but also that this spread is uncontainable and undesirable in some way. It is a term that seems to be ubiquitous today. But it appears perhaps most regularly in three particular contexts: explanations for the spread of emotion; accounts of stock market ‘panics’; and explanations for the spread of violence.

On the one hand, the concept of ‘contagion’ seems to do a good job in describing the fact that behaviours spread from person to person. It seems to be the only way to conceptualize the phenomena when we seek to explain how, as in 2011, riots began in London but then seemingly similar rioting then subsequently occurred in Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, apparently as a direct consequence of these first riots. The core idea of ‘contagion’ is that, particularly in crowds, mere exposure to the behaviour of others leads observers to behave in the same way. As well as being a popular cliché among journalists, ‘contagion’ is found to be a vital tool in academic accounts. In a recent Google Scholar search, we found 500 hits for 2015 alone, and very few of them referring to spreading disease. In research, ‘contagion’ is now used to explain everything from ‘basic’ responses such as smiling and yawning (where the mere act of witnessing someone yawn or smile can invoke the same response in another) to these complex phenomena we have mentioned, like the behaviour of financial markets and rioting. What is more, laboratory experiments on the ‘contagion’ of simple responses (such as yawning) serve to underpin the plausibility of ‘contagion’ accounts as applied to complex phenomena (such as rioting).Roger 1Roger 2

Despite this widespread acceptance, the ‘contagion’ account has major problems in explaining the spread of behaviours. In particular, there are boundaries to such spread. If men smile at a sexist joke, will feminists also smile in response to the men’s smiles? If people riot in one town, why is it that they also riot in some towns but not others? For example, in 2011, disturbances spread from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham but they did not spread to Sheffield, Glasgow and parts of Leeds.

The concept of ‘contagion’ cannot answer such questions. ‘Mere touch’ (literal or metaphorical) may be necessary, but it is not sufficient for influence. The notion of ‘contagion’ assumes that transmission is automatic. It does not take account of the social relations between the transmitter and receiver. The best it can do is simply re-describe, in a limited way, the fact of involuntary influence, rather than explain it. At worst, it pathologizes influence in crowds and elsewhere, by likening it to the action of a disease.

This month, we (Steve Reicher,Clifford Stott and I, along with research fellows Fergus Neville and Roger Ball) started work on an ESRC-funded project to test a new account of behavioural transmission, based on the social identity approach in social psychology. This approach suggests that influence processes are limited by group boundaries and group content: we are more influenced by ingroup members than by outgroup members, and we are more influenced by that which is consonant with rather than contradictory to group norms. The social identity approach is therefore ideally suited to explaining the social limits to influence, both for ‘basic’ phenomena and rioting.

Because the concept of ‘contagion’ has been employed across a range of settings, we will be using different research designs to address it and test an alternative. These include a series of experimental studies to examine generic processes, but also make use of a large body of secondary data to look at the specific case of the 2011 riots, where ‘contagion’ was one of the explanations mobilised to ‘explain’ the spread of behaviours.  We will use our findings to generate a wider debate about the nature of psychological transmission and the practicalities of addressing them.


This research is funded by the ESRC, Ref ES/N01068X/1


This post was originally published in “Crowds and Identities: John Drury’s Research Group” blog and in John Drury’s blog The Crowd

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By Kate Arnold

The VIVA… two syllables that fill any PhD student with a whole cocktail of emotions. This was the recipe for mine:


1/2 teaspoon of excitement

Juice of 3-5 years of tears

A generous dash of imposter syndrome


Shake with nerves

The week leading up to my viva did not help with the nerves. I had a little visit to A&E to have a cyst removed. It was not really ideal timing per se, but the silver lining was that I really had to take care of myself that week. Self-care is so hard to do when we’re stressed, but that’s when we need it the most. Now, I’m not saying I would recommend you getting a cyst removed under local anaesthetic four days before your viva, but I would HIGHLY recommend ensuring you are getting enough rest, eating proper meals and surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family that you might have hypothetically neglected slightly during the PhD years.

In between taking antibiotics and dressing my lovely new wound, I prepared by reading through my thesis again twice. The first time, I was checking for missed typos and problem areas, focusing on parts that examiners might want to know more about or clarification on. It looked like someone had crushed a canary on the pages of my thesis by the time I was finished covering it with post-its, which again, did not fill me with confidence. During the second read-through, I took the time to address these points which soothed a bit of my anxiety as I felt more comfortable with how I would defend potential problems.

The morning of my viva, I went through the motions of getting ready with a very strong desire to just run/swim/fly far, far away. Luckily again, my wound prevented me taking any drastic physical action, so all that was left to do was get to campus and sit the most important exam of my life. I felt an odd sense of calm before being summoned into the room, perhaps somewhere inside there was a cherry of confidence about my work.

I am as flabbergasted as anyone but I actually enjoyed my viva. It was TOUGH but so much more enjoyable than having a cyst removed with local anaesthetic! I was overwhelmed by how rewarding it was to have the opportunity to discuss a piece of work, the thesis that dominated so much of my life. The thesis that was a physical representation of the knowledge I had accumulated over the past few years. The examiners were incredibly considerate, ensuring I felt calm and comfortable before getting started. Then the warm up questions loosened my tongue and before I knew it, we were into the swing of it. I began by providing an overview of my thesis: what I did, how I did it, what I found and the implications of the findings. I expected the rest of the viva to be a painful process of testing my understanding and shredding my thesis to pieces. Instead, conversations naturally evolved and although I think the examiners did ensure I had a thorough understanding, they made me feel confident in my ability to defend my work and I was also genuinely interested and excited by the questions that they asked. The examiners were patient and responsive to my answers and seemed genuinely interested not just in my thesis, but my thoughts and opinions on the topic.IMG-20160501-WA0012

After two hours I was excused and left in a bit of a daze. I sat in my supervisors’ office waiting to be called back in and given the outcome, again a uniquely terrifying and exciting event. The whole experience was less dark and stormy than I had thought – I had old fashioned preconceptions of a sour assessors and everything going south(side). However, the whole experience fizzed with enjoyment and interest.

If you’re having your viva within the not so distant future the best advice that I could share and that was shared with me is to be yourself, have confidence in how well you know your work and make sure you don’t neglect yourself during the preparations. Finally, it’s probably best to avoid too many cocktails prior to the viva, especially if you’re on antibiotics. They taste so much sweeter when you can toast to the end of your PhD (preferably on the beach with the friends that got you through it all).


Kate Arnold’s thesis, supervised by Prof Gordon Harold, examined the associations between parental depression, interparental conflict and parent-child hostility with the development of  internalising and externalising problems in children and adolescents. She had her viva on 29th April 2016 and her examiners were Prof Robin Banerjee (internal) and Dr Leslie Leve (University of Oregon). She currently works as an Assistant Psychologist for Outcomes for East London NHS Foundation, which allows her to combine research and clinical work.

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