Meet Professor Nicola Yuill

Prof Nicola Yuill personifies the interdisciplinary spirit that has always been at the core of Sussex. Whether as a student or as a lecturer, she has been part of all the Psychology departments that historically spread across three different Schools at SussexHer current research is the result of this background, with collaborations across diverse disciplines (e.g. Informatics, Linguistics and Education). 

Professor Nicola Yuill

Nicola arrived at Sussex in 1977 to study a BA in Social Psychology with Cognitive Studies in the School of Social Studies (SOCL). Cognitive Science was just starting, and Sussex was a pioneer in offering that kind of course: “[it] was really unusual, you couldn’t do that anywhere else.” The Cognitive Studies programme was what they called a contextual stream: contextual courses were modules that had some specific link to Psychology, they ran the whole year and were related to each other, so they were an integral part of the degree. In addition to her core psychology modules, with a focus on social, Nicola also had to do a stream of Linguistics, Artificial Intelligence and Philosophy. “Four different subject groups working together, which I absolutely loved. It was fantastic!” she explains.  

In addition to social psychologists, there were also developmental psychologists involved. In those days, Developmental Psychology was all about Piaget and his theory on how children learn through action, “[…] and of course, the IA robot people are really interested in that because if you want to build a robot, it has to move around the world, and do and act on the world to develop its intelligence.”  

From that time, Nicola remembers fondly the conferences and seminars that brought some of the biggest names in the discipline to campus: Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Andy Clarke… “Sussex was internationally leading in Cognitive Science,” Nicola says emphatically, “it was THE place to be.” 

When she finished her degree, Nicola wasn’t sure what to do next. Studying for a PhD had not crossed her mind but the Department of Experimental Psychology in BIOLS (School of Biological Studies) had a fully-funded PhD programme, so she applied. Her supervisor was Keith Oatley, who was interested in narratives and emotion (he wrote a book about it later on). 

At the time, there was a very famous animated film by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel of geometrical figures randomly moving around the screen. Keith wanted to know how people would interpret those movements and how they would present them in stories, for example, the big mean triangle chased the little triangle until it ran away. Predating YouTube times, Nicola spent the first six months of her PhD recreating this stop-motion film with a still camera in the rat lab. She cut little triangles and circles and had to take a photo of every frame. She even made three different beginnings to check how they would affect the narrations. “[It] took me months and months, moving these [figures] with the tweezers. I can’t believe I did this!”, Nicola recalls. They then showed the video to Keith’s undergraduate students and asked them to write about what they had seen. The result of this study became Nicola’s first published article: “Perception of Personal and Interpersonal Action in a Cartoon Film.” 

Keith was offered a job in Toronto, and Josef Perner, who had just joined the department, became Nicola’s second and last PhD supervisor. Josef was researching Theory of Mind, so Nicola changed her PhD: “I spent my days wandering around the library and I got interested in the law stuff (…) because basically law is all about criminal responsibility (…) manslaughter vs murder is all based on different assumptions about intentions and beliefs (..) There are lots of distinctions in law that are based on Theory of Mind.” Nicola was still interested in the social development aspect, so she focused her PhD on how children’s understanding of belief and intention influence the social judgements they make about situations. For example, how they would attribute responsibility in cases of accidents when there was no intention. “[It] was really exciting because all those ideas [on Theory of Mind] were being formulated,” says Nicola. 

After a two-year postdoc in Robert Hinde’s Ethology Lab at Cambridge, Nicola returned to Sussex as a lecturer in the School of Cognitive Sciences (COGS), which had been founded just a year earlier. Nicola recalls: “I very much remember by my first day, coming through those lovely arches, and I was so happy. That’s where I want to be!” 

Nicola’s office was on the top floor of Pevensey 3. In a corridor that she shared with colleagues from other disciplines, “one side had the linguists and the other was computer science people; the whole corridor was all mixed up.” She taught Psychology to students that majored in Linguistics, Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence. It came naturally to her as she had also studied those subjects in her undergrad and understood where they were coming from. 

The School had lots of seminar series, and Nicola enjoyed attending the philosophy and robotics ones sometimes. She also ran reading groups (as she does now) and invited people in Experimental and Social Psychology, such as Andy Clarke and Josef Perner, to come and discuss their books with the students. 

Having worked in both Experimental Psychology (as a Research Fellow after her PhD) and COGS, she found that they operated very differently. EP was more formal and traditional (after all, its founder, Stuart Sutherland, had come from Cambridge), whereas COGS was a new School in a relatively new area of research. “COGS was not hierarchical at all,” Nicola summarises.  

In 2003 when all the Psychology groups joined under a single department within the new School of Life Science, Nicola met again with former colleagues and tutors from EP and Social. The merge didn’t affect her research much. She had always collaborated with people in other departments, and that continued to be the case. 

She does miss teaching non-psychology students. “I like teaching people whose major is not in Psychology, and I don’t do that anymore. Well, actually I do,” she admits, “I seem to end up with people who are doing all sort of things on my third-year option.” 

Her PhD students still have co-supervisors in Informatics, Education, and other departments. And she is on supervision bodies for students in other Schools. But, somehow, it doesn’t seem as natural as it did before: “[in COGS] nobody would bat an eyelid if you were supervising on a Masters course that was on a different subject.” 

A unified School of Psychology has also brought benefits. Although some of that inbuilt interdisciplinarity that encouraged faculty to collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines within their Schools (SOCL, BIOLS, COGS) has been lost, we have gained a vibrant and integrated community of psychologists: “I really like working in Psychology. Lots of nice people, you know,” Nicola tells me. And the interdisciplinarity is still there, for example in Sussex Neuroscience, SARIC or Sussex Kindness.

Nicola is hopeful for the future of interdisciplinarity at Sussex, “I’m on the mailing list of the Digital Humanities Lab, and they do all sorts of really nice things, they are very interdisciplinary. So, I guess we’re re-inventing it.” 

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Primary school attendance problems in the context of Covid-19

By Brontë McDonald

School attendance problems during covid-19 in West Sussex, East Sussex, and Brighton and Hove. Research poster by Bronte McDonald.
Brontë’s poster won the first award at the Festival of Doctoral Research in July 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the educational lives of children across the world. In the UK, the government attempted to curb the spread of the virus by closing schools for extended periods to most pupils apart from children of key workers and children identified as vulnerable. When schools have been fully re-opened (amidst periods of lockdowns), average absences rates in school have been more than double previous years with Autumn’s 2020 overall absence rate being at 11.7% (compared to 4.9% in the previous year). Many of these absences (7%) were related to, hopefully temporary, Covid-19 reasons such as self-isolations and closure of ‘school bubbles’. However, other absences could likely be due to longer-term impacts of Covid-19 such as the heightening of school anxiety (Lee, 2020). Further research is still needed to understand the reasoning behind the attendance rates.

My PhD research project, which has been funded by the National Institute Health Research Applied Research Collaboration (NIHR ARC), aims to understand school attendance problems (SAP) in the context of Covid-19 and to develop a new community-based intervention to support families with primary school-aged children in Sussex who are experiencing school attendance problems. We are particularly interested in the primary school period because SAP typically begins to emerge during this time, with children experiencing distress the night before or on the way to school (Heyne, 2019). Although many of these children may still be attending school, without intervention, they are increasingly likely to experience long-term chronic absenteeism in the future (Cook et al., 2011). To mitigate future negative outcomes absenteeism can have on a child’s academic, social and mental health outcomes (Kearney and Graczyk, 2014), it is important to intervene at this point of emerging SAP (Heyne, 2019). However, to date, there has been very little focus on support for primary school-aged children in the U.K., which is when the onset of SAP is most likely to occur (Cook et al., 2017).

An important first step in my research is to explore the contributory factors to SAP and to understand families’ awareness and experiences of existing support. Research has already highlighted that SAPs are associated with interacting and complex family, child and school factors (Melvin et al., 2019). However, this research is yet to explore these risk and protective factors during a pandemic. So, using qualitative surveys and interviews, we have begun collating lived experiences of SAP from children’s parents and educational professionals working with these children, to build a picture and understanding of SAP within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, we aimed to understand the ongoing support that has been provided for these families and to identify what additional support would be beneficial.

We collected 48 online qualitative survey responses. Twenty-nine of these responses were from parents of primary school children experiencing SAP, and nineteen responses were from educational professionals (Headteachers, Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator, Class Teachers, Educational Psychologists and Educational Mental Health Practitioners) who work with primary school children experiencing SAP. We limited our sample to the Sussex area, with a particular focus on sampling from schools and areas with high rates of unauthorized school absences because this is where any future intervention or support that we develop will be piloted initially.

Preliminary findings from these surveys highlighted that emotionally based school avoidance was common. For many of the families who participated, child worry, and anxiety was described as a significant contributor to their child’s SAP. This was particularly the case for children who had previously been vulnerable to experiencing school-related anxiety prior to the pandemic. Parents also frequently mentioned children having heightened anxiety about being separated from them following the periods of school closures and worries about reconnecting with friends and catching up on learning.

Schools were deemed safe to reopen by the UK government in March 2021. However, parents often reported that their child felt uncertain about the safety of schools. This was not reported by the EPs, but they did report that parent’s own anxieties about the safety of returning to school had impacted on children’s anxiety. Furthermore, for schools to reopen safely, they had to adapt their rules and routines, for example, introducing bubble systems, changes to the structure of the school day, enhanced handwashing routines, and restrictions on sharing of classroom resources. Both parents and EPs reported that many children found these changes overwhelming and were anxious about getting them wrong. Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) were disproportionately impacted, with their parents more likely to report that they found it difficult and anxiety-provoking having to adapt to changing school routines and structures.

Furthermore, the surveys highlighted that for children with SEND, the transition back to school following the school closures had been particularly problematic. Parents and EPs explained that many children with SEND preferred learning at home during the period of school closures because the school environment prior to the pandemic had often been stressful and challenging for these children and social situations exhausting. Some parents reported that difficulties in attending school once they reopened were exacerbated because schools were unable to support their child’s SEND and, helpful accommodations that were in place prior to the pandemic were now prohibited or difficult under Covid-19 restrictions.

Parents and EPs shared different strategies that have been helpful in supporting children’s SAP. Generally, this included flexibility and accommodations from schools such as reduced timetables, schools and home collaborating together to support the child’s attendance and children’s wellbeing being a priority, particularly during the transition back to school following school closures. However, the majority of parents reported having little or no support for their child’s SAP and also being unsure where they could access support. As well as more support for their child’s SAP, parents reported that training and understanding of children’s SEND would be helpful and both parents and EPs felt that support for parents themselves in managing their own and their child’s anxieties would also be helpful.

To build on these findings, we have started interviewing parents and EPs with the aim to gain further insights on these themes and also form a more in-depth understanding of how support could be appropriately provided for families in Sussex. This will all contribute to the development of an intervention that will be co-produced with parents and EPs.

If you are interested in being part of this study as a parent of a primary school child who is experiencing school attendance problems or as an educational professional (this could include teachers, headteachers, SENCOs, mental health workers, educational psychologists etc.) who has experience working with children with school attendance problems, please follow the links below or email bm333@sussex.ac.uk.

Brontë McDonald is a PhD student under the supervision of Dr Daniel Michelson and Dr Kathryn J. Lester. Her research on school attendance problems during covid-19 won the first prize at the University of Sussex Festival of Doctoral Research in July 2021.

Find out more about our Developmental and Clinical Psychology research.

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Running cognitive tasks online, for free

By Max Lovell

Note: This is an abridged version of an article that can be found on my personal webspace – see that version for more details, and updates.

Over the pandemic, running cognitive tasks online has become increasingly necessary. This post is a guide and collection of resources on programming languages, experiment hosting sites, and their integration with Qualtrics. If you have any feedback or additions to make you can email me at m.lovell@sussex.ac.uk.

Programming Languages

I’m aware of two main options: Python and Javascript (I won’t go into MATLAB here). JavaScript is the language most browsers use to do many of the more interesting things in websites, and sits between the more standard HTML. Python is an easy entry point for coding but isn’t supported by browsers, so if you want to upload an experiment online you must use the visual/graphical Builder view of the PsychoPy program so that it can be more easily translated into JavaScript with the help of their PsychoJS library and uploaded to their hosting service Pavlovia. Note that the builder view of PsychoPy is somewhat limited, and didn’t have the capability to create the task I needed.

So, if you want the ability to create any experiment you like, and run it for free online, you’ll need to go with JavaScript. The added benefit of learning this is that this functions as a more complete introduction to not just coding but web development as well. Similar to PsychoPy/JS, there is a free library of JavaScript tools for creating psychological experiments and surveys called jsPsych. The jsPsych website has great introductory tutorials for both JavaScript and jsPsych.

The only thing some of the tutorials above are missing is that you need an ‘Integrated Development Environment’ to type your code into, such as Sublime.

Experiment Hosting Sites

Once your study is up and running on your own computer, the easiest option to get it up online is using an experiment hosting site – all of which can be integrated with a Qualtrics survey if you need to use that to manage participants in a longitudinal study. Cognition.run is free and easy to use – just create a new task and upload your javascript to the source code section! It doesn’t accept HTML, so your CSS will need to be in a separate file. Pavlovia is run by the University of Nottingham staff who created PsychoPy and can be integrated with jsPsych – and only costs 20p/participant. Gorilla can also accept jsPsych code but is more costly – if you qualify for the researcher package you could get your first 700 participants for £500. Note that Gorilla use the previous version of JavaScript (ES5) and any code in ES6 won’t work (they have told me this should be fixed by the end of the year). Other hosting options are listed here.

Hosting sites in Qualtrics

Qualtrics is incredibly useful to keep track of participants longitudinally by linking surveys. Experiments hosted on the above sites can be integrated into Qualtrics in a few ways.  The easiest of these is with an HTML iFrame: create a ‘text/graphic’ question and add the following code into the ‘HTML view<iframe height=500 width=600 src=“TASK URL”> with the right width and height (this can look a little janky). Similarly, this code will open the experiment in a new tab <a href=“TASK URL” target="_blank">Click Here</a>, although I’ve only been able to get this to work with Gorilla.

Finally, you could split your Qualtrics survey in two, redirect participants from the first one to your hosted survey, and then back to the second survey. Redirecting can also be done by adding JavaScript to your survey as follows: Qualtrics.SurveyEngine.addOnReady(function(){setTimeout(function () {window.location.href = “TASK URL“;},5000)});.

To keep track of participants between surveys: 1) set a random participant ID 2) embed this into the URL we send from the first Qualtrics survey 3) use jsPsych to grab that data from the URL 4) set up a redirect link by using on_finish(window.location.href = "Survey pt2 URL”) at the end of your jsPSych script in cognition.run, or Gorilla’s redirect node (see also), or the information here for Pavlovia (personally untested) and 4) appended it to the redirect link from the hosting site in a way Qualtrics will understand and record that data.

Direct Qualtrics Integration

It’s also possible to integrate your task into a Qualtrics survey question using their JavaScript question editor without using a separate hosting site at all. A few things to note: saving your data with JSON and not CSV is recommended, template literals will not work properly in Qualtrics, and Qualtrics relies on the JavaScript version in a users’ browser, so try to avoid using the latest version (ES6) to ensure maximum usability. However, with this approach your data won’t save to Qualtrics – you’ll have to use JavaScript to send data to your personal server space at the University. Unfortunately, the sections on saving your data won’t work if you’re at Sussex – I detail below how to use the PHP and web server method. There may also be a way to get MySQL set up on the university servers, or at Edinburgh University, or to use a Box app instead of the DropBox method listed here.

Webservers & PHP

Before you can follow along with the kywch.github PHP tutorial, you will need to set up a personal webspace with the university, and authorise your computer to access your N drive. I would recommend using the FileZilla STFP (software for transferring files). The university host is sftp://unix.sussex.ac.uk and the port is 22. You will also need to log in through your command line terminal with the command ssh[username]@unix.sussex.ac.uk and your password.

Now follow the steps in the PHP tutorial which make the exp_data directory within public_html. However, the commands  $ touch index.html , $ echo "DirectoryIndex index.html" >> .htaccess, and later $ chmod 772 hello-world won’t work on the university servers. Instead, use my changes to the PHP file here, paste it into your IDE, save it, and move it to exp_data using FileZilla – making sure to change the `/hello-world/hello_` to something more relevant to your own study.

Now create the data upload folder (e.g. ‘hello-world’) outside of public_html, using the same technique in the tutorial above. The command cd .. moves up a directory level, ls lists the contents of the current directory, and use pwd to check you are in /its/home/[username]. Create the directory where you want to save your data (i.e. ‘hello-world’) here. Check the Kwych tutorial above on permissions, but assign the following permissions instead: Hello-World = 1703, exp_data = 1701, save_data.php = 1704, public_html = 1701.

Next, create a file in your IDE called .htaccess with the following content:

    Options -Indexes
    Options -ExecCGI
    AddHandler cgi-script .php .php3 .php4 .phtml .pl .py .jsp .asp .htm .shtml .sh .cgi
 
    <Files ^(*.json)>
        order deny,allow
        deny from all
    </Files>

and move it to your uploads folder (e.g. hello-world) using FileZilla (you will need to reveal hidden files to do so, e.g.  .+⇧SHIFT+⌘CMD on Mac).

Now, follow the rest of the tutorial regarding saving data with JavaScript. However, delete the lines declaring the task_name, data_dir, and file_name variables – we just need sbj_id and save_url, and your jQuery.ajax() function should look like this:

    function save_data_json() {
    jQuery.ajax({
        method: 'POST',
        dataType: 'json',
        cache: false,
        url: save_url,
        data: {
            file_name: sbj_id + '.json',
            exp_data: jsPsych.data.get().json()
        }
    });
}

If you’ve followed everything else correctly, running your Qualtrics survey should save the task data to your target upload directory (e.g. ‘hello-world’) – you will need to refresh FileZilla before you can see the file appear. To download the data, as it can’t be accessed through a public URL, go to the left-hand panel of FileZilla called ‘local site’, which lists the contents of your own computer, and create a data folder somewhere that suits you. When you then download on the remote site on the right-hand side of the screen, the files will be downloaded to this folder onto your computer.

If you have any issues or feedback, email me at m.lovell@sussex.ac.uk

Max Lovell is a PhD student under the supervision of Prof Zoltan Dienes, Dr Clara Strauss and Dr Sarah Garfinkel. His research focuses on mindfulness as a form of metacognitive training, alongside general theoretical and experimental issues in studying mindfulness.

Find out more about our research on Cognitive Psychology.

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How Important is Skin Colour to First Generation South Asian Women

By Jamie Chan

South Asian Women in UK: Acculturation Experiences and Body Image. By Jamie Chan and Megan Hurst, School of Psychology, University of Sussex.
This blog post is a revised version of the poster Jamie presented at the Festival of Doctoral Research in July

If we asked ourselves which part(s) of our body we are less happy about, the chances are that our answer would revolve around weight, thinness or muscularity. This is likely because being thin and toned is an appearance ideal that is highly normalised in Western society – it’s almost impossible to avoid images of thin women as we flick through television channels (or Netflix series!) or as we scroll through Instagram.

However, as prevalent as the thin body is (partly due to globalisation), appearance ideals are actually highly based on culture. Non-Western cultures may have more flexibility towards body size and shapes. Some body-image research suggests that ethnic minority women experience fewer body image issues due to this flexibility (Warren et al., 2005). However, body image research largely revolves around Western appearance ideals (focused around body size, shape or weight) even when using non-Western samples. So, what do we know about cultural appearance ideals?

What about South Asian women in the UK?

In the South Asian culture, having fair skin is an important feature of women’s appearance, as fair skin often reflects belonging to a higher caste; thus, increasing marriage prospects (a traditionally important goal). According to the 2011 Census of England and Wales, 41.9% of the people from the Indian ethnic group in the UK were born in South Asia; but what happens psychologically when people from one culture move to and live in another culture?

A quick look at existing research reveals that people use different strategies to adapt to their new cultural environment and these different strategies often lead to different outcomes. For example, people who identify strongly with both their ethnic cultural identity (eg. their South Asian identity) and the mainstream cultural identity (eg. the British identity) tend to adapt better and have better psychological outcomes (e.g. less stress, higher life satisfaction, etc.) than those who identify with either or neither of those identities. This process of adapting to a new culture is called acculturation.

Particularly for South Asian women living in the UK, they must often navigate at least two sets of cultural appearance ideals (one based on the South Asian culture and another based on the British culture), which might even be conflicting. As ethnic minorities, they also experience discriminatory experiences, which sometimes extend to teasing based on their ethnically different appearance.

How is ethnic teasing relating to appearance harmful?

To understand South Asian women’s acculturation experiences and body image, we conducted a study with first-generation South Asian women in the UK. We found that those who identified with their South Asian identity strongly were more likely to be dissatisfied with their skin colour. This was unsurprising, as skin colour is an important feature of the South Asian appearance ideal. More interestingly, our findings show that South Asian women who experienced more ethnic teasing relating to their appearance had poorer body image but only when this was linked with their dissatisfaction with their skin colour (even though the teasing was not specifically about their skin colour). This highlights the role of skin colour satisfaction in the way South Asian women feel about their appearance when they experience teasing.

We also wanted to know how appearance-specific discriminatory experiences would affect their adaptation to living in the UK. We found that South Asian women who experienced more ethnic teasing relating to appearance identified stronger with the British identity and the integrated identity (i.e. with both the South Asian and British identities). This might seem counterintuitive, as people tend to distance themselves from a group when they feel discriminated against. However, because appearance-related ethnic teasing picks out visible ethnic differences, South Asian women might have identified with the British culture possibly by adopting British appearance goals, as an attempt to fit in. Having said that, stronger British identification did not have an effect on South Asian women’s skin colour satisfaction, which questions the benefits of fitting in by adopting unattainable British appearance goals.

Although people who identify strongly with both their ethnic and mainstream cultural identities (i.e. integrated identity) tend to adapt better, we did not find that the South Asian women who identified strongly with both identities were less dissatisfied with their skin colour. This shows the complexity of acculturation when it comes to deep-rooted cultural ideals like having fair skin.

What does this all mean?

At the individual level, being dissatisfied with one’s skin colour meant that one might try to change their skin tone. Skin-lightening creams are one of the most common methods that people use to change their skin tone. In fact, in 2012, it was reported in an article that skin lightening creams in India had more sales than Coca-cola, despite the negative effects of skin lightening creams on people’s skin and health (see Pollock et al., 2021). There is much work to be done in advocating skin tone appreciation across cultures.

In the bigger picture, it appears that when people move from one culture to another, the responsibility of adapting does not lie solely within their hands, but also within the hands of the people who live in the mainstream society that they move to. Just like the South Asian women in our study, their body image was not simply based on how well they adapt to another culture, but it is also the result of how their host society respond to them as ethnic minorities.

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from being discriminated against. If you have experienced or witnessed racial or ethnic discrimination, here’s what you can do.

Jamie Chan is doing a PhD under the supervision of Dr Megan Hurst. Her doctoral research explores the psychological processes underlying social class and women’s body image. The study in this post was part of her Masters’ dissertation, which she presented at the University of Sussex Festival of Doctoral Research. Follow Jamie on Twitter where she talks about her research.

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

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Registered Reports free for authors and readers

By Prof Zoltan Dienes

In April we launched Peer Community In Registered Reports (PCI RR), where a Registered Report in any discipline can be submitted (by linking to a preprint), and refereed, editorially evaluated and (potentially) eventually accepted  – “recommended” in PCI speak. The process and outcome are free to authors and free to readers. No institution need to pay a fee for these freedoms; freedoms we take to reflect the openness that is the sine qua non of science. See here for a talk by Corina Logan about PCI RR.

Because PCI RR links to pre-prints, the recommended manuscript is not published by PCI RR (though you will have a citable PCI RR recommendation with a DOI). That means an author may (if they wish, though they may not) have the same manuscript published in a mainstream journal. Indeed, we have 19 PCI RR-friendly journals, which guarantee acceptance of our recommended manuscripts without further peer or editorial review (given certain technical conditions are met, such as being in the right discipline and payment of any APCs that the journal would normally charge). Notice it is the author that has the choice of journal, reversing typical power arrangements.

A Registered Report is an article type where in-principle acceptance (or rejection) of a manuscript occurs before results are known. This ordering of acceptance relative to results is aimed at dealing with various biases that can corrupt the scientific process. When the chain of reasoning from theory to predictions and from data to predictions is constructed in light of the data, distortions can occur: for example, arbitrary predictions that do not actually follow from a theory can be stated (because they happen to match the data); or p-hacking or B-hacking (Bayes factor hacking) can be used to create pseudo-evidence for a preferred outcome. How many papers have you read where the “predictions” at the end of the introduction seemed somewhat arbitrary with respect to theory and yet were strangely confirmed? How many correlations with small N were just significant? A further bias is avoided by Registered Reports: that of editors or reviewers rejecting a paper because they did not like the results. As Chris Chambers often puts it: what part of the scientific process should we never have control over? Yet what part of the scientific process often determines publication – and hence can make or break careers? The results.

One advantage of the Registered Report is that reviewers and editors are collaboratively involved in designing the study – at a point in time when their expert advice can still be seriously considered and acted on if useful. Relatedly, once the procedure and analyses have been in principle accepted, a publication is virtually guaranteed. One does not have to chase various journals for months or years because of some aspect of the study that is regarded as weak by those asked to review. In my experience, the fact that advice from reviewers and the editors can inform all aspects of design and analysis (in the absence of knowledge of results), really does change the dynamics of the relation between authors, editor and reviewers.

Do Registered Reports actually reduce bias? In a recent pre-registered study, Registered Reports confirmed the stated predictions less than 50% of the time – yet matched non-Registered Reports confirmed predictions over 90% of the time. Further, Registered Reports are associated with a higher reproducibility of main results from the original data than regular articles; and methodological rigour and quality of Registered Reports are rated substantially higher than non-Registered Reports. I take all this to be preliminary evidence that Registered Reports do in practice reduce biases in the scientific process.

PCI RR overcomes some weaknesses in the current way Registered Reports are managed in journals. As previously mentioned, Registered Reports are completely open and free in PCI RR. Notice this addresses some concerns about equity: financial resources arising from social status (because of race, gender, or institution) are not necessary for having one’s research publicly recommended by the same Registered Reports editors who work for leading journals. (How easy is it for you to pay the APCs for prestigious journals?) PCI RR introduces some other unique key innovations.

With a programmatic Registered Report, a series of related studies can be accepted in principle before the results are in. Each of these studies can then be conducted without further ado, each potentially leading to its own paper. This considerably speeds the process by which a programme of research can be published as a series of Registered Reports.

With a scheduled review, the authors submit a short one-page template-based “snapshot” of their proposed study. The recommender then sends the snapshot to potential reviewers and organises the review process for a fixed future date nominated by the authors. During the intervening time the authors prepare the full manuscript. The aim is to substantially reduce the initial review time.

We operate a graded system of bias control. That means that while the full level of bias control applies to cases where the data does not yet exist, many of the benefits of the Registered Reports process may be still applicable even when the data exist – but for example, cannot be accessed yet; or can be accessed in principle but has not in fact yet been accessed by the researchers, and so on. In each case, we try to control bias as much as possible, while explicitly recognizing there are different risks in different situations.

People interested in becoming a PCI RR Recommender take a two-hour test after reading the extensive guidelines for Recommenders. As far as we know, formal training of Recommenders (editors) is a unique feature of PCI RR.

So far we have had 10 submissions, which I think is a considerably higher rate than for Registered Reports at any journal. If you have a good idea for a Registered Report, or would like to become involved as a Recommender, you know who to call!

Zoltan Dienes is a Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex. He is the author of the influential book “Understanding Psychology as a Science,” and is regularly invited to provide Bayes and Registered Report workshops all over the world. He produced the first online Bayes factor calculator in 2008, and has published extensively on Bayes factors including how to get the most out of non-significant results.

Find out more about the School’s Psychological Methods Strategic Focus Area and our commitment to Open Science.

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Posted in psychological methods

Working as a Research Fellow in Parliament

Our PhD student Alison Lacey was on a 13-week placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). POST offers Research Fellowships to approximately 30 PhD students a year from a range of science disciplines, and Alison’s was funded by the British Psychological Society. As part of her fellowship, Alison was seconded to the Health and Social Care Committee. Her job involved supporting the Expert Panel to evaluate the Government’s commitments to maternity services in England. The Panel’s report was finally published last week, and Alison has now had time to reflect on her experience of working in Parliament:

It has been a privilege working with the Expert Panel on their assessment of the Government’s progress against its maternity services commitments. It’s strange to think that the first-ever CQC-style rating for a UK government department came to life on my computer a few weeks ago.

I started my 13-week POST Research Fellowship placement a lifetime ago in April, seconded to work with the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s Expert Panel with another Fellow, Florence Young from Cambridge University. While most POST Fellowships follow a predictable and well-tested structure, we knew quite early on that this was going to be different. In the first week, whenever we mentioned we were working with the Expert Panel at our induction meetings, colleagues would give a sympathetic head tilt and “Ah, you’re going to be busy!” Probably a good thing that we didn’t know then quite how true this would be.

The Expert Panel was fabulous to work with, despite the intimidating number of honorifics and titles: Sirs and Dames all over the place! The Panel is Chaired by Prof Dame Jane Dacre, and we had private fortnightly meetings with her, which were often master classes in the art of charm and diplomacy. We were supervised by Previn Desai, Head of the Expert Panel Secretariat, who gave us as much autonomy as possible, but kept us tethered with regular informal meetings and a review of his worry list.

One of the most exciting parts of the process was that no one knew what the end product would look like – or even what it would say. The task was to distil evidence from multiple sources into four main CQC-style ratings which, given the complexity of the subject, was not always easy to achieve. 

During the process, Florence and I analysed the initial formal response from the Department of Health and Social Care and identified important follow-up questions for meetings with Department and NHSEI officials. To supplement this, we developed a qualitative framework to assess written submissions from key stakeholders (which we will be writing up!), arranged and facilitated roundtable events with midwives and obstetricians, and attended and analysed a focus group transcript with women from East African backgrounds who had experienced recent poor maternity care. The focus group was a very important reminder of how a system can only be as good as the most vulnerable people it serves, and the testimony from the women was extremely powerful.

We were also able to attend and contribute to other Committee work, including attending evidence sessions for the current review of inpatient care for Autistic people and people with Learning Disabilities and that session with Dominic Cummings for the ‘Lessons learnt from COVID’ inquiry.

However, timescales were tight and delays to some formal responses meant that the final write-up of the Expert Panel report was a race against time. One evening, I was finalising edits until almost midnight after being told Jeremy Hunt wanted ‘eyes on’ at 9 am the following morning. Not someone I had ever anticipated would be marking my homework!

But we got there, and I think the report is something to be proud of. We structured the report to highlight the central importance of safe staffing: not just numbers but skill and effective deployment with a proper focus on staff retention and wellbeing. Health inequalities were a persistent concern throughout, and we decided to include this as a separate chapter to highlight the work that needs to be done to address the unacceptable discrepancy in outcomes for Black and Asian women, as well as women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

It has been an incredible experience, and I will miss the buzz of policy work and the wonderful people I have been working with, especially Florence and Previn. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back?

When she is not working in Parliament, Alison Lacey is interested in the development of social and emotional competence in young children. Her doctoral thesis, supervised by Dr. Kathryn Lester and Prof Robin Banerjee, investigates how playing with other young children may influence social skills learning and how parental supervisory practices may impact the quality and range of children’s play. Alison is also a contributing author of the PlayFirstUK policy recommendation document calling the UK government to prioritise children’s access as part of any lockdown exit plan.

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Greener conferences

By Dr Charlotte Rae

Conference season is upon us, and this year lots of us will be attending virtual meetings instead of travelling to conferences in person.

Although many of us are missing seeing our colleagues in person, online conferences can have a number of benefits, from inclusivity and better accessibility, especially for those with caring commitments or visa difficulties, to the carbon saved by not having thousands of academics flying around the world.

I recently attended the online Organization for Human Brain Mapping meeting. The last time this conference was in person (Rome, 2019), the carbon emissions from all the participants’ travel added up to around 3,500 tonnes of CO2. That’s roughly 636 elephants!

Klower et al (2020, Nature) undertook a comprehensive assessment of how much carbon is saved by online conferences compared to in person, and it’s a staggering amount – you cut carbon by over 99% if the meeting is fully online (see figure).

Source: M. Klöwer https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3553784 (2019)

Looking forwards, many of us will want to retain the benefits of both online and in-person meetings. Klower et al highlight a number of ways this could be achieved sustainably, from hybrid meetings, where you choose to be either in person or online, to hub-and-spoke conferences, where there are multiple locations and you travel to your nearest hub – combining the benefits of seeing colleagues while reducing the amount of intercontinental travel that comes with the highest carbon costs.

The pandemic has forced us to consider alternative conference models, but the ongoing climate crisis means that we need to reshape the way we do academic meetings in the longer term. If your society isn’t taking action on creating a vision for a sustainable post-Covid meeting, ask them what their plan is. If you want any advice, get in touch with me (c.rae@sussex.ac.uk) – in the OHBM Sustainability group I chair, we are currently producing an action plan for OHBM and also have lots of resources on our website.

Dr Charlotte Rae is the Faculty Green Officer at the School of Psychology at Sussex and the Founding Chair of the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping’s Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group. Charlotte also leads the Adaptive Behavioural Control Lab, which researches the processes by which how we feel (interoception) influences how we behave (action).

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Posted in Green Tips

Sussex Education Awards 2021

Sussex Education Awards

The Sussex Education Awards recognise faculty and professional services whose work had / is having a positive impact on the Sussex community. During March, students and staff nominated candidates for one of the six categories. And last week, the winners were finally announced in a virtual ceremony attended by hundreds of people.

Psychology continued its fantastic success with many colleagues nominated and short-listed.

Dr Jennifer Mankin, who was nominated in five categories, won a Sussex Spirit Award. This award recognises staff who embody the University’s values of kindness, integrity, inclusion, collaboration and courage. Jennifer’s students praised her inclusive, fun and engaged approach to teaching. 

Prof Alison Pike won an Extra Mile Award for creating an optional seminar to help final year students discuss concerns and feel less lonely during the pandemic. This new category celebrates staff who have gone above and beyond to support our students during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, Dr Jessica Horst presented the Teaching to Disrupt Award, which recognises teaching staff who dare to be different in their approach to teaching.

We also want to send a big shout out to all the Psychology nominees. Well done everyone!

Better World

Sussex Spirit

Teaching to Disrupt

Transformative Technology

The Extra Mile (new for 20-21)

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Virtual group music-making during lockdowns

By Maruša Levstek

people playing the guitar together during a Zoom call

When the pandemic hit in late 2019 and the whole world had to practically retract to their homes, everyone was talking about furlough, lockdown, and home-schooling. However, there was barely any thought about the extra-curricular activities that used to be an incredibly big part of many young people’s lives and a great source of wellbeing for many. This blog is about the many music groups that didn’t give up and decided to replicate group music-making experiences virtually, which I have studied alongside.

I wrote about the psychological and social benefits of group music-making in my previous blog post. In summary, engagement with activities in which young people have the freedom to express themselves, be validated and supported by others have been especially important for their emotional and social development. In fact, this has been especially vital for those who do not get to access such experiences elsewhere, such as those less likely to participate in mainstream music education, which is often closely tied with marginalisation.

Marginalised communities have also been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, which means that in addition to the challenges all young people experienced in this time that already hindered their wellbeing and social life (e.g. loss of independence, and increase in loneliness; see this report that I have contributed to for further details), young people also lost the safe spaces that nurtured this. Many projects that I have worked with before the pandemic have attempted to replicate such activities virtually. In this context, I have studied the extent to which those experiences replicated the opportunities for growth observed for group music projects when delivered in-person.

I imagine not many know what virtual group music-making actually looks like, which I didn’t either before 2020. Although there is software designed specifically for remote group music-making, most music groups I have worked with met on Zoom, as it also allows for video interactions, despite a load of audio difficulties I believe all are familiar with by now. I find this preference particularly interesting as it is clear that music groups prioritised replication of social contact rather than a profound musical experience.

There are various ways in which music groups attempted to replicate group music-making, with the most common two being what I named ‘together on mute’, which involves everyone playing with no sound on Zoom alongside a pre-recorded video or designated individual playing, and ‘turn-taking solo’, which involves individuals taking turns in playing with sound, often interactive in nature. Another less common kind of virtual group music-making observed by other researchers was listening to a multi-track of pre-recorded individual contributions mixed together.

To better understand how virtual group music sessions allowed young people to experience self-development and social support observed in in-person sessions, I have worked with three music education hubs delivering in total 13 different virtual music activities during the first and second national lockdown in the UK. I observed 16 separate sessions and analysed the hubs’ staff, young people, and parent surveys. The results revealed that everyone was extremely grateful for those virtual opportunities that enabled them to stay connected, continue making music in challenging times, and preserve their musical identities and the sense of being good at something. However, it was also clear that everyone was extremely keen to meet in person and create music together as soon as possible. This exposes how it is not only the aspect of spending time together, but also the experience of creating something together and bonding through making music that is vital to those part of an orchestra.

In fact, this lack of physical group music-making enabled me to study its meaning further, as the research and theories attempting to better understand the connection between the two never had to consider the physical context, or rather the lack of psychical context. Based on the data I obtained through observing virtual sessions, during which I recorded staff behaviours and the sense of connectedness of the group, there was no direct connection between virtual group music-making and the sense of connectedness. However, there was an indirect connection, demonstrating that virtual group music-making leads to more supporting behaviours displayed by the staff members, which, in turn, nurtured the sense of belonging amongst the group. I am excited to study this further once in-person group music-making is possible again, as I suspect that this model has a lot of potential for further development of theories of bonding through making music together. 

To conclude, I like to compare music groups’ experiences with my experiences of connecting with friends during the pandemic. I was extremely grateful to stay in touch via FaceTime and enjoyed our quiz and Skribbl nights, but realised that nothing can replace the sleepovers, nights out, and spontaneous weekend trips. It appears that virtual music-making can replicate the psychological benefits of group music-making to a great extent, more than expected by many music leaders, actually. However, the experience of making music together is an integral part to the orchestra experience that everyone missed dearly.

Please feel free to email me or contact me on Twitter @LevstekMarusa if you would like to reference the results of this project, read the academic paper, or just chat about my research. I truly hope these results will enable the continuation of such amazing projects and motivate for more in the future.

This research project was enabled by Future Creators and the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. I would particularly like to thank my students Rubie and Katie for their help with the observations, without them this would have not been possible.

Would you like to know more about Maruša’s research?

Maruša Levstek is a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Robin Banerjee. Her doctoral research explores young people’s experiences of inclusive music-making and the psychology behind it.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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World Refugee Day 2021: Together we heal, learn and shine

By Dr Varuni Wimalasiri

British Red Cross volunteers wearing either red or blue refugee week t-shirts

The significance of World Refugee Day

World refugee day is on the 20th of June every year and is a day designated by the United Nations (UN) to raise awareness about the lives, realities and hopes of refugees all around the world. The theme of this year’s refugee day is ‘Together we heal, learn and shine’, a statement of the UNHCR’s recognition that there needs to be an improvement in healthcare, education and opportunities for refugees in countries of resettlement, all-round the world. 

WRF was initially held in June 2001, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1951 convention, passed by the international community and lead by the UN, to protect those fleeing from the atrocities related to World War II.  Amongst those who would have been safeguarded under this protocol include Sigmund Freud (Wotruba and Cernovsky 1987), Albert Einstein (Robinson 2019) and the School of Psychology’s very own Marie Jahoda (one time head of the Social Psychology group)(Billig, 2021). They were all refugees who migrated to their final host countries, where they made some of the most significant contributions to science that we have yet known, with the help of the opportunities afforded them at the time by their host communities.  

Creating opportunities for women refugees through work during resettlement

Economic empowerment helps to promote independence, planning for the future, meeting members of the host society, providing the opportunity to develop language skills, restoring self-esteem and encouraging self-reliance for refugees (Bloch and Levy 1999, Tomlinson and Egan 2002, HomeOffice 2019). The benefits of employment include time structure, socialisation opportunities, a sense of purpose, status, and opportunities to engage in activity needed for wellbeing (Jahoda, 1971).

Resettlement agencies attend to males first to reduce case-loads and satisfy the needs of larger numbers, since women’s work-related needs tend to be more complex (Halpern 2008). This strategy shows a lack of insight in prioritising work placement and creates a systemic disadvantage for women in resettlement. There is now evidence showing that resettlement is creating a low-income minority within the refugee communities resettled into host communities (Gowayed 2019) particularly among women (Wimalasiri, 2021).

My research looks at the long-lasting effects of forced displacement on the working lives of women refugees during resettlement. This work examines how the complex interplay between system, psycho-social factors and the displacement experience creates actual and perceived disadvantages and barriers to work in this population; in view of understanding

  1. what can change to help these populations engage with more sustainable waged work
  2. identify ways of creating better diversity practices to make workplaces more welcoming and psychologically safe for these populations
  3. identify practicable work trajectories. 

Case-study on compassionate resettlement for women and work

I recently led a study and a related report in partnership with Plymouth City Council. It’s key aim was to gain a better understanding about the resources available to assist women refugees into work in the South West region of the UK. Also, to understand why there are only a small number of women refugees engaging with the labour market in the area, compared to the overall resident refugee population. The initial concept for the project was developed during a project and funds (2017-2018) called ‘Women’s Work’- Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs programme start up grant, partly funded by a Big Lottery grant (LPA-000 000 6543). The study was steered by and supported by Plymouth City Council, the local refugee population in the Southwest region, the Department of Work and pensions, The Red Cross and a number of other local community organisations.

Amongst other findings, the outcomes of the study made clear an extraordinary effort made by local communities and stakeholders to assist refugee women to overcome the barriers to work. The study found a compassionate effort and exemplary network of formal and informal support and resources, dedicated to the refugee community, in relation to work. The approaches used in this region showed a justice-led approach to resettlement which has grown out of the needs of women refugees in the region.

However, the efforts of the stakeholders tend to be limited in the face of systemic barriers including lack of funding for skill-building, local employer prejudices which are still at large due to negative media messages about refugees, poor engagement with mental health rehabilitation following displacement due to a multitude of factors. Further barriers included intersectional cultural predispositions. These barriers contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty, similar to those experienced by women in refugee communities all over the world (UNHCR, 2021). Recommendations were made for improving local practice and policy in the report.

A seminar entitled ‘Women refugees and work in resettlement’ will be hosted in partnership between Sussex University and Plymouth City Council to mark this report, later this year. We hope to bring research, practice and users together to better understand this all-important topic and how we can make practicable changes based on findings from various projects related to this area. The select group will include academics from the School of Psychology, the School of Education and Social Work and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. We will be joined by representatives of the refugee community, the UNHCR, Department of Work and Pensions, Odils learning foundation (Plymouth) and Institute of Employment Studies (IES, Brighton), as well as other project stakeholders.

Healing ‘Together’

Coming back to the theme of this year’s refugee day, Together we heal, learn and shine, it is clear from this study that any actions to improve the lives of refugees needs to be a multi-pronged, multi-party approach to achieve practical and equitable outcomes. A more coordinated effort is necessary from research, governments, international organisations, NGO’s, employers and community organisations, and the refugee community to make the real difference that is needed (as well as more responsible and balanced media coverage about refugees).

Extracts from report:

Wimalasiri, V. in partnership with Plymouth City Council (2021) Plymouth’s approach to enabling refugee women into employment and the government action required to prevent ongoing, sustained poverty and isolation within this population. Sussex University-Plymouth City Council.

Dr Varuni Wimalasiri is a lecturer in organisational psychology at the School of Psychology of the University of Sussex. Varuni is part of the Social and Applied Psychology group. Find out more about Varuni’s research on gender resettlement.

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