Sussex Psychology in the Media: April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Psychology in the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sussex Psychology in the Media: March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Psychology in the Media

Desserts of the World

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

Our Head of School serving up his Sticky Toffee Pudding

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

Members of the Student Experience team serving up the desserts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breaking down the psychological barriers to success at school

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

by Ian Hadden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in PhD research

Ingenious Report: Autumn 2018

It has been a busy term for the Ingenious Bar. Our team have spent 40 hours in the recently refurbished School Office talking to students and staff alike, and we can confirm that the new armchairs are very comfy! Since the Ingenious Bar started last academic year, we have been based in the Psychology student space in Pevensey 1 1A1 and in a private office in the 2B corridor, but we hope the School Office (Pevensey 1, 2A13) will be our definitive home: it’s easier to find, it has a smaller room for confidential conversations, and the team can consult professional services colleagues for any matter that required their expertise. Not to mention the endless provision of psychology rock sweets!

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Posted in Student Experience

Junior Research Associate in the ChatLab

By Madeleine Weaver

 

This summer I took part in the Junior Research Associates (JRA) scheme in the Children and Technology Lab (Chatlab) http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab/ with Professor Nicola Yuill. The JRA scheme is an 8 week programme designed for students who are considering post graduate study.

Amongst other things, the Chatlab looks into how technology can be used to support children with autism to collaborate.  I wanted to research immersion in technology and how this might be linked to body movement and collaboration in people with autism. This idea came about from my own observations of people with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) being highly immersed in technology, ‘digital bubbles’ http://digitalbubbles.org.uk/; combined with knowledge on embodied cognition I gained from my course at Sussex: Psychology with Cognitive Science. I thought this research could be useful in understanding the impact that highly immersive technologies might have on the embodied aspects of social interaction such as gestures and facial expressions, that are already difficult for people with ASC to understand. 

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Posted in Research, Undergraduate research

Annual Kindness Symposium at Sussex 2018

By Jessica Cotney

Robin 3rd Kindness Conference

Prof Robin Banerjee launching the 3rd Annual Sussex Kindness Symposium

A few weeks ago, the University of Sussex hosted the third annual Sussex Kindness Symposium in order to celebrate World Kindness Day. The event was organised by Prof. Robin Banerjee from the School of Psychology, funded by Kindness UK as part of the Kindness UK Doctoral Conference Award, and featured kindness-related work from across the university and beyond. Following an invited keynote presentation by Dr Oliver Scott Curry from University of Oxford, there was an interactive poster workshop, highlighting a number of research projects from across campus that are working to illuminate, evaluate and/or promote kindness. The symposium also included a panel discussion of how staff and students at the University of Sussex can promote (or are already promoting) kindness on campus. The event was a massive success, attracting staff and students from a wide range of academic disciplines, as well as staff members from professional services and senior leadership teams.

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Posted in Event

The Psychology of Driving

By Dr Graham Hole

My recently-published book,”The Psychology of Everything: Driving” is one in a series of short books by Routledge that show how psychology can provide insights into every aspect of our daily lives. My book deals with a behaviour that can have deadly consequences: worldwide, every year, one and a quarter million people are killed on the roads, and 50 million seriously injured. Driving is the biggest cause of death amongst 15-29 year olds, especially young men.Driving psychology

My main aims with the book were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to show that psychology, as the science of the mind and behaviour, has a vital role to play in reducing road accidents, given that the vast majority are primarily due to human error. Secondly, I wanted to show how research can debunk some of the many myths relating to driving that are based on intuition, “common-sense” or pseudo-science.

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Posted in Faculty research, Research

Exploring Kindness as a JRA

By Alessia Goglio

Being a Psychology undergraduate here at Sussex enabled me to explore different domains of interest in this fascinating subject and to develop my passion for “Positive Psychology”, the field that studies what is good in life.  Among the topic explored in this field, there is kindness: a construct that had been shown to not only improve life satisfaction and well-being but also friendships and relationships.

Kindness is a topic of growing interest in our university and one of the five core values of the Sussex 2025 Strategic Framework. Therefore, when I was given the amazing opportunity to work as a Junior Research Associate during summer 2018, I decided, with the help of my supervisor Professor Robin Banerjee and my mentor Jessica Cotney, to conduct a mixed-methods research investigating this positive construct.

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Posted in Research, Undergraduate research