Why does civil unrest spread between cities?

By Prof John Drury

Protests and riots that began in Minneapolis after police killed an unarmed African American have now spread to over 23 states. I recently led a large-scale programme of research on the wave of riots in England in 2011 to address the question of how such events spread. The UK and US waves were different in important ways – most obviously, in the US many of the collective events have been peaceful protests, whereas in England only the initial protest was peaceful. Yet there are some striking similarities between them, as well as with other waves of riots. This similarity suggests that some of the same processes are operating.

London Black Lives Matter peaceful protest in June 2020
Black Lives Matter peaceful protest on 3.6.20 end of March from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square by Katie Crampton (WMUK) / CC BY-SA

It’s necessary to begin by examining the meaning of the precipitating incident and the social categories involved. What did ‘they’ do, and who are ‘we’?

In Minneapolis 2020, as in Tottenham in 2011 (and as in Watts 1965, Brixton 1981 and many others), actions by police officers against an individual encapsulated the whole relationship between a wider group and an institution. In each case, the violence inflicted was seen as embodying the history of relations between police and Black / African-American people, where police harassment, assault, and collective humiliation were a daily experience.

Our research found that a local history of police harassment was key predictor of which districts rioted in London in 2011. Other predictors were local deprivation and negative attitudes to the police. Research in the US has found that race is another predictor of where riots occur. These factors correlate, of course: African-Americans are more likely to live in deprived districts and to be subject to police harassment and killing.

But these factors are relatively constant. They help explain which cities riot, but they don’t tell us when and how protest or rioting in one city influences people in other cities to join a wave.

We found three types of social-psychological processes that helped explain how a wave occurs.

First, there is spread via a shared identity with those in other cities. This is where people in different locations each define themselves in terms of a similar shared history of injustice at racist policing and resistance to that injustice. Our interviewees said of the police killing of Mark Duggan in 2011, ‘that could have been me’ and ‘that could have been my friends’. This shared identity with those rioting in response to the killing provided a normative motivation to do the same in their own district: the police needed to be shown that they cannot get away with murder. In the case of the George Floyd events, African American identity, defined in terms of a history of police violence, is clearly a key factor leading people in many cities to feel the same sense of injustice and anger as those in Minneapolis. For these people, and for others who feel solidarity with African Americans, action to express that sense of injustice – including punishing the police – is an enactment of common identity.

Second, there is a process that social movement researchers call capacity to mobilize and protest researchers call collective efficacy. In our research, we use the term empowerment. This captures the experience of one’s social relations becoming transformed as power shifts from the police to the crowd. In the English riots, some participants didn’t necessarily identify with the original rioters. But they could see that a common outgroup — the police – were becoming weakened. This empowered them to participate in their own area, including going beyond the initial issue to enact long-standing grievances and desires.

People’s perceptions of the identity and empowerment of others was crucial. They came onto the streets when they not only identified with the other location or were empowered by police weakness but also believed that others locally felt the same way. This in turn was the basis of expectations of support for ingroup normative actions – in this case against the police and some properties.

The third process that helps explain riot spread concerns police perceptions. We found that previous rioting led to a heightened level of organizational vigilance in the police. This state of expectancy can lead to pre-emptive forms of police intervention — such as violent dispersal of a non-violent crowd. Where people in the crowd experience these police actions as illegitimate and indiscriminate, there are significant unintended consequences. Such actions by police serve to unite the crowd – both those who did not originally intend to fight and those who did — around a new norm of fighting back against the police.

Some of the coverage of the current wave of US riots has tried to suggest that powerful agitators are involved, with the implication that the crowd is easily swayed. Like the ‘contagion’ metaphor that is so frequently employed in these contexts, it suggests an unthinking crowd and therefore detracts from the meaningfulness of crowd action. Notions of mindless influence do not explain who joins in (and who doesn’t). Nor do they explain the widespread selectivity of targets. Such notions also let the authorities off the hook. As our research has shown, and the events across the US illustrate, the spread of riots is a complex social phenomenon grounded in collective definitions of identity, injustice, and changing power relations between groups.

John Drury is professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex. The Beyond Contagion project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and carried out by John Drury, Roger Ball, Clifford Stott, Stephen Reicher and Fergus Neville

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Gardening for Wildlife

As part of our Green Commitment and to celebrate Gardening for Wildlife Week, we asked our School Administrator, Fran Barnard, to tell us about her wildlife garden and how she looks after it. Fran is a trained ecologist and in the past she has also led some of our student nature walks around the South Downs.

I am an accidental gardener.  I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision to become a gardener but gradually over the years my garden has become more and more an integral part of my being.  I have amassed a wealth of knowledge[1] and a vast array of plant favourites.  I have also undergone a transformation in the way I garden and to coincide with Garden & Wildlife week I’ve been asked to share some of the ways that I encourage wildlife in my garden.  As well as writing this blog, I (and others) will share some garden wildlife pictures on the School of Psychology Instagram account so do look out for these over the coming week.

But first, a bit of context….

When I first started gardening, about 35 years ago, it seemed that most gardeners viewed wildlife as an enemy, a threat to everything they aspired to achieve: beautiful manicured lawns; ordered displays of bedding plants and old roses; riotously colourful herbaceous borders and plentiful crops of fruit and vegetables.  Even now there are some who persist with the old ways but thankfully times and most gardeners have moved on.  I was always uneasy about the way pesticides and herbicides were used in gardens – at University I studied Ecology which raised my awareness of the impact of chemicals on the environment.  As a result, when I started gardening, I tried not to use too many chemicals.  I still viewed wildlife as unwelcome in a garden setting though, just preferring to use less noxious[2] deterrents. 

Just as I don’t recall ever deciding to become a gardener, I also don’t recall ever deciding to actively garden for wildlife.  It just happened, organically[3] and today my garden is genuinely a haven to which I welcome all wildlife from slugs to silver-washed fritillaries and from snakes to the sinuous and snake-like cinquefoil that is ubiquitous[4].  This richness of life is supported by a richness of different environments and over the next few months in a series of blogs I thought I would share with you a little of the joy that these bring to me.  I will start with my favourite – the compost heap.

“Compost?” I hear you say.  I appreciate that this may not be everyone’s starting point but to me, my composting system is a thing of beauty.  It took me about 8 years to establish a balanced and sustainable process, in part because of the challenge of becoming custodian of three mature oaks trees and having to learn by trial and error how to compost oak leaves, but now that it is established, each year it produces a wonderful supply of dark, rich and crumbly organic compost which gets used in planters and as a top dressing to improve soil quality in our flower and fruit beds. 

For me, the beginning and end of the cycle is the annual turning of the composts in September which is something akin to the burning of the clocks[5] or a harvest festival.  Truly a celebration, albeit one that involves a significant amount of work.  There are six separate sections to my composting system and each year, each section is turned into the next.  At one end of the system I collect leaves from the oak trees which get composted for three years. At the other end I collect green garden waste which is composted for two years.  Finally, the 3-year old leaf litter and 2-year old green garden waste compost is sieved, by hand and mixed together in the central section ready for use.   It is seriously hard work but incredibly worthwhile and fulfilling.

One of Fran’s cats checking the composting boxes are correctly packed

Whilst composting is in progress a haven is created for lots of different wildlife.  From the creatures small (and not so small) that make the composting process happen to other creatures who make it their home.  We have had wasps nesting, mice, shrews and voles and one year I found some already hatched grass snake eggs in one of the older sections.  Imagine my joy and surprise when I found the adult with one baby in the next section I turned.  Although I haven’t seen evidence of nesting since, I do see grass snakes once or twice a year in the garden which I think is really good evidence of just what a wildlife-friendly garden it is.  As the photos show the freshly sieved compost also proves popular with some of the more domesticated wildlife that shares my life.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief insight into one of my passions.  Next time around, my second favourite – the wildlife pond which I created (with just a little help from a professional landscaper with a mini digger) from nothing.

Watch this space….


If you want to get more inspiration for your own wildlife garden, check our Instagram account where Fran will be sharing some tips all week.


  • [1] In the grand scheme of things my ‘wealth’ of knowledge is a tiny fraction of what there is to know
  • [2] The collection of very old garden chemicals awaiting disposal in my garage suggests that I may actually be rewriting history a little here.
  • [3] Excuse the pun
  • [4] Reminder to self – there is no such thing as a weed.  Only a valuable plant growing somewhere you didn’t plan to have it.
  • [5] Festival in Brighton celebrating the shortest day
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Be kind to your mind

By Pattie Gonsalves

“Be kind to your mind and your body, especially during these times.” This is one of the encouraging things my yoga teacher says every evening via our Zoom class. While there is a small part of me that feels reassured hearing these words repeated often, it is also with feelings of guilt and heaviness that I cannot shake.

New Delhi during COVID-19 lockdown

I arrived back to New Delhi in mid-March, after spending six weeks in Sussex where I am currently a distance PhD student. That was one week before the nation-wide lockdown was introduced in India, and one day before the international borders were closed (which I did not know when I changed my ticket to arrive back to India a few days earlier than planned!). It was a 40-hour journey instead of the usual 8-9 hours, with a long unexpected delay mid-way.  I waited and slept in the airport wait areas, washed my hands obsessively every time I touched anything, worried constantly about the surface of the coffee table where I was working, and paced endlessly up and down the corridors of the eerily empty airport that is usually bustling with people and activity. I made it back to life in New Delhi that was “normal” for just a few days, as normal as self-quarantining can be I guess, until the national curfews were announced and normal life as I knew it changed.

Much like the rest of the world, India too has witnessed unprecedented and extraordinary times in the last three months. The situation has exposed, both, our individual struggle to cope and find resilience, and our shared struggle against what feels like an insurmountable set of structural inequalities and injustices. In India the COVID-19 situation has had a disproportionately adverse effect especially on those who are poor and vulnerable, in other words, a vast majority of Indians. The situation most Indians found themselves in overnight was unthinkable. So many were, and still are, separated from families, young children, elderly parents and loved ones who are in different states of the country. Even international media has been flooded with stories of thousands of Indian migrant workers walking, sometimes, hundreds of miles, to get home, with many dying or injured along the way, traveling with no food or provisions. Many have lost their entire income overnight and have no social security or welfare schemes to rely on, and will be plunged into destitution, if they are not already, as a result of the lockdown. India’s situation is a glaring example of a country where hasty policy decisions because of the potential health crisis have had unprecedented and potentially irreversible effects on the economic and social sectors. The last three months in India have been characterized by stress, anxiety and fear over the virus itself, the uncertainty of food security, recommencement of one’s employment or business, ability to access health care if you are sick, or access to travel back home to your family. Many have said, accurately, that poverty and starvation will kill countless more Indians long before any virus will.

Rajiv (name changed), a construction worker who migrated to Delhi for work, lives just next door to me in a house that is semi-demolished, without a proper roof and with limited electricity. He is there alone and does not have a phone and cannot read or write. He is making do with the erratic food distribution provided by the state government, and through food support I and other neighbours provide. The lockdown prevented him and many others in his predicament from even leaving the buildings they were in; with no clear understanding for the past three months about when his job will recommence. Rajiv, however, considers himself lucky as he has a roof and access to some food.

This has been a time where I have been forced to introspect, and reflect on the situation of both,  what is happening in my mind, and also especially what is happening around me, situations I cannot fully comprehend or make sense of. When thinking about the plight of millions in my city and country, Rajiv next door, and my own worries or anxieties during this time, I think that the very least we can do as a community is try to exercise empathy and compassion towards each of these situations and people. We must extend a helping hand and listening ear to others wherever we can, but also, pause for a moment to reflect on the impacts that the situation unfolding around us has on our wellbeing too.

Pattie Gonsalves is doing a PhD under the supervision of Dr Daniel Michelson. She is also a Project Director at Sangath (India) with the PRIDE research programme, and leads It’s Ok To Talk, a national anti-stigma campaign for young people’s mental health in India.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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Looking Back: The Role of the General Election in Satisfaction with UK Response to COVID-19

By Carina Hoerst

Recently, a group of people with controversial stances protested against lockdown restrictions in the US – a particularly concerning move since the protest action was carried out against the ban of public assembly and could increase the infection rate of COVID-19. More Republicans agree that Donald Trump was doing an ‘excellent job’ about the ongoing crisis compared to only 13% of Democrat voters. Recent polls revealed that in the US, such partisan effects might be connected to perceiving a low threat of COVID-19. Similarly, 27% more Democrats than Republican voters adhered to social distancing. This is in line with mid-March survey results, showing that 68% of Democrats voters were concerned about COVID-19, compared to only 35% of Republican voters.

In the UK, public compliance with safety measures is high, the handling of the situation different. Can we nonetheless find similar partisan effects as seen in the US?

Although the first COVID-19 cases in the UK occurred quite early in the year, the UK government reacted relatively late with implementing strict measures to tackle the spread of the virus. While other European countries had already started to act, the UK might have been ‘too busy with Brexit’ preparations and celebrations to shift its attention to COVID-19. The official statement that would align the country with others and apply stronger measures was only announced on the 23rd of March.

A national survey (Hope Not Hate) revealed that while a third of the people did not seem to have faith in how the government dealt with the situation, 74% of those that supported the Conservative Party in the UK General Election 2019 were positive about how the government handled the situation. Interestingly, so were 29% of Labour voters. According to YouGov, 55% of the respondents also seemed to be supportive of PM Boris Johnson.

In a survey of 200 participants I conducted on 26th March 2020 investigating attitudes and beliefs in light of the UK General Election 2019, I found similar results: Conservative Party supporters were significantly more satisfied[1] with the UK government’s response to COVID-19, with 77% of Conservative Party and 38% of Labour Party supporters being slightly to highly satisfied. Besides this, participants’ identification as ‘British’ was a significant factor in explaining the satisfaction with the government’s response (see table 1, Model 1).

However, party loyalty as an explanation might only be half of the story; when I additionally included collective psychological empowerment (measured as group efficacy and the experience of joy at success) as a predictor, I found that, first, identifying as ‘British’ remained a significant factor, but also that, second, party support did not seem to play a significant role anymore. Instead, the empowerment measures turned out to be significant key predictors of satisfaction with the UK government’s response to COVID-19 (see table 1, Model 2). This seems to be in line with a recent US study that found that party support alone only had an indirect influence on the lack of COVID-19 threat perception, but that instead underlying political beliefs connected this relationship with mistrust towards the government being the only belief without this effect. Instead, the authors suggest that it was more important ‘how [participants] feel about governmental policy choices’.

Now, the outbreak of COVID-19 affects everybody’s life and research has shown that during disasters, people can perceive a sense of common fate. This might make people also more aware of the superordinate in-group  (‘the British’) and explain why in-group identification turned out to be a key factor for satisfaction and why a third of the Labour voters expressed their approval for the Conservative government.

But how can the empowerment effect, assessed in light of the general election, be explained concerning the current situation?

The Conservative Party was not only supported by longstanding designated voters, but also by people that were attracted by its controversial manifesto to leave the EU for good. After the party won the election with an overwhelming majority, we would assume that Conservative voters expected nationwide support for their views and believed that change (‘get Brexit done’) was now possible. In this way, Conservative voters saw their values realized against opponent views and parties. The latter were defeated, which, in turn, can lead to the experience of disempowerment amongst its voters. My study results reflect this: Conservative voters expressed significantly more joy at success and group efficacy compared to Labour voters.

Interestingly, these empowerment effects were established over three months after the election took place. Previous research found that the endurance of empowerment depends on a stable realization and maintenance of the aspired change in social relations. The electoral win strengthened the Conservative Party to unobstructedly enact these changes since, – ‘come what may’.

Let’s summarise: Identification with the Conservative Party might still be present but superseded by the perception that change is possible and by the experience of positivity amongst its voters, and this effect was enduring. This might explain why satisfaction with the government’s response to COVID-19 in March 2020 was accounted for by collective empowerment, over party support. Thus, the discussion around public approval based on partisan effects might only need to be extended by the social-psychological effects of (enduring) collective empowerment. We live in rapidly changing times though, and the UK government has recently come under increased criticism for its delayed reaction, missed meetings and deadlines, as well as for clinging on the EU exit, even at the expense of public health. Therefore, one might see whether satisfaction with its handling remains and if empowerment effects are unconditionally robust to changes over time.


[1] This was based on one question asking participants how satisfied they were with the UK government’s response to COVID-19. However, the question was not further specified so that we cannot say whether participants were satisfied with the pace of the government’s action or the lockdown regulations implemented three days before.

Carina Hoerst is a PhD student in Social Psychology under the supervision of Prof John Drury. She is part of the Crowds and Identities Group.

Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.

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Psychology Go Green Week 2020

Here, in the School of Psychology, we’re working to become more sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint. Since our Green Impact Team was created in Autumn 2019, we have managed to introduce several changes to tackle sustainability:

The lockdown has prevented us from organising the activities that we had in mind for Go Green Week (27 April – 1 May), but there are lots of things that you can do at home to become more sustainable:

Switch off unnecessary items

Reduce your electricity consumption by switching off any gadgets that you are not using: computers, mobile chargers, your laptop docking station, and even the TV. According Prof David Mackay (Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, 2009-2014), “standby power consumption accounts for roughly 8% of residential electricity demand”. His book, ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’, with its easy-to-read explanations of how we use energy and what needs to happen to make a UK-wide switch from fossil fuels, is available for free on his website.

And don’t forget to turn the light off if you are not in a room!

Plant a tree

If you are lucky enough to be in a house with a garden, you can think about adding a tree to your green area. The Woodland Trust offers advice on planting trees on their website.

Unfortunately, most of us are stuck in flats during this quarantine and I, personally, already have difficulty keeping my cacti alive, nevermind a tree! An easy way to help increase the planet’s tree population is making Ecosia your default search bar. Ecosia donates more than 80% of its ad revenue to non-profits organisations that focus on reforestation, and at the time I’m writing this they’ve already planted more than 91 million trees all over the world. It also has a mobile version.

Take up cycling

Cycling is always a great form of exercise, but especially now. Cycling UK offers helpful and up-to-date advice on cycling during the Coronavirus outbreak.

If you don’t own a bike, Brighton’s bike hire scheme, BTN BikeShare, is still available and their operations team is regularly disinfecting all contact points on the bikes. Just make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before and after using the bikes, and please keep at a safe 2 metres distance from other people. For more information read their guidelines on how to use the bike service during the Coronavirus crisis on their FAQs section.

Check Canvas

We have collated a series of fun green activities on Canvas for our students and staff to do while they are at home. We hope you enjoy them!

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How can sustainable behaviours be encouraged?

By Alaa Aldoh

Climate change is a pressing global issue with devastating effects on human life, animals, and the environment. On average, every year in the last 5 years has been the warmest year on record as a result of global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions have also driven other changes to the climate such as concentrated rain periods, droughts, and even colder weather than usual.

Despite overwhelming consensus among scientists about the reality of anthropogenic climate change (i.e., change arising from human activity), citizens and politicians remain reluctant to take the action needed to address it (Fielding, Hornsey, & Swim, 2014). My research has been focused on sustainable eating behaviours which be used as a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock alone contributes to 14.5% of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, which is equivalent to emissions caused by transportation including all cars, trucks, planes, and ships on the planet combined (Gerber et al., 2013). Research has shown that switching to eco-friendly eating decisions such as opting for chicken, fish, or vegetables rather than red meat, could reduce the costs of climate change mitigation by as much as 50% by 2050 (de Boer, de Witt, & Aiking, 2016). The challenge lies in the ability to inform and persuade individuals to make more sustainable eating choices. Climate change, like other social problems, is complex and multifaceted. However, nearly every problem involves psychology.

There is a growing body of psychological research exploring ways to increase engagement in sustainable eating behaviours. One such way to address this issue utilizes social norms. Social norms have been successfully used as an effective tool for behaviour change when the behaviour in question is performed by a majority. However, when communicating an undesired behaviour performed by the majority, this often backfires, and actually increases individuals’ engagement in unwanted behaviour. So, what can we do when the majority of one’s group is actually performing the undesired behaviour?

In the past few years, two groups of researchers at separate universities explored ways in which presenting information about minority norms can positively affect people’s sustainable behaviours  (Mortensen et al., 2019; Sparkman & Walton, 2017). They found that conveying information about how the minority norm is changing has the potential to influence people and increase their engagement in desired behaviours only performed by the minority. They referred to these changing norms as dynamic/trending norms (examples from Mortensen et al., 2019):

Minority norm only

Research from (previous year) has found that 48% of (University name) students engage in one or more of the following water conservation behaviours:

  • Turning off the water while soaping their hands during hand-washing
  • Using low-flow shower heads
  • Watering lawns and plants in the early morning or evening.

Trending minority norm

Research from (previous year) has found that 48% of (University name) students engage in one or more of the following water conservation behaviours:

  • Turning off the water while soaping their hands during hand-washing
  • Using low-flow shower heads
  • Watering lawns and plants in the early morning or evening.

This has increased from 37% in (2 years previous).

Mortensen et al., (2019) found that when they presented a trending minority norm about water conservation behaviours, participants were much more likely to conserve water themselves in a subsequent task than participants who were presented a minority norm only.

Mortensen et at. (2019)

Sparkman and Walton’s (2017) findings mirrored those findings in the domain of meat consumption. They ran a series of studies exploring the effects of portraying a “dynamic” minority norm (i.e. one that is changing) compared to a static minority norm (i.e. one that is fixed). Their results showed a consistent pattern where participants reading information about how the norm is changing reported higher interest in reducing their own meat consumption.

Sparkman and Walton (2017)

Both groups of researchers paved the way for a very interesting line of research looking at how positive minority behaviours can be encouraged and can be used as a lever to promote sustainable behaviours and fight climate change. As exciting as this sounds, there are many questions yet to be answered! What are the best ways to phrase normative information? What scalable norm interventions can be used to promote sustainable behaviours? What are the conditions of the effectiveness of dynamic/trending norms? Do dynamic/trending norms have a similar pattern of effects across different cultures? I have set out to answer some of these questions, and others to understand how conveying normative information about people’s sustainable behaviours can change others.

Be part of the change for a healthier Earth and Happy Earth Day!

For more info about diet and climate change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUnJQWO4YJY

Alaa Aldoh is a PhD student under the supervision of Dr Paul Sparks in the Social Psychology group. Her research studies how social psychology can influence people’s sustainable behaviours.

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Can Culture Beat the Coronavirus?

By Rotem Perach

How can we beat the coronavirus? It seems that culture is already developing its own prescriptions, specifically, against the psychological effects of the coronavirus outbreak. In recent fashion week catwalks in New York and Paris, designers re-imagined face masks as a fashionable, rather than solely contamination-protective, accessory. While some may question the point of wearing stylistic face masks, the increasing popularity of this cultural trend suggests that fundamental psychological motives are at play.

Fashion has the capacity to transform the meaning of cultural phenomena. For example, in the 1990s, fashion created heroin chic, which turned the cultural meanings of deadly drug use on its head. This fashion trend conceptualized drug use as beautiful rather than a fatal addiction. It seems that designer face masks transform the cultural meanings of face masks in a similar way.

Face masks, such as those used in hospitals, suggest an attempt to prevent disease and possibly death. Since the coronavirus outbreak, face masks are likely associated with the deadly outcomes of coronavirus exposure. However, by re-imagining face masks as a fashion item, fashion has linked the masks with key cultural values such as beauty, aesthetics, and consumerism. People recognise these newly-ascribed cultural meanings that are attached to designer face masks, as seen for example in the incorporation of designer face masks into streetwear and their increased market value.

Which psychological motives could designer face masks serve? One possibility is that designer face masks offer people a way to defy death, not in a literal sense, but a symbolic one. Objects that are culturally-valued, for example the national flag, can influence the way we manage the awareness that, just like everyone else, we too will die. This is because culture is enduring and will outlive the existence of any one of us. In other words, culturally-valued objects can function to affirm people’s their sense of belonging to a long-lasting culture, when they are made aware of their finite nature.

Designer face masks, then, can be seen as one way that people manage the existential threat that is the coronavirus. Because fashion has now linked face masks with key cultural values, designer face masks offer people one avenue for affirming their existence beyond the geographic spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, designers’ face masks are often part and parcel of futuristic, post-human imagery, which holds the promise of belonging to a post-coronavirus future. Thus, designer face masks may represent the possibility of (symbolically) transcending space and time in the face of potential coronavirus exposure and contagion. Simply put, designer face masks possibly offer people immortality (in a symbolic sense) in the current coronavirus outbreak.

Considering these potential psychological effects, designer face masks may not be just another luxury item. Wheareas they may not effectively prevent coronavirus contagion, designer face masks could potentially buffer anxiety in the face of the coronavirus.

Dr Rotem Perach is social and health psychology researcher. His areas of expertise include older persons, health behaviours, sleep, and wellbeing. He is currently a research fellow, working as part of the DETERMIND team at the University of Sussex.

Posted in Research staff

Are your clients being defensive? If so, self-affirmation may help.

by Prof Pete Harris and Ian Hadden, from the Self-Affirmation Research Group.

Have you ever been reluctant to face up to something you’d rather ignore? Maybe your fondness for something bad for you that you eat too often or your tendency to avoid health check-ups? Well, you’re not alone. Most of us think we are generally quite sensible and competent people. So, being told that something we do is not really sensible or competent can be quite challenging. As a result, we can be pretty skilled at resisting messages we’d prefer not to hear.

Unfortunately, resisting messages about risks to our health – such as the effects of being overweight or of smoking or of not adhering to a medication regimen – can have serious consequences for both quality and length of life. So, how can you as a health practitioner help clients take on board health messages that they’d prefer to ignore? A technique known as self-affirmation might help.

A self-affirmation is an act that helps someone reassure themselves that they are a good and competent person. This reduces their need to protect themselves from a health message that implies they are not, which helps them to treat the message more objectively and to focus on its relevance and implications for them personally. This, in turn, may encourage them to take steps to address it. You find out more about the theory underlying self-affirmation here.

Almost anything qualifies as a self-affirmation, including reminders of one’s good deeds, special talents, character strengths, or important social relationships. Currently the most-researched technique for inducing self-affirmation is a values affirmation in which people answer questions or write about their most important values, such as being generous or honest.

The evidence that self-affirmation can work comes from experimental studies. Participants who have been prompted to self-affirm (often on only one occasion) tend to believe health messages more and feel readier to change compared to those who have not. Self-affirmations have also resulted in changes in behaviour several months later. Benefits of self-affirmation have been found for a wide range of health behaviours including alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, unsafe sex, the consumption of mercury in oily fish, doping in sport, fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity, dental flossing, and sun protection. Some studies have found that the effects can even be strongest among those who are hardest to engage, such as people who drink or smoke most or are keen to tan.

Work has mainly been prevention research in young, non-patient samples, but there have been some studies with patient groups too. For example, haemodialysis patients who were asked to recall past acts of kindness showed improved phosphate control and greater adherence to fluid intake guidance over the following 12 months than those who were not. Hypertensive African American patients showed improved medication adherence after receiving an intervention that included a self-affirmation component.

So how might you use self-affirmation in practice? Let’s consider a consultation in which you want to deliver a health message that might challenge your client e.g., about the harmful effects of their smoking or of not taking their medication as prescribed. If you have 5-15 minutes available and literacy is not an issue, you could try a simple values affirmation exercise at the start of the consultation. You could ask your client to write or talk privately about their most important value and why it is important to them, or to complete some scales designed to remind them of their values. Once they have done this, you could then deliver the health message about the risks of smoking or non-adherence.

If time or literacy are issues, a brief kindness questionnaire has been widely used to induce self-affirmation. Some other brief techniques have also been recently developed. These include attempts to reduce the values affirmation to a few key sentences, to use value questionnaires , to integrate the affirmation with the message, or to help people form the intention to self-affirm when threatened. However, at best these have been used in only a few studies so far and we know little about how well they work.

You can find some of these manipulations on the resources page of our Self-Affirmation Research Group (SARG) Website at the University of Sussex. (They are in English.) We are happy to advise on these and or other self-affirmation techniques you might be considering.

Points for practice

1) When should I consider using self-affirmation?

Consider using self-affirmation when you need to give a client an important message about their health that you think they might be inclined to ignore or reject. In these cases, self-affirmation may increase the likelihood that they will accept the message and take appropriate action.

2) How can I best use self-affirmation in practice?

It may be best to use self-affirmation when working one-to-one or in small groups and with time at your disposal. In these cases, you could precede delivery of a health message by one of the values affirmation methods that have been tried and tested before. See the resources page on the SARG website for examples in English of materials that you could use.

Discuss with your client whether they’d prefer to do the affirmation privately or with you present. Try to encourage them to choose to do the self-affirmation exercise rather than requiring them to do it. There is some evidence that freedom to choose may be important in helping the intervention to work.

3) What should I be cautious of?

Make sure your health message is persuasive. Self-affirmation should encourage your clients to be more open-minded, which means they are more likely to accept a strong message, but may also be more likely to reject a weak message.

Use self-affirmation with those clients you are confident will otherwise resist your message. There is some evidence that self-affirmation may not work or even be counterproductive if participants are not being defensive in the first place.

If in doubt, seek advice – we are here to help.

Pete Harris is a social and health psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex. Ian Hadden is a doctoral student researching how social psychological interventions can increase engagement with school and increase academic performance. They are both members of the Self-Affirmation Research Group (SARG). This post was originally published on Practical Health Psychology.

Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.

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New term, new you

By Susie Ballentyne

Over half of us make a new year’s resolution to change something about our behaviour, yet very few of us stick to our intentions. So why, with all the right sign-posting to a new decade, the fresh start, and a multitude of apps promising to help keep us on track, is it so unlikely to happen?

Over the past three years, as part of my doctoral research, I’ve been looking at the impact of social identity on change. Working with refugees for whom change is non-negotiable, it’s apparent just how much we overlook the importance of social identity when trying to get to grips with change. For those forced to migrate, much of their everyday wellbeing depends on how they manage their old identities and acquire new ones. Resilience during times of change isn’t just a matter of ‘strength of character’ but how, through the loss of old relationships and discovery of new ones, refugees can maintain a steady and familiar sense of self that enables them to cope with everyday life. 

Part of the reason why social identity has been somewhat overlooked is because, both as individuals and as a culture, we look almost exclusively at ourselves from within, either in terms of changing some overplayed personality trait (‘…this year I’m going to rein in my temper and be kinder to my colleagues’) or some character weakness we must discipline (‘…no more weekday drinking, and I’ll cut out sugar while I’m at it.’). The intention may be good, but the change is often only approached from the inside, out. But what if we start from the outside, and work in? What if we begin to look at what’s going on in the world around us, identify what influences us and then identify what we might begin to change. Here’s where social identity can help you make that change so it sticks.

Research shows us that social identity is where behaviour change happens. But what does that mean? If we start writing a list that begins: “who am I?” we quickly begin to see just how much of who we are relates to how we categorise ourselves with other people, such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, education, profession, skills, parenting roles, sporting preferences. We define ourselves in this way throughout the day, moving between different categories as we go about our daily life: parent, partner, commuter, team-member, café-customer, friend, volunteer. Each of these categories come with their own socially-constructed ‘guidebooks’, if you like, that give us some extremely important reference points: what makes us different from others; what to expect from ourselves and other people who are like us; what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable. Without these we wouldn’t have a clue about how to make sense of things around us or how to behave as we move through our day. Our social identities gives us the handholds that we grasp for direction and reassurance as we navigate everyday life.

So what happens when we want to change something? What do we do when we mentally commit to being a better environmentalist / more effective leader / new business owner / more capable parent? We tend to lose ground the moment we focus overly on “I”. We’d be much better to start by thinking about “us”. We should start by asking ourselves: “what are people like ‘us’, like?” The ‘us’ can be anything: ‘eco-minded citizen’; ‘politically engaged community member’; ‘calm parent’; ‘team leader’. As we list the characteristics of the groups we belong to, we begin to see the ‘guidebook’ that shapes our behaviour. Some maybe very positive (‘people like us [leaders] are visionary, good communicators, empathetic’), or less so (people like us [leaders] are dogmatic, ego-centric, brash).

So, when we want to think about changing how we work, or manage our relationships, these social identities ‘guidebooks’ are a good place to begin. Look through the list you’ve generated about ‘people like us’ and then you can draw a line from these to your own behaviours. Ask yourself: do I do these things? Does it help me achieve what I want when I’m in this role? Are there things here I can aspire towards? It’s also worth asking yourself whether membership of other groups, different identities, inhibits you from achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself elsewhere in your life.

By looking at change from this angle, the outside in, we can see just how much of what we think and do is directed by the identities that we conform to. When we stop looking for individual faults and differences and see how each and every day we live in an incredible web of social influence that directs our footsteps, we find we have a road map for making change happen. With this perspective we soon recognise a world full of social identities, each with their own guidebooks that we both help write and take direction from.  And as we act, so we either reinforce this guidance, or begin to shift it. So, this new term, if you’re not happy with something, start with social identity, for a change.

Susie Ballentyne is a doctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Sussex. As a social psychologist, she consults on identity for Making Change Happen and is a co-Director of Leading 4 Life. Through her research, Susie is also developing and practicing a new approach to psychological coaching based on social Identity change: Identity Based Coaching (IBC).

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We love veggies!

It is increasingly recognised that meat-based diets have a substantial environmental impact: from deforestation for grazing land, to methane produced by livestock, to increased water requirements. All of this adds up to a very significant carbon footprint, with UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports stating that we need to make huge reductions in meat-eating to avoid dangerous climate change.
As a result, switching to a plant-based diet is now seen as one vital strategy in combating climate change and environmental degradation.
One recent study in Nature found that a global shift to a “flexitarian” diet is needed, with the average UK citizen eating 90% less red meat, and five times as many beans and pulses, as we do currently.

A couple of months ago we asked School members whether they would support a switch to providing only plant-based (vegetarian and vegan) food by default at catered School events. The results were overwhelmingly in favour: 92% said Yes, 4% maybe, and just 4% no. As a result, we introduced a new School Sustainable Catering Policy, which will significantly reduce the environmental impact of our catered events. In a nutshell, this policy means that any food provided at School events will be 100% plant-based.

We also asked whether vegan options should always be provided alongside vegetarian. There was clear support for this: 92% said yes, 8% maybe, and 0% no. A number of vegan colleagues commented that there is often not enough food for them, because non-vegans also enjoy eating the vegan options. Therefore, we also recommended that a minimum of 30% of our food orders were vegan.

Whether you are halfway through Veganuary or you just want to eat more plant-based food at home, check MeatFreeMondays for recipes and other flexitarian ideas! 

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