The social psychology of the Hajj

By John Drury

Last week, the annual Hajj took place in Mecca (Makkah) and the other holy places nearby. This Muslim pilgrimage is one of the world’s largest crowd events – the official figure for those attending last year was 1,862,909. The Hajj has been called the world’s ‘global gathering’ because it is a place where Muslims from all over the world come together. The Hajj has also been the scene of a number of tragedies, including the crush in 2015 where over 700 people died at a crossroads near the holy city of Mina.

Despite its global significance and importance to so many people, few psychological studies have been carried out on the Hajj. Most research studies of the events are from medical or engineering perspectives. Hani Alnabulsi, my PhD student, and I recently had a unique opportunity to study the experience and behaviour of the Hajj crowd, through his research on the 2011 and 2012 pilgrimages. As part of his PhD at Sussex, Hani carried out dozens of interviews and surveyed over 1000 pilgrims, all in and around the Grand Mosque, Mecca. This unique data-set allowed us to address a number of important questions on the social psychology of the Hajj for the first time. Hani finished his PhD in 2015, and we are now in the process of writing up the work as journal articles. Here is a summary of some of the key findings.

How do people feel safe in such dense crowds?

In a first analysis, we looked at predictors of feeling safe in the Hajj crowd, which can reach densities of up to nine people per metre2 near the Ka’aba. We tested the hypothesis that the effect of crowd density on feeling safe would vary depending on whether there is shared social identification in the crowd. Analysis of the data showed that the negative effect of crowd density on reported safety was indeed moderated by social identification with the crowd. Whereas low identifiers reported reduced safety with greater crowd density, high identifiers actually reported increased safety with greater crowd density. Mediation analysis suggested that a reason that some people felt safer was the perception that other crowd members were supportive. We also found that those from Arab countries and Iran felt especially safe at the Hajj compared with pilgrims from other countries. These differences in reported safety across national groups also seemed to be because these groups experienced greater crowd identification and perceived support than other groups.

Inset shows density of 6ppm2

Psychological changes, including changed attitudes to other social groups

Towards the end of his autobiography, the activist Malcolm X described in compelling terms the revelation he experienced on attending the Hajj:

My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I had never seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors, – blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans – in true brotherhood! In unity! … It was in the Holy World that my attitude was changed, by what I experienced there, and by what I witnessed there, in terms of brotherhood – not just brotherhood toward me, but brotherhood between all men, of all nationalities and complexions, who were there. (pp. 478-479, emphasis in original)

His was not a unique experience. A brilliant ‘natural experiment’ carried out by Clingingsmith and colleagues on a large sample of Pakistanis famously showed that participation in the Hajj can lead to both more positive attitudes towards other groups and increased commitment to Muslim identity. In a second analysis, we have been investigating the process underlying these psychological changes. In line with contact theory and the social identity approach, we found that a key mechanism explaining increased positive attitudes to outgroups was identification with the Hajj crowd, which operates like common ingroup identity. In line with a social identity account of identity enactment, we found that the key mechanism explaining enhanced identification was giving social support to others. Our finding that participation in an all-Muslim gathering increases positive views of other groups (including non-Muslims) through crowd identification offers an alternative perspective to claims about the supposed role of such gatherings in encouraging intolerance.

Place, space and the virtuous cycle of cooperation

The requirement to cooperate at Hajj is not only a shared spiritual value, but also a practical necessity due to the high levels of crowd density. In a third analysis, we sought to understand the determinants of cooperation in and around the Grand Mosque during the pilgrimage. In Hani’s interviews, pilgrims described ecstatic experiences on seeing and being close to the Ka’aba. However, precisely because of its spiritual value, many pilgrims seek to be close to the Ka’aba at the same time. This leads to negative (e.g., competitive pushing) as well as positive (e.g., social support) experiences in the Mosque. Our survey analysis found that evidence of help was high across the participants, but was more likely to be reported on the plaza just outside the Mosque than inside the Mosque itself. We also found evidence of what we called a virtuous cycle of cooperation: seeing others in the crowd giving support predicted seeing them as good Muslims which predicted identification with the crowd which itself predicted giving help to others. This predictive pattern occurred in the plaza but not the Mosque itself, and suggests the role of place and space in modulating identity processes.


In the past, where the social psychology of the Hajj has been addressed it has been through concepts such as ‘panic’ and ‘stampede’. However, use of these concepts is not based on systematic study of pilgrims’ behaviour and experience. In addition, such concepts serve to blame the crowd, rather than mismanagement, for disasters. Hani Alnabulsi’s PhD research is the first to bring modern social psychological concepts to the Hajj – in particular the concepts of social identity and group norm. We argue that these concepts will not only provide a more accurate understanding of behaviour at the Hajj, they can also help contribute to a safer Hajj in the future by informing the planning and management of this global gathering.


This post was originally published in John Drury’s personal blog The Crowd. John is the lead of the Crowds and Identities’ Research Group.



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How do street actions strengthen social movements?

By Dr John Drury

There is evidence that recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw a mass mobilization of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis have served to embolden and strengthen these groups, who are now ‘bursting with confidence’. The Vice documentary, filmed among the groups as the events took place, showed how the aim of the mobilization was to build the movement psychologically:

‘that camaraderie is and trust is built on activism, and that is one of the tactics we’re adopting’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

The documentary also showed how the participants felt about and interpreted their mobilization. They took encouragement from the sheer fact of organizing together, being on the streets in such numbers, from imposing themselves on their opponents in this ‘liberal’ town, and in expressing themselves:

‘This is the largest nationalist rally in over two decades in the United States. It’s been incredibly exciting… We’re going to keep having a good time and keep fighting.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

They were empowered to such a degree that they felt confident there were would be more such events in the near future and that these would escalate, both qualitatively and quantitatively:

‘I think it’s going to be difficult to top, but we’re up to the challenge… I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

Recent social psychology research can explain how this strengthening process operates in social movements, and can also predict when and how it spreads to individuals and groups not physically present on the mobilization but who feel the same way as the marchers. Most of this research so far has been carried out on campaign groups and issues very different in political content from the fascist-type mobilization in Charlottesville: student fees protesters, Occupy supporters, environmental activists, and so on. But in terms of process, there are key concepts and explanatory principles that can be carried across.

Salience and match of self-categorization are two key concepts here. Based on self-categorization theory, research shows that, in different contexts, we can define ourselves in terms of personal characteristics (our personal identity) but also in terms of shared category memberships (collective or social identity). If our social identity is salient, and if it corresponds to the identity of those involved in the mobilization, then intergroup emotions theory would suggest that we will get emotional (and other) benefits from the event in the same way as the participants themselves.

What are these emotional and other benefits of collective action? Work on appraisal in collective action suggests that, for those who identify with the group, the perception of the group taking action enhances our collective efficacy – our belief in our capacity to act. Seeing social support in our group taking action tells us that we will have social support for further action.

But what is the nature of this action? Does just any collective action have these empowering effects for participants and their supporters? Other research shows that it is specifically collective actions which enact identity which have this effect. We call these forms of action collective self-objectification. By turning the subjective (ideas) into something objective (hard reality), such action operates for participants as tangible evidence of their group’s enhanced agency relative to other groups, and hence is experienced as empowering.

This was clearly going on in Charlottesville, where what was previously limited to an online network now manifested itself physically. To ‘own’ the streets, to be able to shout anti-Semitic slogans, to intimidate the ‘liberals’ and ‘racial’ groups who wanted to remove the statue of General Lee – all these were ways of enacting identity and, as such, imposing a particular definition of the world on opponents. These activities therefore empowered participants, or, in more conventional psychological language, increased their collective efficacy.

From efficacy there may be just a short step to gaining legitimacy. In their BBC prison study, Reicher and Haslam showed that the prisoners turned to tyranny when it was seen to be able to operate when a more democratic system was not. Practical adequacy – the perceived ability of an organization to put its beliefs into practice – enhances the extent to which it is seen as a legitimate political force by others. We have recently investigated this in the context of the student movement in Chile, where the main predictor of non-participants’ belief that the students’ protest action was legitimate was the perceived efficacy of the movement.


So what is the solution? The collective action literature points to the role of success and failure in increasing or reducing further mobilization. In psychological terms, success for a social movement is again action which realizes the identity – collective self-objectification – whereas failure is the enactment of the opponent’s identity and the negation of one’s own.

In our field-world, interviews and in our current experiments, we found that those actions that realized the participants’ shared identity were particularly rewarding and increased intentions to take part in further collective action, whereas those actions that ended in failure of collective self-objectification led to demoralization and reduced intentions to act. This was particularly the case for those with relatively little experience of protest. It would apply, for example, to the wider population of neophyte sympathisers that the fascist groups attempt to inspire through their shows of strength and identity enactment.

In history, the street violence of Kristallnacht sparked a further rise in anti-Semitic attacks and consolidated the rise of the Nazis in Germany; and events such as the 1936 battle of Cable Street, actions by the 43 group after the second world war, and the 1977 battle of Lewisham set fascism back as a movement. Put simply, controlling the streets builds the movement and getting them off the streets works in defeating that movement.

Of course non-violent tactics also work – my own PhD research examined how one predominantly non-violent direct action campaign had great success in making road-building seen as a political issue and in problematizing the then government’s road-building programme. But pure pacifism relies on a humanism which, if the opponents do not share – if the opponents regard us as less than human – will lead to our defeat not theirs.




This post was originally published in John Drury’s personal blog The Crowd. John is the lead of the Crowds and Identities’ Research Group.

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My Time on Work Experience in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex

By Toby Killeen

Hi! I am Toby and I’m a 15 year old schoolboy doing work experience in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. During the week I have worked all around the School. Here is a short summary of what I did.

On Monday I started off the day by being introduced to Professor Simner and her team at the MULTISENSE Lab, everyone seemed really engaged and friendly. The MULTISENSE lab studies how people integrate their 5 senses, and they also study a condition called synaesthesia which causes a kind of ‘merging of the senses’. However, I was quickly given the opportunity to spend an hour in WORD Lab with PhD student Nicola Fuller, where they study how children learn language. Here I observed a study looking at children’s (age 3-4 yrs) reconstructive memory for words: are words learned better when they’re presented within a repeated story, or within multiple different stories? This experience presented me with an interesting insight into the difficulties that researchers can face when working with children. The child that we were working with seemed to get a tiny bit bored with our stories towards the end but Nicola did a brilliant job keeping her engaged! This was followed by a short trip to the Biological and Clinical Neuroscience Group, where I was working with Dr Sarah King and one of her PhD students, Jonny Robertson. Here I observed genotyping as part of their research project into how certain drugs interact with dopamine receptors 1 and 2. After this, I joined a lab meeting that brought together the synaesthesia researchers who work with Professor Simner and Professor Ward. I gained an understanding of the process of colleagues critiquing and helping each other in their work in a constructive manner. This was followed by lunch and then back to work with a meeting at the Bridge Café where I met with Professor Samantha Cartwright-Hatton and was given a personal introduction to her research on the prevention of child anxiety and, on the transmission of anxious behaviour from parent to child.

On Tuesday I started work again with Professor Simner in the MULTISENSE Lab on my main project for the week, in which I helped code and transcribe data from a study of 3500 primary school children. These children (age 6-10yrs) have been tested for their multisensory abilities and their creativity. My role was to code the ‘creative activities’ task, which finds out whether each child in the study prefers activities that are overall creative (e.g., painting) or non-creative (e.g., swimming). The study aims to ask whether children high in multisensory processing (e.g., children with synaesthesia) are more creatively oriented. Following this I spent some time in the ChatLab (Children and Technology Lab) where I worked with MSc students and researchers transcribing conversations between children with autism spectrum conditions (ASC). This was part of a research project looking at how children with disabilities communicate via different media (e.g., Skype, face-to-face).

On Wednesday I spent the majority of my day continuing my work with Professor Simner and coding and transcribing creativity data. During this day I gained a real appreciation for all of the work that goes on in working for a PhD and the research that was involved as I was working alongside several of Professor Simner’s PhD students, including Louisa Rinaldi who is studying synaesthetic children. One PhD student, James Hughes, was very helpful in giving me a lesson on statistics in Psychology, and on the work that goes on in writing a paper for a scientific journal.

Thursday was mainly spent working outdoors with Dr Holly Root-Gutteridge in Stamner Park where we were testing dogs in an animal communication task. My role was to assist Dr Root-Gutteridge in running participants (gaining ethical consent from dog-owners to test their dogs, giving instructions, filming the dogs’ behaviour etc.). Her study is looking at whether dogs respond differently to noises made by puppies, piglets and babies, and she’ll be looking for dog-owners in Stanmer Park over the next 2 weeks. After this, I spent a small section of my time in the MULTISENSE Lab finishing off coding and transcribing data before I was rushed off to the Clinical Imaging and Science Centre where I observed a functional MRI scan co-ordinated by the PhD students of Dr Sophie Forster. This study was looking at internal and external influences on thinking and attention. In this, I was given a lesson on the structure of the brain, how an MRI scan works, the differences between an MRI, CT and a PET scan and I was shown the differences between brain-scans of somebody who has dementia, a healthy brain and somebody who has multiple sclerosis.

I would like to thank everybody at the University of Sussex and the School of Psychology that helped and accommodated me during my short stay at the University. The experience was one that I won’t be forgetting any time soon and it gave me such valuable insight and experience into life at University and the time and effort that goes into research. I would also like to especially thank everybody that I have mentioned in this short blog for allowing me to work with you and for giving me a unique experience that few people my age will have. You were so kind and helpful during my time at the University of Sussex. Thank you.

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2017 ATSiP Conference: Technicians, VR and Qualtrics

By Martha Casey

At the end of June I attended the ATSiP conference at UCD in Dublin. ATSiP stands for the Association of Technical Staff in Psychology, and is an organisation made up of people like me from universities across the UK and Ireland. This was my third year attending; last year the conference took place in Birmingham and the year before in Stoke on Trent.

Martha trying a VR headset

It’s always interesting to meet other technicians. Our presence in psychology departments is mandated by the BPS, who won’t accredit degrees if they are taught in departments without dedicated technicians. This means that our skills and our jobs vary wildly between institutions, since we are required to be there to help with whatever that organisation specialises in. At universities with less research focus, technicians are often involved in teaching and demonstration, while at other institutions, technicians might specialise in programming, or study for theory-heavy PhDs alongside their practical work. Moreover, as the state of psychology, and the methods by which we collect data, evolve and develop, our roles have necessarily changed. This was one of the themes of the conference this year; we heard talks on the consequences of restructuring, as well as the stereotypical characterisation of technicians as “bottle washers”. In many universities there is confusion about what technicians are for, and our work can be invisible, overlooked, or misunderstood. On the other hand, it’s rewarding that we get to work in so many different areas, and one of the great things about this yearly conference is the exchange of information and ideas.


Amongst the discussion of the job itself, we also learned about many new kinds of software and equipment that have huge potential for the work we do here at Sussex – including Gorilla, a new online survey and experiment builder, and Connect2, a lab management system. Most excitingly, we heard a talk on the use of virtual reality in experiments, an exciting new development. VR has many uses both in data collection and in a therapeutic context. For example, exposure therapy for phobias using VR has been enormously successful, as VR is almost completely risk-free but realistic enough to trick the brain. Additionally, many VR headsets now come with eyetrackers or even FMRI sensors built in, meaning we can run more elaborate scenarios – with better ecological validity – and still gather data by these methods.

We were also taken on a tour of the Qualtrics offices in Dublin, which as you would expect from a fast-growing tech company, were very fancy. As well as an interesting talk on the new functionalities Qualtrics will be adding soon, including data analysis, we were given canapés, Guinness (they have a bar onsite!) and some adorable cupcakes.

Overall, and as always, the conference was a great experience. I’m already looking forward to attending next year – and to implementing what I learned this time around.


Martha is one of the Lab Technicians at the School of Psychology. You can read more about her job as a technician here.

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Emergent social identities in a flood: Implications for community psychosocial resilience

By Evangelos Ntontis.

Recently, the small village of Coverack in Cornwall was hit by a flash flood which resulted in damaged properties and possessions, closed roads, disruption, and required the rescue of several people. This was not a one-off event. Flooding is a major risk for the UK. Currently there are around 5 million people in 2.4 million houses at risk from river, sea, underwater or surface flooding, which is likely to become worse in the future due to climate change.

In general, floods can be reoccurring, as well as affect the same population over time. Moreover, their impact can persist for more than two years through damage to physical infrastructure, rebuilding and financial problems, as well as psychological effects to residents like stress, depression, and anxiety.

Photo source: The Independent

In my PhD research, I investigate how communities respond to floods. Decades of disaster research have shown that during adversity people come together, and previous social psychological research on ‘sudden impact’ (unexpected and unpredictable) events like earthquakes and bombings has applied principles from the self-categorisation theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987) in an attempt to explain how previously unaffiliated people are suddenly drawn together in the face of adversity. What has been shown is that people unite in groups because they share a sense of common fate. In turn, this group feeling mobilises support between them, increases expectations of future support, and enhances participation in collective action. However, no research had previously examined whether the same social psychological principles also apply in ‘rising tide events’ like floods, which are usually expected and allow some time for a coordinated response.

In a recently published study, I investigated whether social identities did emerge in the flood-hit city of York, UK. York flooded in December 2015 during the passing of Storm Eva, due to a flood barrier which was lifted by the Environment Agency in an attempt to contain further damage.

Almost two months after the floods I visited and got interviews from 17 residents. I interviewed flooded, non-flooded, and indirectly affected residents (who faced neighbourhood disruption or limited access to resources, but did not have water entering their properties), and my aim was to explore whether people felt as part of the community, what motivated such feelings of togetherness, and whether social support was a function of this emergent unity.

I found that similar processes to ‘sudden impact’ events also occur in ‘rising tide’ disasters like floods, and that there were multiple pathways through which people felt they identified with the flood survivors, regardless of their flood status. For example, flooded residents talked about a sense of shared fate that united them with the other flooded people. For non-affected and indirectly affected people, previous group boundaries collapsed and unity emerged because the flood event was perceived as an injustice towards the affected residents, because it was perceived as a disruption of routine life, and interestingly because it hit an area the residents of which were perceived as unprepared. Also, it is important to note that residents came together because of sharing similar goals in terms of recovery, as well because of a reportedly lack of supportive infrastructure. This emergent togetherness was also linked to the provision of social support, at a practical, emotional, and collective level, with residents providing resources to the affected, gathering and organizing donations, assisting in cleanups, listening to people’s problems, giving advice, and coordinating with each other to carry out tasks impossible to execute individually. However, I also noted negative experiences from residents who did not feel included in this emergent community spirit; residing in an area outside the scope of the collective response, losing one’s supportive networks, or failing to see others adopting group-helping behaviours was described as generating negative feelings.

Through this exploratory study I and my supervisors shed some light on the ways that communities respond to floods, and the role that shared social identities can play. Indeed, people in ‘rising-tide’ events can come together similarly to ‘sudden-impact’ events, the support mobilized during these instances of unity can enhance people’s collective resilience and the overall resilience of the community. Thus, I argue that while pre-existing networks are crucial for the response and recovery periods, government policies and emergency responders should take into account the emergent community spirit, consider how they can be a part of it and foster than hinder it, and assist in its continuation over time.

Original post published in Crowd and Identities: John Drury’s Research Group Blog. The full paper “Emergent Social Identities in a Flood: Implications for community psychosocial resilience” has been published at the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, and can be found here.


Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorisation theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

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It is just the beginning

By Judi Luxmoore


I’ve completed my degree! Hooray! Now I just have to decide what I want to do for the rest of my life… No one can prepare you for what life is like after university. If you are anything like me, when you were younger you were in denial about life existing after you finished your degree. Being in education my whole life, I always knew what the next logical step would be – school, then A-levels, then taking a gap year, and finally going to university to study psychology. Now, however, I find myself desperately trying to design the next step of my future, unable to rely on society and people I know to tell me what I am meant to do next.

Ever since I can remember I have wanted to work in mental health, romanticising that the perfect job in this area would knock on my door and present itself to me. Little did I know life is not that easy. Psychology is a very complex field, with endless options and employers all demanding the most passionate, hard-working and determined individuals, with a lot more on their CV than just a degree. Becoming one of these top 1% of people seems an impossible task. Yet here I go, trying to be one of them, and making difficult decisions between staying in education, getting a job, getting some relevant work experience (unpaid of course, because the most important work for society ironically gives the least money), moving back home, or curling up into a ball and hoping that adulthood would leave me alone.

After exhausting the free advice from the careers and employability centre and my academic advisor, as well as having endless conversations with anybody who will listen, I have decided to do a post-graduate course that will qualify me for a mental health practitioner job. Whether this is the right decision or not, at least I made a decision, and I look forward to seeing whether it was the right one. Because you will never know whether the career path you decide on is the right one until you give it a go, the only thing you can do is take that leap and see what happens. After all, you will probably have to do many jobs before you find the perfect one.

But for now, remember to give yourself a pat on the back for completing your degree, take a breath and relax, because nobody expects you to conquer the world on day one!

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Tips for prospective conversion course students

By Emily Rayfield

Conversion courses, such the MSc in Experimental Psychology at Sussex, are unique experiences, and in lots of ways unlike both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. This is because you are covering diverse UG modules at lightning speed. Before starting at Sussex in September I wasn’t sure what to expect, so here are some tips that I hope are helpful!

  1. Use the library. I spent a looot of money on books before setting foot on campus and finding out that there are great resources, and that readings are often uploaded to StudyDirect too. It’s worth working out what books are going to be most useful before buying! 
  2. Don’t panic. In your first week, you will receive your reading list and then, when you find out your deadlines you will explode – mentally. But soon you will get into your rhythm and give birth to a huge, beautiful timetable you never knew you had in you.
  3. Read up on writing in Psychology (or the discipline of your course). This could make a huge difference to your grades. There is a simple but specific format to essay structure in Psychology that you need to get your head around. How to Write in Psychology was invaluable for me.
  4. Use office hours. Going to see your tutors with your essay plans is something very useful and very easy to feel too busy for. Especially if you are coming from courses where you haven’t had to write scientific essays. At the very least it will reassure you and could dramatically change your grade.
  5. Which leads me to my next point. For Arts students, or any non-science / non-maths buffs, the Statistics and Neuroscience modules could hit you hard. Which is how we all felt at the beginning of term, and we were all okay – and dare I say it more than okay – Statistics was our collective favourite by Christmas. Read up over summer if you can, or re-watch the lectures over term and you will be fine.
  6. Lean on each other. That special bond of being especially hungover with your friends is sort of what you will have with your course-mates. The bittersweet relationship where you really do feel each other’s pain. Because conversion courses are intense as much as they are interesting and engaging. You will support each other, feel like you have known each other for years, and drink a lot of coffee together. Set up a Facebook group too, you have no idea how useful it will be for questions / information / memes.

Finally, if you are thinking of making your application – do not be dissuaded! It is no secret that conversion courses are not easy – but it would definitely not just be your arduous means to BPS accreditation. The density of the course makes it great, too. You learn more in the first 6 weeks than (it feels like) you ever have in your life, and being pushed to your limits makes you realise how much you are capable of.


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Why I recommend trying something outside of your comfort zone

By Tamara Albaja


How did I discover my inner passion for working with children? Two words, Social Detectives.

What is Social Detectives?

Social Detectives is a structured yet flexible curriculum and teaching process that focuses on social skills development using applied behaviour analysis; specifically teaching interactions. It is delivered by the team at the TLC ( and has been running as an after-school and holiday scheme in Brighton for 5 years. It is designed for pupils aged between 6 – 10 that are diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are in mainstream placements (with or without additional support), supporting families who feel their children could benefit from gaining social competence. It was also open to siblings and friends of the target pupils. Sessions went from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm. They consisted of dozens of activities from play and leisure time, to teaching interactions, to self-assessment activities. Each session had different, specific themes ranging from ‘being a good friend’, ‘thinking of others’ and ‘going with the flow’.

What is Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD)? 

ASD is a life-long developmental disability, for which the causes are unknown. Diagnosed children typically find it challenging to interact, communicate and relate with others. No cure has been established but there are several interventions that are available to help children and parents, for example, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, ABA, educational support, and a brilliant curriculum that aims to implement all these interventions into one, such as Social Detectives.

How did I start, and what were my roles as a volunteer?

At the beginning of my Easter break (2017), I volunteered to help with the TLC team that delivers Social Detectives. Volunteering is something I really enjoyed doing, and not just because it now looks great on my CV, but also because the experience I gained was completely worthwhile. My job was to collect data about student or staff (with the supervision and guidance of the team), to help setting up games and activities, as well as to  prepare snacks and drinks, and  assist students with completing self-assessment documents and detective games.

How has Social Detectives been a life changing experience for me?

Back before I started studying Psychology at Sussex, I was extremely passionate about understanding individuals and groups, and studying the unconscious mind, as well as concerned about enduring patterns of behaviour, thought and emotion that make up an individual’s personality. From reading articles, to watching endless Ted Talk videos, to volunteering at hospitals, nothing really stood out to me as much as Social Detectives has. The reason behind this is that the curriculum showed me what schools all around the world are missing. The Oxford Dictionary defines school as an ‘institution for educating children’, and an “institution at which instruction is given in a particular discipline.” They sometimes forget that humans are curious beings with imagination and with the ability to critically think beyond what the syllabus tells them. Why is that we hear the phrase ‘I hate school’ more frequently than “I love it”? Mark Twain stated that “college is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight into student’s lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.” Schools emphasis on numeracy and literacy is important, but it often leaves little time to teach students real life skills, such as critical social competencies: how to be a good friend, how to rely on one’s self, learning from and embracing mistakes, understanding our emotions – the list goes on!

Seeing a social skills program like Detectives in action showed me how applicable and important these skills are. As one of the younger ‘detectives’ stated “I enjoy social detectives more than school because we are given more points and more breaks!”

What ideas could schools take from Social Detectives?

The Motivation system

Many studies have shown that effective classroom management systems involve positive reinforcement. This keeps students motivated to complete tasks demanded from them, to follow the rules and to learn new skills. Social Detectives focuses on giving pupils points for any positive and appropriate behaviour they carried out. At the start of each session, detectives predicted how many points they would get, they would 500, 1000 and 5000 point challenges- and ‘hero points’.  Each detective had their own points boxes where they kept their points in. I found that this technique kept most pupils motivated and wanting to join in activities. At the end of the day, ‘detectives’ sat together and counted their points, then at the end of week all the points were counted up and each Detective was given a certificate displaying their points, and were given a rank (e.g becoming an Inspector or Sheriff!)

Relax time

In other words, meditation. It was not until last year when I discovered the art of meditation, and even after a year there is so much to learn. I have read many articles, blog posts, and watched endless discussions and talks about the benefits of meditation on young children, but I had never seen it being used anywhere! here the staff (or lieutenants as they are called!) make sure the children sit down after lunch time and before home time, and one of the team leaders gives them breathing instructions. Although some of the children might not understand the benefit of this, the advantages are clear after a few minutes of being still and breathing. I observed that a few students had mixed feelings towards sitting down in total silence at the beginning, but as the days went on they slowly eased into it.

Life & Social skills

The topics that Social Detectives touch upon are ones that should not only be taught in schools, but everywhere; from universities to homes and work places. We are often too busy focusing on the materialistic side of life and we forget how important it is to be true to our emotions and beliefs. We forget that we have certain feelings and because talking about our mental health is not fashionable, we tend to avoid, numb or suppress them. Not only does this scheme tries to teach children how to express their emotions, it also looks at how to self-regulate them. Most of us will never be taught what to do when we feel a desired or non-desired emotion arise. Social Detectives teaches children what to do when they feel overwhelmingly sad, anxious or angry. I remember one of the children once said ‘I know someone … I will not say any names, but when he is sad he tends to force a smile, and pretend that he is happy so other people do not know.’ Having this mind-set at such an early age, I believe, is a gift. It will surely help instil the compassion and understanding that there is more than one way to look at someone who is in need of emotional support. Social competence is a critical ability to help navigate our increasingly social world- whether that is at home, at school, at work or online. Academic competence will only take you so far, the ability to connect, communicate and collaborate with others is a core skill set for the 21st century.

Last words

You are not your mind, to realise that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually Eckhart Tolle

Volunteering with ‘Social Detectives’ has made me raise some tough questions about the way we should approach our children. If we focus and invest our energy and time into guiding them to become the best versions of themselves, we will undoubtedly see a brighter future. One ‘detective’ that generated a number of questions in my mind was this child who was completely attached to the idea that he was autistic. He would find it uncomfortable to say people’s names, and when asked why, he would blame it on being autistic. Could it be that most of the things that scare us are just in our heads? Is it possible to feel content with ourselves through eliminating these thoughts? Would we think differently about ourselves if we were not to be labelled?

Lets raise children who wont have to recover from their childhoods. Pam Leo.



You Are a Social Detective: Explaining Social Thinking to Kids (2010) by Michelle Garcia Winner, Pamela Crooke, Kelly Knopp

Crafting Connections: Contemporary Applied Behavior Analysis for Enriching the Social Lives of Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder (2011) Mitchell Taubman, Ron Leaf, John McEachin et al.

National Autism Center (2009). National Standards Project – Addressing the Need for Evidence-based Practice Guidelines for Autism Spectrum Disorders. National Autism Center Report.

Iovannone, R. Dunlop, G, Huber, H. & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with ASD. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18 (3), 150–165.

DiSalvo, C. A., & Oswald, D. P. (2002). Peer-mediated interventions to increase the social interaction of children with autism: Consideration of peer expectancies. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17, 198–207.

Reichow B, Volkmar F.R.  (2010) Social skills interventions for individuals with autism: evaluation for evidence-based practices within a best evidence synthesis framework. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder,,40(2): 149-166.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk, S., et al. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z (see also, National Professional Development Center on ASD)



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Surviving or Thriving? Lifelong mental health in children with chronic physical illness

Chronic physical illness affects large numbers of children and families. Worldwide, 1 in 5 children has a chronic physical illness, including arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic renal failure, congenital heart disease, cystic fibrosis, type-1 diabetes, and epilepsy. With the advances of medical therapies in the last decades, more and more children with chronic conditions live for a long time (Perrin, Bloom, & Gortmaker, 2007; van der Lee, Mokkink, Grootenhuis, Heymans, & Offringa, 2007). But how do these chronic conditions effect children in their adulthood? Does having a childhood chronic physical condition enhance the chance of mental health problems in adulthood? A recently published meta-analysis conducted by our research group (Secinti et al, 2017) focused on this question.

Having a chronic physical illness during childhood is a serious burden on its own. This is because the illness affects normal activities, may limit the child’s ability to function, or result in needing help from others or long periods of hospitalization (Stein, Bauman, Westbrook, Coupey, & Ireys, 1993). But having a physical condition also impacts mental health because these children face serious challenges in their daily lives due to their physical conditions (Ferro, Boyle, & Avison, 2015). A child with a chronic physical illness is more likely to have emotional problems than a healthy child. For example, children with chronic conditions are more likely to have emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression, as well as have behavioral problems (Pinquart & Shen, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c).

So, what happens to these children when they grow up?

We wanted to understand what happens, as children with chronic physical illnesses grow older. Do their emotional problems decrease, or persist and become more severe? To answer this question, we reviewed the literature on multiple childhood chronic physical illnesses (i.e., arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic renal failure, congenital heart disease, cystic fibrosis, type-1 diabetes and epilepsy,) and found 37 studies that had been conducted in multiple regions across the world to assess the link between childhood chronic physical illness and adult emotional problems. We then analyzed the data provided by these studies, combining the information from more than 45,000 participants.

What did our study find?

The main analyses revealed that individuals with a childhood chronic physical illness were more likely to experience anxiety and depression in adulthood. Specifically, the odds of having depression was 1.31 higher and the odds of having anxiety was 1.47 higher in those with childhood chronic illness than in those without. This is an important finding, as it suggests that the effects of having a childhood chronic physical illness on the risk of emotional problems persist beyond childhood and adolescence into adulthood.

Our study also looked at a range of possible factors that might influence the strength of this association. Our findings indicated that factors related to childhood chronic illness, such as age at diagnosis and illness duration, and participant related factors, such as age and sex, did not change the effects. We also examined the association between childhood chronic physical illness and adult mental health separately for asthma, type-1 diabetes, and cancer. Our findings revealed that patients or survivors of childhood cancer were more likely to experience depression during adulthood. We also found the similar trends for childhood asthma and type-1 diabetes, but these results were inconclusive due to small number of studies and participants.

What do our findings mean?

Overall, this study, which is the most comprehensive analysis to date, provides evidence that individuals with a childhood chronic physical illness are at greater life-long risk of emotional problems. This finding is critically important in clinical care. Mental health assessment and treatment should be an integral component of comprehensive care of chronically ill children and adolescents. In addition, we would advocate implementing interventions to improve psychological well-being and resilience for children with chronic physical illnesses as a way to reduce the risk of emotional problems in adulthood.

Last week (8-14th of May) was a Mental Health Awareness Week. May is also a month marked for awareness around mental health issues. As stated by the Mental Health Foundation: ‘Good mental health is an asset that helps us to thrive’. This is indeed the case for children who experience many challenges in coping with and adapting to life with a chronic disease. Although a good progress has been achieved in the life expectancy of these children, we now need to achieve the same for the good health of their minds.

Author: Ekin Secinti (former MSc in Foundations of Clinical Psychology and Mental Health student and EDGE Lab researcher, Ekin is now undertaking clinical psychology doctorate training at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN, USA)



Ferro, M.A., Boyle, M.H., & Avison, W.R. (2015). Association between trajectories of maternal depression and subsequent psychological functioning in youth with and without chronic physical illness. Health Psychology, 34, 820–828.

Perrin, J.M., Bloom, S.R., & Gortmaker, S.L. (2007). The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association, 297, 2755–2759.

Pinquart, M., & Shen, Y. (2011a). Anxiety in children and adolescents with chronic physical illnesses: A meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 100, 1069–1076.

Pinquart, M.,&Shen, Y. (2011b). Behavior problems in children and adolescents with chronic physical illness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 36, 1003–1016.

Pinquart, M., & Shen, Y. (2011c). Depressive symptoms in children and adolescents with chronic physical illness: An updated meta-analysis. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 36, 375–384.

Secinti, E., Thompson, E. J., Richards, M., & Gaysina, D. (2017). Research Review: Childhood chronic physical illness and adult emotional health–a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online: doi:10.1111/jcpp.12727

Stein, R.E., Bauman, L.J., Westbrook, L.E., Coupey, S.M., & Ireys, H.T. (1993). Framework for identifying children who have chronic conditions: The case for a new definition. Journal of Pediatrics, 122, 342–347.

van der Lee, J.H., Mokkink, L.B., Grootenhuis, M.A., Heymans, H.S., & Offringa, M. (2007). Definitions and measurement of chronic health conditions in childhood: A systematic review. Journal of the American Medical Association, 297, 2741–2751.

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King Lab goes to Westminster

By Dr Sarah King

Last Tuesday was Posters in Parliament, a day organised by the British Conference of Undergraduate Research, to allow students to visit Westminster and present their research to Members of Parliament.  Robert Tempelaar, who spent the summer working in my lab (as a junior research associate funded by the Alzheimer’s Society), was presenting our work on testing genetic methods to alter APOE4, a risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease. There was lots of interest in Robert’s poster, including Caroline Lucas, our local MP, who I think got the gist of it!

As well as being a fantastic opportunity to show off our work to a new audience, it was really interesting to see others at work.  We watched the first parliamentary session of the day from the viewing balcony. First, the Ministers from the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy fielded questions from both sides of the House as to how they are planning to support British research and industry after Brexit.  Then, the House began to fill in readiness for Theresa May’s statement on the European Council.  Coming the day after the Brexit bill was passed through Government, this was fascinating.  She said her bit and then was pummeled by questions, again from both sides of the House (I was both surprised and pleased by the number of politicians I recognised). Good deals, bad deals, no deals… Brexit may mean Brexit, but what does Brexit mean?  It was an interesting to get to see parliament in action, but I think I’ll stick with my day job!

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