Statement for Excellence in Research Degrees

By Dr Zoë Hopkins

Trite as it sounds, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I became interested in autism and language. Throughout my undergraduate years (as a student of English Literature, rather than Psychology), I was employed as a support worker on the fabulous Artz and Sportz+ scheme (https://www.dorsetforyou.gov.uk/artz+), for children with additional needs. At a sports workshop, I was supporting a child with autism who had echolalia; he would repeat words and phrases that I said, over and over again, and it was really difficult for us to hold a conversation with each other. The boy’s use of language suggested to me that, in conversation, there is an ‘optimum’ amount of language repetition between speakers: too much copying might be disruptive (as it was in the sports workshop), but not using any of the same words as a partner might convey that s/he wasn’t being listened to. This issue gets even trickier within the context of autism, which is associated with both under- and over-imitation (of language, actions, etc.)

Against this backdrop, language imitation in children with autism became the focus of my Masters thesis at Sussex. As a student on the MSc in Experimental Psychology – an intensive, year-long conversion degree – I was attached to the ChaTLab (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab/), where I spent a year studying and hearing presentations about children with autism, and their difficulties with social interaction. When I left Sussex in 2011, it was to move to Singapore, where I spent six months as an intern in the autism team of the Child Guidance Clinic (CGC), as part of the Institute of Mental Health (https://www.imh.com.sg/clinical/page.aspx?id=267). While working at the CGC, I supported two clinicians to run social skills classes for boys with autism; this experience in particular made me think about why conversation doesn’t always run smoothly for people with autism and their social partners.

From Singapore, I returned to Sussex in 2012, to take up an EPSRC-funded PhD scholarship in the ChaTLab, entitled ‘Meeting of Minds in Conversation’. My PhD thesis – co-supervised by Drs Nicola Yuill (Psychology) and Bill Keller (Informatics) – considered the conversational difficulties of children with autism from a language-processing perspective, drawing on theories of linguistic alignment. Alignment is the tendency for speakers to imitate each other’s language in conversation: it is widely observed in the conversations of typical adults, and is associated with more effective and satisfying interactions (c.f., e.g., Fusaroli et al., 2012). Furthermore, alignment may be influenced by ‘audience design’ (=tailoring speech to take a listener into account) and social-affective goals; these are recognised areas of impairment for children with autism. In my thesis, I report three experiments, which consider whether atypical alignment could explain why children with autism might find conversation difficult, and in turn why their social partners might find their interactions odd and unrewarding.  My thesis will be available online soon (http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/60608/).

Having survived my PhD viva in February 2016, I have since been working as an Assistant Psychologist at the Disabilities Trust, in a residential service for adults with autism and learning disabilities (http://www.thedtgroup.org/autism-and-learning-disabilities/our-services/hollyrood/news/service-user-helps-to-appoint-new-psychologist/). I continue to be intrigued by conversation in autism, and to think about what can be done to support people with autism with their social interaction. Happily, I was offered a post-doctoral position at Edinburgh University, which will allow me to pursue some of the outstanding questions from my PhD. In April 2017, I joined an ESRC-funded project – ‘Conversational Alignment in Children with an Autism Spectrum Condition and Typical Children – led by Professor Holly Branigan; Nicola Yuill is a co-investigator on this project, which will enable me to maintain my connections with the Sussex ChaT Lab.

I am very excited about the new chapter in my academic career, and welcome enquiries from anyone regarding my research interests. Please consult either my Sussex or Edinburgh University profile pages for contact details.

 

Academic funding:

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – doctoral research position

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – post-doctoral research position

 

Relevant publications:

My research has involved both experimental paradigms and natural language processing methodology.

Hopkins, Z., Yuill, N., & Keller, B. (2016). Children with autism align syntax in natural conversation. Applied Psycholinguistics, 37(2), 347–370. doi:10.1017/S0142716414000599

 

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Why do bystanders justify the use of violence by protesters?

By Patricio Saavedra Morales

Recently, the UN Human Rights Office published an extensive report about human rights violations and abuses during protests occurring in Venezuela from 1st of April to 31st July 2017.  In the document, UN officers accused the Venezuelan police force of excessive use of force during protests and illegal detentions of both protesters and political opponents. Furthermore, the report claimed that the right of peaceful assembly has been systematically violated, and the protesters (as well as journalists who have tried to report protests) are treated as ‘terrorist’ and ‘enemies of the state’ by government authorities. In this context, the report argues some protesters resorted to the use of violence as a method to confront the action of the police and pro-government groups.

However, the use of violence during protests is neither a new issue nor exclusive feature of Venezuelans. Social psychologists from different countries have demonstrated that emotionsthe perceived efficacy of violent actions, or the lack of collective efficacy could be antecedents for people consider getting involved in violent actions during protests. Moreover, an outstanding approach based on identity dynamics and crowd psychology has proposed that the use of violence by members of a crowd (as in protests) follows a specific logic where violent tactics are legitimised due to the indiscriminate actions of the police, and a subsequent change of group representations to ‘us’ (protesters) and ‘they’ (the police). Hence, ‘violent actions’ can be justified as self-defence or retaliation by the protesters (as a group) when they see other group (the police) as an enemy because of the use of transgressive actions against them.

Despite the findings mentioned above, both the influence of the perceived political context on bystanders (the extent to which people perceive their government and the police restricting or facilitating protests) and how these bystanders perceive that other people give legitimacy to protests have barely been explored as antecedents of the justification of the use of violence by protesters. To address these topics, we carried out four quantitative studies using samples from Chile and the UK for each of them.

A few brief words are necessary about the countries involved in the studies before describing the results. On one hand, Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar has claimed that the use of violence in protests and by social movements has been present across Chilean history to try to achieve social change. The same scholar has also argued that in spite of the presence of popular violence in their history, many Chilean people have often focused their efforts on condemning its use (because of its assumed ‘irrationality’ and supposed criminality) rather than trying to understand why or when some people have considered it as a valid approach. On the other hand, the UK (specifically England) has seen episodes such as the ‘Battle of Westminster’ in 1988 and the riots in Tottenham and Hackneyduring 2011, where the actions of the police against protesters operated as a trigger for a series of events in which the use of violence became legitimized. Regarding these facts, a group of scholars from this country have developed a scientific approach to understanding the occurrence of riots based on social identity dynamics instead of assuming that crowd’s actions are a product of pathological irrationality.

With respect to the main findings of our four studies, we demonstrated that people from the UK and Chile were more willing to justify the use of violence by protesters when they perceived their political context as more restricted in relation to protests. We also found that besides the general perception about political context, police transgressions are especially relevant for Chileans, compared to people in the UK, in their legitimisation of the use of violence during a protest.

Another significant result of our studies was that when people perceived their political context as more open to protests, they were more likely to also think that other people would legitimise the implementation of protests in the streets (a process called meta-perception). The latter is relevant because the perceptions about another important actor within the political context – other people – were included in the equation beyond institutional actors. Interestingly, we also found that for British people the perception of what other people thought about protests was a relevant factor to justify the use of violence by protesters, but this was not the case for the Chilean sample.

In conclusion, our results suggest that what the government authorities and the police do in relation to protests is an important factor that people evaluate in forming attitudes to different protest activities. At the same time, we think the special relevance that police transgressions have for Chileans may be due to historical antecedents (during the fascist dictatorship, Chilean police actively repressed and killed people during protests), and/or the unnecessary or excessive use of force against protesters frequently alleged by international organizations as Amnesty Internationaland Human Right Watch. A third hypothesis which could explain the importance of police behaviour in the justification of the use of violence in Chile is the massive use of paramilitary policing to manage protests in that country. Paramilitary policing is characterized by the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters, as well as an extensive control of public space by the police force. Although recent psychological literature has demonstrated that paramilitary policing has a negative impact on the protesters’ trust in the police and the fact that policing approaches based on coercion could help to escalate violence between the police and crowd members, it seems that Chilean authorities have allowed the police force to retain its old and repressive tactics without considering non-coercive methods before crowds events and protests (Some remarkable examples of the use of a non-coercive approach during crowds events have been carried out in the UK.)

However, a topic still unsolved is the relevance that the British (but not Chileans) give to the opinion of others for the justification of violence during protests: could this difference between countries be explained by cultural background discrepancies? Which specific cultural aspects would be behind it? Whatever the answer to these questions is, the big picture obtained across the studies matches with what other scholars have suggested on the use of violence by social movements and in collective action, which is that it follows a specific logic characterized by the emergence of new norms due to the illegitimate interaction between protesters and other groups (as the police). These new norms of interaction might mean that violent tactics (which could have been considered illegitimate in the past) become a valid strategy of action to confront or retaliate against police transgression instead of being caused by people’s ‘irrationality’ or ‘criminality’. In line with this, we suggest that knowing the extent in which people perceive their political context as open to allowing and facilitating protests would be a new piece of the puzzle to get a better understanding of the use of violence during these kind of events. Additionally, we propose the rationale described above would not be exclusive to those who actively participate in collective action but also it can be extended to bystanders (general public) who are not necessarily directly involved in the actions but can support the use of violent tactics by protesters after forming an opinion of their own political context.

Independently of the claims on international intervention in the Venezuelan crisis, we suggest that the approach described above might be applied to explain the use of violence during protests in that country. If we follow the UN report, we might conjecture that some people have justified the use of violence in the streets because of both the government restrictions to implement peaceful protests and the systematic police misbehaviour against the protesters. The latter would be aggravated whether we also consider that government authorities have explicitly considered protesters ‘as terrorists’ and sent detained protesters to military courts. Nevertheless, less clear is whether Venezuelans have considered the opinion of other people to justify the use of violent tactics in the streets. At the moment, through the press, we have just some hints that protesters (especially younger ones) perceive that the views of other people legitimise their presence in the streets to fight against the pro-government groups and the police.

 

This post was originally published on 7th September 2017 in the blog of the Crowds and Identities Research Group, led by Dr John Drury.

 

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Welcome to the School of Psychology

As we start the new academic year, I am delighted as Head of School to welcome our new cohort of Undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral students to the School of Psychology at Sussex, and to welcome back our current Undergraduate and Doctoral students. I hope you have all had a fantastic summer and are ready to hit the ground running in your studies. For those of you just starting, you are joining one of the best research-led Schools of Psychology in the UK (10th overall in the last Research Excellence Framework). For those returning, we are delighted that our performance in the National Student Survey continues to show our excellence, with a 92% score for Overall Satisfaction in the 2017 NSS results.

The summer is a busy time for academic faculty, where as well as preparing new courses and revising our lectures, we are immersed in our research. Many of the faculty are presenting events at the British Science Festival, which is being held in Brighton from the 5-9 September 2017 (www.britishsciencefestival.org). A perfect way to prepare for your studies and to get a feel for the people who will be guiding you through your degree would be to come along to as many sessions as you can, including:

One of our new innovations for the coming year is to assign our incoming undergraduates to ‘houses’, designed to provide a cohesive social environment in which you can interact with your peers, students from other years, and academic and professional staff in smaller groups. Sometimes, one can feel a bit lost in a large cohort of students: the houses are designed to provide a welcoming environment so that you can feel at home while at university. The heads of houses will arrange social events as well as coordinating the academic advisor scheme, so that you can make the very best use of your academic advisors.

If you have any suggestions for further improvements you would like us to make, pass them on to the Psychology student reps and we will do our best to act on them. We are also upping our game in use of social media, with regular blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts. We would love to get stuff from students – please send material to Mar Balboa Carbon (M.Balboa-Carbon@sussex.ac.uk) who is coordinating our social media presence.

Don’t forget that it is really important for you to keep in regular contact with your academic adviser throughout the year; not only can they help you to deal with problems as they arise (e.g., understanding feedback, assistance with writing and analysis, advice about personal issues), but the more they know about you, the better equipped they will be to write that all-important reference for when you apply for jobs and further study.

I hope the coming academic year is productive and fun for all of you (and us!).

Best wishes

Tom Ormerod

Head of School of Psychology

 

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My Colourful JRA

By Katie Barnes

Even before coming to Sussex, I was aware of the work being done by the Sussex Colour Group and knew that I would love to be involved in some colourful projects one day. The JRA enabled me to approach Professor Anna Franklin, leader and coordinator of the Sussex Colour Group and Baby Lab, who helped me open the door towards my first chromatic research experience! I had the pleasure of contributing to The Rainbow project which was developing its final stage when I arrived. The project was investigating how infants of 4 – 6 months see and categorise colour before they have developed language, and had divided into 3 phases. Phase 3 was where I came in and was focused on hue discrimination.

My JRA project predominantly focused on piloting new and engaging stimuli which would be used with infants aged 4 – 6 months. The procedure itself involved the use of an eye tracking technique, so we could gather non-verbal data from the infants which provided us with an insight into their cognition. A round, black and white sticker is placed on the infant’s cheek in order to calibrate the eye tracker and to record pupil movement. When the infant was settled and attentive to what the computer monitor was showing them, we presented two colourful patches, one of which contained an animation. Figure 1 provides examples of the patterns used in the procedure. We used a variety of colour combinations with each stimuli which were counterbalanced to avoid colour and side bias. From this we could obtain which of the three patterns is most popular with the infants and would be used in the final study. Results showed that the looming rings proved most attractive for the infants. Using this pattern, the colour pairs used will gradually become more similar in hue until the infant can no longer see a difference between the patches. This will allow us to measure the threshold of infant hue discrimination for a whole colour space.

When developing this stimuli other factors were also taken into account, such as spatial frequency and how much luminance noise to include, an example of our first set of luminance noise can be seen in figure 2. 

Working on the Rainbow project provided me with a new appreciation for developmental psychology and has helped me understand how procedures must adapt in order to fit the participant. As well as giving me an introductory understanding of the specialised equipment used in acute colour / light measurements and the theory behind it, such as the SpectraScan and VSG monitor (figure 3). I have gained an invaluable pool of new knowledge which I owe to all those involved in the work being done in the lab, particularly my mentor John Maule who was able to answer all of my questions and calm my bundle of nerves!

My main concern about completing a research project was whether I would be able to successfully analyse data statistically. Statistics has never been a strong point of mine, but the project allowed me to apply my foundational knowledge to real world data and build from there. The support I received in the lab allowed me to ask as many questions as needed as well as giving me time to solve problems by myself.

Undertaking the JRA project over the summer has boosted my confidence remarkably and will help me hit the ground running when starting my third year. My research, recruitment and communication skills have benefited immensely from interacting with participants, other JRAs and research fellows. I hope to continue the work I have completed over the summer within my third year and apply my new research skills effectively!

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The social psychology of the Hajj

By John Drury

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

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

How do people feel safe in such dense crowds?

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

Inset shows density of 6ppm2

Psychological changes, including changed attitudes to other social groups

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

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

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

Place, space and the virtuous cycle of cooperation

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

Conclusion

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

 

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

 

 

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How do street actions strengthen social movements?

By Dr John Drury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

By Toby Killeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2017 ATSiP Conference: Technicians, VR and Qualtrics

By Martha Casey

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

Martha trying a VR headset

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Evangelos Ntontis.

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

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

Photo source: The Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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It is just the beginning

By Judi Luxmoore

 

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

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

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

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

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