Make It Happen Events and Sussex Connect

By Louise Drake, Psychology Careers Connector

The Make it Happen events are an amazing new set of panel events targeting several different job sectors and career types, where you can hear how graduates from the University of Sussex got into their careers, their tips for job hunting, and their top tips for you after University. As a Psychology student, the ‘Careers in Life Sciences’ talk happening on the 16th of March, where a graduate from Sussex will be speaking about her career following her degree in Neuroscience in 2021 sounds interesting. However, your degree in Psychology can open you up to so many different industries and career paths that there’s valuable knowledge to be gained from all of these talks.

This is an exclusive opportunity to get some invaluable advice and have a chance to ask questions with a Q&A after each session.

The events are taking place throughout March 2022, with different events covering specific career areas. During the events you will also hear all about Sussex Connect, which is an online platform (a bit like LinkedIn, but just for Sussex grads) where you can connect with fellow graduates once you’ve graduated and get in touch with graduates in your chosen career path. This can be a great first step in starting to build your professional network, which can be invaluable in opening doors or making you aware of courses or job advertisements and so on which may not be advertised elsewhere.

Students who have attended the Make it Happen events in previous years have said things like:

“Not only did I learn about what Sussex connect was and how it could benefit me in my future career plans, it made me understand what career path I would like to go down plus how to get there! It’s left me positive about my future and the next steps I am going to take after uni.”

“The talk was very inspiring, and the face-to-face networking was very helpful and fun. I could ask as many questions as I wanted and all the alumni were very friendly and supportive.”   

So, what kind of events are happening?

Wednesday 16th March

Topic: Careers in life sciences


Layla Burn (BSc Neuroscience, 2021): Medical student at Queen Mary, University of London

Melina Matthiessen: Trainee Clinical Scientist (Audiology) at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Steve Acquah: Research Professor of Chemistry and Digital Media Lab Unit Coordinator at University of Massachusetts Amherst

Wednesday 23rd March

Topic: Careers in media, arts and communications


Amy Alipio: Associate Managing Editor at National Geographic Travel

Charlotte Newell: Senior Press & PR Officer at FareShare

Jordi M Carter: Taking Part & Directors Prog Associate at Young Vic Theatre

Jonathan Gaiger: Global Senior Digital Creative at LEGO

Wednesday 30th March

Topic: Careers in government and public services


Arran Pedder: Corporate Relations Manager at Imperial War Museum

Declan McClean: Policy Advisor at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Dr Neil Churchill: Director of Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England

Vincent Parisi: Preparedness Analyst at US Federal Emergency Management Agency

You can book your place on one of these fantastic events using CareerHub.

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Careers Advice – Where Do I Start?!

By Louise Drake, Psychology Careers Connector.

picture of feet with arrows in all directions

Thinking about your career, at any point during your degree, can feel like a daunting prospect. In first year, it feels much too early, in second year your schedule is chock-full, and in third year it all feels too late!

The Careers and Entrepreneurship team can help you at any point during your degree, and even afterwards, as the C&E team can offer you advice up to 3 years after you graduate. It’s never too late!

In terms of online presence, the C&E offer two websites:

CareerHub, and the main C&E site.

But where do you go first, and for what? In this blog post, myself and the C&E team have provided a breakdown of each site with advice on where to go for your specific set of career-related queries.


CareerHub is where you can book appointments with a Careers Consultant (more on that later!), see upcoming events, browse job and placement vacancies, and more. By clicking on the ‘Vacancies’ page, you can view all the job (part/full-time) vacancies, placement adverts, voluntary opportunities and more. It’s a great place to find and apply for jobs or just to get an idea of what’s out there to help your further research.

CareerHub is also where you can book appointments with a Careers Consultant. You can arrange a 20-minute appointment via telephone, Zoom, or in-person, either in advance or for the same day. You can book to see specific Consultants, who have different areas of speciality (Vicky Raynard is our Psychology Careers Consultant) or just check ‘Any’ if you don’t have a preference. You can then pick a specific topic to discuss, such as interview preparation, finding part-time work, postgraduate study, and many more – or you can just pick ‘Careers’ if you don’t know what you want to ask about. If you’d rather speak to someone over email, you can click ‘Ask a Question’ at the top of the CareerHub site to submit your questions via email.

These appointments can be great for making contact with someone in the working world who can help broaden your perspective, which is probably narrowed by being stuck in a University for so many years and with the stress that brings, especially working within a pandemic, which we have all had to do.

Careers & Entrepreneurship Website

Now, we’ll take a look at the Careers site embedded within the UoS website, which is a good catch-all to direct you to where you need to go: you can also find links to CareerHub and SkillsHub here.

When you go to this page, you’ll see a huge amount of options directing you to different sites, resources and more.

For career choices, and information related to your specific degree, take a look at ‘Making Career Choices’. Here, you can look at Job Sector Guides, Using Your Degree

 and see info about further study you might look into. If you’re not sure where to start, click Making Career Choices, and then ‘What stage are you at with your career planning?’. Here you can pick between choices such as ‘I’m not ready to start thinking about my career yet’, ‘I have a career in mind, but I’m not sure how to get there’ and more. The page will then take you to suggestions tailored to your specific situation. For example, if you click ‘I have a career in mind, but I’m not sure how to get there’, you will be directed to the Job Sector Guides, where you can find sector overviews and job profiles to help you find out more about what is involved, as well as training routes and ways to gain experience. There are also directive goals suggested, such as getting in touch with people in your desired career over Sussex Connect, or volunteering during your studies to gain relevant work experience.

This tool is really fantastic as you can get directed, tailored suggestions, instead of trawling through all the resources available to try and pick ones that will help you.

If you want to think about your career path starting from a more bottom-up approach (i.e. starting with you!), you can use the online questionnaires and personality tests linked on the C&E website (Making Career Choices; Your interests and motivations) to identify your strengths and skills and start thinking about your career that way. It’s often helpful to start this way and try to find a career that fits you, rather than trying to fit yourself into careers that might not be a great match.


SkillsHub is somewhere you can go with pretty much any academic problem you’re struggling with. From digital skills, critical thinking, writing essays, referencing guides – it’s got it all! I personally used SkillsHub when I was struggling with the Statistics module in my Psychology degree – unless you’re part of a lucky (and, I think, mythical) few, you’re probably struggling with Stats too. No worries – there’s no need to do it in your third year! (Apart from your dissertation, but that’s a whole other blog post). There’s links to resources, videos from lecturers specialising in that topic, and student perspectives too. SkillsHub is great to use when you don’t feel the need to reach out to a staff member (or maybe feel too scared to), as it focuses on self-directed learning and gives you real-life tips on how to improve your grades and confidence in your skills.


Lastly, you can find upcoming C&E events in lots of ways. You can see events on CareerHub, through the C&E’s Instagram page (@sussexunicareers), or through the C&E website ( The C&E team run a great timetable of events, most of which are open to all current students and recent graduates. Some examples of these events include ‘STEM Women’, ‘Time Management Webinar’, ‘Aspire: an event for students of Black heritage’, and so much more. I’d really recommend trying out one of these events, and many of them have online attendance options, which makes it all the easier to fit them into your schedule.

There is also a Canvas module specifically for Careers in Psychology, where you can access previous talks from professionals from different fields, current vacancies, career profiles and more. 

If you’ve made it this far, well done! As you can tell, there are so many resources offered by the Careers & Entrepreneurship Centre it can all feel a bit daunting and like you’re not sure where to start. Hopefully, this blog post has helped to break down the different offerings into a more manageable source of information, and if there’s anything we’ve missed off, or you have a question about Careers in Psychology, please feel free to contact me Louise Drake, as the Psychology Careers Connector, and most importantly: you’ve got this!

This is a time of life where these things are bound to be scary and feel overwhelming. It’s a really good idea to put the effort in to utilise some of these resources to help alleviate your fears and get your questions answered.

Louise Drake is a final year Psychology Student and Careers Connector at the University of Sussex.

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How Does Prior Knowledge Affect Learning of New Information?

By Petar Raykov, Psychology Research Fellow at Sussex.

I am not one to enjoy promoting myself, yet I have been in Sussex for a while now and I quite like the research I have been doing here, so here it goes. Back in the day I started my PhD with Prof. Chris Bird and Prof. Jane Oakhill. My research focused, and I guess still focuses, on how prior knowledge and experiences affect the learning and representations of new everyday information.

Ok, so let’s slightly unpack this. By new everyday information, I mean my research often uses naturalistic video stimuli that show narrative plots unfolding over time. There is a rather new trend in psychology to use such stimuli, since they may be more easily generalizable to everyday life, or indeed can be particularly useful to address psychological questions such as how do we comprehend events and discourse, and how do we integrate information over time. Notably, as most trends this one also has very much been inspired by work done previously – seminal psychological studies have investigated how we comprehend and remember text (Bartlett, 1932; Bransford & Johnson, 1972; Johnson-Laird, 1983)[], and process events and actions from videos (Newtson et al., 1977)[].

To comprehend everyday situations, we often rely on our prior knowledge. For instance, when we go into a library, we expect to see a lot of books and people studying rather than dancing. My research focused on distinguishing the effects on different types of prior knowledge. For instance, we have more general knowledge about how a typical library might work – such general or schematic knowledge has been learned over multiple experiences with libraries. However, we might also have prior specific knowledge about one particular library (e.g., what happened yesterday at the library at University of Sussex).

In different studies I tested how specific and general prior knowledge might affect learning and what brain regions might support integrating prior knowledge with new incoming information.

For instance, in one study I showed that simply knowing the previous topic of conversation can lead to improved memory for a continuation video. This study also replicated previous fMRI (brain scanning technique) results from Chris Bird’s lab (Keidel et al., 2017)[] and further extended them by showing what brain regions are involved in integrating this specific prior knowledge with the newly incoming information. Furthermore, by using newly developed machine learning methods we were able to show that having specific prior knowledge changed the comprehension and memory for the continuation video among participants. Specifically, having prior knowledge increased the consistency of interpretation of the second half videos leading to more similar memories across participants that had the prior knowledge (Raykov et al., 2018)[].

Here I will digress a bit but hopefully the reader would find the trivia about these new machine learning methods very cool (e.g. see this cool visualization ). There has been a recent explosion in the development of new natural language processing algorithms that allow engineers and researchers to quantify relationships between text automatically. Specifically, such analyses methods can detect topics of conversation ( (Heusser et al., 2021)[]), synonyms, quantify the similarity between sentences (, answer questions ( and even generate and predict new text ( These methods are particularly helpful since they could to some extend resemble the semantic memories (people’s encyclopaedic knowledge of knowing what objects and words mean) people have (see Fig. 1. and this amazing review – (Kumar, 2021)[]). The methods also allow psychologists to quantify semantic coherence and similarity and fit new models to address how people comprehend language or predict upcoming words (Goldstein et al., 2021; Huth et al., 2016)[;](see this interactive walkthrough of Huth’s results

In parallel, researchers in cognitive neuroscience and psychology have also started to adopt new machine learning methods (various decoding and encoding models) to examine how different stimulus features may predict brain activity. Indeed, this has proven very fruitful approach. Combining brain imaging with such machine learning methods can be helpful to address longstanding questions in psychology. For instance, Ediz Sohoglu who works at University of Sussex recently used encoding models to show how prediction errors affect speech perception (Sohoglu & Davis, 2020)[]. Warrick Roseboom and colleagues have used neural network models to build a computational model of how we might perceive time (Roseboom et al., 2019)[]. Interestingly, this model has been further updated and currently also has implications for episodic memory and event processing (how we distinguish one event from another) (Fountas et al., 2021)[]. These methods are not only useful for neuroimaging data. Nora Andermane, Jenny Bosten, Anil Seth and Jamie Ward applied a clustering algorithm to examine individual differences in a set of perceptual tasks that measured how prior expectations affect perception (Andermane et al., 2020)[]. Notably this is just a small sample of the incredible research done at Sussex University. But hopefully, it can highlight the usefulness of such methods, especially when combined with rigorous experimental design, and point out to students that sometimes coding pays off. Now to stop wasting your precious time I will stop with my digression. 

Figure 1. Highlighted words in yellow are words the algorithm identifies are related to the word ‘king’. These synonyms relationships are automatically learned by computational algorithm (word2vec), but may resemble the knowledge we represent about these objects in our brains.

In another study, we familiarised participants with one TV show and later asked them to watch and remember new video clips taken from the trained show and clips taken from a similar but untrained show. The training allowed participants to learn schematic information over multiple episodes about the main characters and their personalities. This design allowed us test how prior generic person knowledge affected the processing of new related information. I showed that person schematic knowledge helped participants remember more story specific information from the new clips taken from the trained show. We were able to identify brain patterns of activity that were specific for the person schematic knowledge. Interestingly, these patterns were present in medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region often associated with complex thought, reasoning and emotional processing. We observed that participants showing more robust evidence for these schematic patterns showed higher memory benefit for the trained videos (see Fig. 2). Furthermore, using videos and pattern recognition methods we were able to show that schema patterns were likely present throughout the whole duration of the video. These results start to elucidate how and when schema knowledge exerts its effects on new learning (Raykov et al., 2020, 2021)[;].

Figure 2. More robust schema representation in the remedial prefrontal cortex (MPFC; the yellow blob in the brain) predicted better memory for the trained video clips when compared to the untrained video clips.

In more recent work I examined what information do we actually represent when we remember an event (Bromis et al., 2021)[]. In a collaborative project with Konstantinos Bromis we tested how repeated and unique elements are remembered. Specifically, most psychological work often examines memory for unique items or narratives, however, in our everyday lives a lot of information is actually repeated and shared among events. For instance, on Monday and Tuesday I might work in the office and see Sam on both days. So, when I am remembering an event from Tuesday, I have to differentiate it from my memories from Monday on which I also saw Sam. Apart from these repeated elements there also event unique elements, e.g. I might have had different conversations on Monday and Tuesday, furthermore I might have seen different combination of people (e.g. on Monday I saw Sam and Dominika, but on Tuesday I saw Sam and Flavia). Traditional views in memory research are that since each event is composed of unique combination of elements, we simply represent all elements equally. However, this has not been tested empirically. Furthermore, since our memories may be particularly important on how we make predictions and decisions for the future, it might be the case that we do not represent frequently and predictably occurring elements equally to event unique elements. Me and Kostas addressed exactly this question in a two-session fMRI study using conversations written by Leah Wickens (an ex-undergraduate student at University of Sussex). We asked participants to learn very well conversations that comprised of repeated and unique elements. Participants could remember the conversations and both types of elements very well. Indeed, behaviourally they rated the event unique elements as more important and remembered more from them. Yet when we examined how their brains represented these memories, we found that actually the repeated and predictable elements were more strongly represented during retrieval. This result argues against the standard view of holistic retrieval where we represent all elements equally, and start to elucidate that our memories may put more weight on repeated and predictable elements, since they may be more important in the future (Anderson & Milson, 1989; Gershman, 2017)[;]. You can see more about the research in this presentation (

More recently, I have started to investigate how prior knowledge can lead to memory errors, and biases in interpretation. Indeed, although prior knowledge often benefits learning sometimes it makes learning more difficult and can lead to false memory errors – where people falsely remember things that never happened. Furthermore, I am interested in how we learn information that contradicts our prior expectations. This new line of research is done in collaboration with Dominika Varga (you can see an interview she did posted on the Sussex Neuroscience channel – ).

Apart from how prior knowledge affects processing of new information there are still multiple questions to be addressed. For instance, it is clear that prior knowledge effects are not necessarily linear and additive, so future research is needed to better understand the conditions that affect new learning. Furthermore, recently there has been large leaps in technology (e.g. development of various new brain imaging techniques and new computational and analysis methods) that allow us to empirically test new research questions and gain better understanding on how certain psychological processes are implemented in the brain. Yet there are still multiple questions to be addressed in future research. Indeed, it is still not clear how best to examine representations that are not currently active or in working memory, which may be necessary to best understand the effects of prior knowledge. One of the biggest remaining questions is also how newly learnt information becomes integrated with our previous memories and become part of our general knowledge about how the world works.

Hopefully, you enjoyed my blabbing and found the research interesting. And who knows, you might even consider participating in brain imaging research. One cool bit of it is that you can get a picture of your brain (the Van Gogh brain in Figure 2 is actually mine) and even get a 3D print of your brain (that can glow in the dark).

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A First Year Student’s Perspective of Studying Psychology at Sussex

By Eli Hooper

As a person, I feel I have a pretty unique experience of first year psychology so, to begin with, let me introduce myself. Hi, my name is Eli. This is actually my second year studying at the university as I also completed a psychology foundation year which, given the circumstances of the past few years, presented its own set of advantages and challenges. I am also from a low-income background, pansexual, non-binary, and I have ADHD as well as a plethora of mental health issues. These things all affect me not only as a person, but also as a student, yet none of them have hindered my ability to reach the position I am in today.

Going into first year was a challenge. I had never even approached the idea of revision before, and I suddenly found myself in a position where I needed to gain that skill quickly in order to just keep up. I felt overwhelmed, lost, and fell into a real state of panic. Honestly, I was a mess. But in time, as I adjusted to university, and it to me, I began to find myself as a student. Understanding what worked for me and adapting to this new way of life took real time and effort that I wasn’t used to, but eventually the picture came together.

One of my main concerns when looking at the syllabus was coding: “What!? I thought psychology was just reading research articles and learning about disorders, what is this doing here?” is how I imagine that thought spiral started. But with practice and careful assistance from Dr Evans, (Psychology lecturer and R extraordinaire) I began to find myself making light work of what initially seemed to me like a foreign language.

Don’t get me wrong, university isn’t easy and isn’t a decision to be made lightly. You are plunged into a new style of learning, with less support from lecturers as well as leaving behind your previously established support network (given you are studying away from home). However, you are given the opportunity for a new level of independence, self-discovery and to build new relationships (usually found in the most random of situations) without being fully exposed to the wider world just yet.

Overall, university can be a lot maybe even too much at times, but once you find your rhythm, it really can be enlightening. It is incredibly liberating to learn about the thing that you love alongside people that get it whilst being taught by people that really get it. All of this with the knowledge you are supported by a team of people that only want you to do well really helps to make this experience one worth taking. It wasn’t easy getting to this point but given the opportunity, I would choose it all over again. Psychology at the University of Sussex really is an experience like no other.

Eli Hooper is currently studying BSc Psychology with Clinical Approaches at the University of Sussex.

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Interview with Professor Zoltan Dienes – leading researcher on hypnosis

University of Sussex professor, Zoltan Dienes talks cold control theory and phenomenological control with Psychology MRes student, Kev Sheldrake.

I first heard of Zoltan Dienes (pronounced ‘dee-en-es’, or more correctly, ‘dee-en-esh’) when I devoured the theory section of the Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis. His chapter with Amanda Barnier described ‘cold control theory’ – an integrative theory of how suggestions were taken. Unlike the neoneodissociation theories (dissociated control, for example) it didn’t invent parts of the brain or mind to explain what was going on. And unlike Nicholas Spanos’s role-play or Graham Wagstaff’s ‘expectation, strategy and compliance’ theories, it took a strong, solid stab at accounting for the feelings of automaticity and involuntariness. As far as I was aware, only Irving Kirsch’s response set theory had really attempted this in the socio-cognitive (or cognitive-behaviour) domain, so it was a big deal.

Fast forward to the UK Hypnosis Convention in 2019 and Zoltan and I were speaking on the same stage on the same day – Zoltan missed my talk but I’ve since forced him to watch a recording of it on pain of death. We got chatting afterwards and I expressed how influential his work had been on my thinking about hypnosis, and in the development of the (theoretical but never-formally-tested) Automatic Imagination Model, that Anthony Jacquin and I put together while at Head Hacking (circa 2010).

Since then, and since starting this wonderful blog with my amazing wife, Amy, I’ve been reading a lot of vintage and classic academic texts on the topic, and decided to ask Zoltan whether there was any way he would supervise me studying for a part-time PhD. He agreed on the proviso that I studied first for a Master of Research degree in psychological methods, so that’s where I am right now – one term into a Master’s degree, being supervised by my hypno-hero, Zoltan Dienes! When it came to choosing people to interview for this blog, Zoltan was an obvious first candidate.

Professor Zoltan Dienes chatting to Kev via Zoom.

When asking Zoltan about how he became interested in hypnosis, it was surprising to discover that, really, hypnosis chose him:

“It was sort of a coincidence, really. My first degree was natural sciences, and I specialised in psychology, and decided I wanted to be an academic while I was doing my first degree. I was born in Australia, and grew up there until I was 11. And I thought, it would be nice to go back to ‘the fatherland’ and do a Master’s there before going on to do a PhD. And so I applied to Australian universities. At that time, I didn’t think about hypnosis, but I thought about maybe the application of cognitive psychology to clinical issues. One of the places I applied was Macquarie [Sydney], and they took my application to be for what they called an MA, which is actually like an MPhil, or a mini PhD in two years.

“So the crucial issue then was having a supervisor retain me as you would with a PhD. Kevin McConkey was interested in the application of cognitive psychology in hypnosis. They accepted me and I arrived at Macquarie, and Kevin gave me the review of hypnosis that had just been written by John Kihlstrom (this was in 1985). And he said, ‘If you want me to be your supervisor, it has to be on hypnosis, so read this review, and see what you think.’ Anyway, I read Kihlstrom’s review and thought, ‘Well, this sounds quite interesting to me really.’”

I’ve heard many a lay-hypnotist claim that academics aren’t very good at hypnosis and that they rarely use it, preferring instead to theorise, but not Zoltan: “So then I sort of hypnotised 100 people in the name of science and wrote that up as a Master’s thesis.” Zoltan explained that Kevin McConkey had a very active lab (one of the ‘big five’ in the world at the time; the other four being in the USA), and that they would screen hundreds of new psychology undergraduate students entering the university each year, for their response to hypnosis. He told me that back then, each UK university might have had between 30 and 40 new psychology undergraduates each year, making hypnosis research implausible, but that now Sussex (where Zoltan is a professor of experimental psychology) has an intake of over 500 each year, and that the majority of them are screened. The point being that if you want to run experiments, it is very helpful to have a large, pre-tested set of students who are prepared to take part in experiments, where you already know how good or bad they are at taking suggestions before you start.

When I asked him if that made Sussex the leading university in the UK for hypnosis research, he was unequivocal: “So part of first-year psychology requirements is a phenomenological control screening now, and we’ve been screening hundreds of people a year for hypnotisability since about 2006. I don’t know of any other place in the UK that has a regular year-on-year screening. Every year we’ll get out several papers on hypnosis. I can’t think of anywhere else [in the UK]; Oakley did have a big operation at UCL, but he’s now retired.”

Especially as Zoltan hadn’t specifically chosen to research hypnosis, I really wanted to know what he thought it was when he started out, and what he thinks it is now. He told me that initially he had no idea what was going on, and that non-hypnosis academics often fall into a similar camp:

“It’s interesting when you talk to scientists who don’t do hypnosis, about hypnosis, because they have absorbed the cultural stereotypes, and they haven’t really processed it in terms of their scientific understanding of the world yet, so they can believe all these myths about hypnosis. At the same time, they’re trying to be a scientist, so they try and square all that information. And I guess I was like that, but I found it intriguing. So I didn’t have any set ideas and I found all the ideas out there a bit baffling in a sense.”

Zoltan told me that Ernest Hilgard’s theory of parallel streams of consciousness made little sense to him when it came to pain control, because: “Why would anyone want hypnotic analgesia, if there’s this other conscious stream in intense pain?”. But on the other side of the debate, he didn’t really think that role enactment (Nicholas Spanos, Theodore Sarbin, William Coe, etc) properly explained hypnotic phenomena, nor was even saying anything fundamentally different to Hilgard.

Zoltan appeared as the hypnosis expert on The Assassin, one of Derren Brown: The Experiments TV shows broadcast on Channel 4 in 2011.

Zoltan’s insight, and the way he currently thinks about hypnosis, was that both sides of the debate were simply using different metaphors for the same thing. On the one side, Hilgard was describing parts of the mind in ways that Zoltan understood to be metaphors – even if Hilgard himself believed them as actual fact (“I don’t think Hilgard thought it was a metaphor”). On the other side, Spanos was using the metaphor of role enactment, essentially saying that the participant performs the action but somehow believes they aren’t the cause of it.

“I think I got to the bottom of that confusion in my mind when I came up with cold control theory, because there was a sense in which both Spanos and Hilgard were saying the same thing, which is what I put my finger on, in terms of cold control. And that sort of, I think, was partly a way of resolving my sense of confusion about what are they really arguing about? Well, part of that was because actually they had quite a lot in common, even though they sounded so very different.”

I suggested to Zoltan (pun intended) that what I found interesting and unique to cold control theory was that it presented testable hypotheses and, if the theory stood up, it would result in things you could actually change in order to improve response to suggestion, which other theories typically did not. Zoltan agreed; so I had to ask him, what role did he think the hypnotic induction plays in all of this? “I think no role,” he replied. He told me that William James in the late 19th century concluded that almost anything could be an induction: “Rubbing the temples, looking into the eyes… You could write a letter, it also has that!”. The implication was that if anything could be an induction, then an induction was essentially nothing, other than just a suggestion to enter a ‘trance’.

And on that, we discussed what people meant by the word ‘trance’ and what he thought of that whole area: “The thing with special states, and the sort of approach you find is people think, ‘Oh, good, cognitive neuroscience, EEG and ERPs’, and all sorts of things. And what they seem to think is if we find anything happening at all, in this huge mass of EEG data, that it’s a sign that the state is real, which obviously doesn’t follow at all. There’s no theory there. You’re just looking at a tonne of data. But there has not been a theory of trance that makes predictions about what will happen in EEG, fMRI or anything else, or at least that could not also be equally well explained by use of imagination in accordance with demand characteristics.”

Regardless of whether there is a state (spoiler: there isn’t) different people respond to differing levels to suggestion, so where did Zoltan find himself on that scale? “One of the first things I did when I went to Kevin McConkey’s lab to start my Master’s was sit in on the Harvard screening and, unfortunately, I am a low. I can experience some of the basic motor suggestions, which I’m pleased with.

“Irving Kirsch tells me he’s a medium. Hilgard [statetist] apparently was a low. But Theodore Barber [socio-cognitive theorist, or non-state] was a high. So Hilgard thought, ‘Wow, these highs are really amazing with what they can do’; because he couldn’t do it, he thought it was something special. Whereas Barber thought: any old fool can do this.”

This perspective on the researcher’s own hypnotic (or phenomenological control) capabilities, and the subsequent way they devised theory was really interesting. The guy who pretty much couldn’t achieve any hypnotic phenomena saw those who could as special, and invented special mechanisms by which they experienced the things they did. Whereas the guy who could personally experience all the phenomena didn’t think it was special at all, and consequently felt that all minds had the capability, and that it must just be the way he was using his, that resulted in the phenomena that he experienced.

Zoltan on The Assassin.

So we got talking about hypnotic anecdotes and Zoltan revealed that he is, in fact, a secret street hypnotist!

“One anecdote through phenomenological control I often tell people relates to what you’re asking about how hypnotizable researchers are. I had a PhD student, Rebecca, doing a hypnosis session; she was a high, and at the time I was doing work with Irving on the colour experiment. I was quite interested in that the highest could do it without an induction and just be told to do it, basically. So I said to Rebecca, ‘We’re sitting in a cafe, you see that bottle in front of you, you can turn it red, if you want’. She said, ‘No I can’t do that’, and then she said ‘Oh! It’s turned red!’. So she didn’t know she had this capability to do it. Or somehow she deceived herself enough that it was surprising to her.”

This reminded me of a Head Hacking discovery of ‘permanosis’, where once we’d hypnotised someone, we could just deliver suggestions at a future time and they would be taken as if we’d re-hypnotised them. Obviously, now I know it’s all just suggestion and the induction was unnecessary, but, at the time, Anthony gave a similar suggestion with a bottle in a cafe to someone he had hypnotised once about three weeks prior. He told him his hand was stuck to the bottle and that it would rise into the air. While filming this, I reached out from behind the camera and grabbed his other hand and told him it was stuck to Anthony, and of course it was. I’d never hypnotised the guy before, but he knew I was a hypnotist. At the time we thought we’d discovered something but obviously this was well known (even James referred to it back in the 1890s!).

I asked Zoltan for his favourite hypnosis book and he nominated Lynn and Kirsch’s Essentials of Clinical Hypnosis: An Evidence-Based Approach (review coming soon!). “I like the stuff Irving Kirsch has done. I quite liked the preamble to that; I use it as a basis for my introductory lectures to hypnosis that I give to first-years.”

But when asked for a fiction reference Zoltan was far from forthcoming. No amount of celebrating The Exorcist II, The Manchurian Candidate, Fear In The Night, or Dean Koontz’s False Memory would draw him into giving a literary reference that he actually liked. “I probably get annoyed by the way hypnosis is portrayed in literature generally. So no I can’t think of a favourite hypnosis film.” (Sad face.)

I asked Zoltan what he thought about the effect that Derren Brown has had on people’s beliefs about hypnosis and he revealed that he had actually appeared on one of his shows – The Assassin – as the hypnosis expert!

“So he brings in a hypnosis expert, mainly me. I say, ‘That can’t be done’. He says, ‘That’s what the experts say. But what can I do?’. It was fun. And it was really interesting to see how stage hypnosis works in a TV setting. Because the responses he was getting were just phenomenal. You know, there’s a TV audience, and he says, ‘I’ll tell you to do some suggestions and I’ll select the people who are responding well’. So he’s giving these really complex suggestions, like you’ll see people naked or things that only highs should be able to experience, but the whole audience was acting them out as if they’re intensely experiencing these.”

I asked him what he thought this meant for the public’s understanding of psychology and hypnosis in particular, and he was relatively measured in his response: “To be fair to him, I picked up one of his books in the bookshop, and just skimmed it on hypnosis, and he said, ‘Don’t believe anything I say on TV’. So he openly acknowledges that, but, still, that doesn’t get through to the fanbase.”

All this talk of Derren inevitably led to a conversation about NLP: “There’s a lot of wishy-washy stuff. I mean, couldn’t you be put into trance by stroking Erickson’s dog, for example?” (As a reminder, Zoltan thinks ‘trance’ is the result of a suggestion, not a state, and he probably thinks it is quite a silly concept.) “There’s all sorts of things; ‘if you confuse a person, they’ll be at the point of sort of trance’ seems like, you know, all sorts of wishful thinking about magic.”

And similar with conversational or covert hypnosis: “What I think happens is, particularly if you want to be part of the group, you want to sort of fulfil the requirements of being in that group. And in an experiment, it’s part of the experimental team, as it were, and you feel motivated to create the effects that the experimenter wants. Because that is sort of what’s meant to happen in that context, and so you do it. You can imagine that – I mean, in religious contexts, it’s exactly the same thing: social pressure, adherence, something religious. If you’re a high, you create those experiences.”

But this means that the application of conversational or covert hypnosis is limited to these circumstances: “That means you wouldn’t be able to hypnotise the mugger to stop him mugging you” – which I think is worth knowing! (The wall outside my house is four-feet high, by the way, Derren.)

And this conversation about NLP naturally led to one about hypnotherapy. I recounted a story where Irving told a room full of hypnotherapists (at ‘change | phenomena’ in 2011) that, if they weren’t otherwise qualified to treat psychological issues without hypnosis, that they shouldn’t be treating them with hypnosis, and that maybe they should limit their offerings to helping people handle chronic pain instead. When I asked Zoltan where he stood on this issue he drew a comparison with the teaching of martial arts.

He said that in France they limit martial arts training to only those that are accepted and regulated, which meant that the introduction of mixed martial arts (MMA), where many fighting approaches are combined, was very slow to gain acceptance and therefore become available. Whereas in the UK (where Zoltan teaches martial arts), there isn’t such stringent regulation; it was easy for him and others to pivot from karate to MMA with few requirements to satisfy, resulting in a much faster uptake.

Whilst he didn’t want “charlatans who don’t know what they’re doing” charging people for therapies that don’t work, he also felt his instincts were against the idea of mandatory regulation. He didn’t think that science was yet in a position to state which therapy works well enough to regulate it and force everyone to stick with that one.

So, there we have it – possibly one of the best interviews I’m ever going to conduct. Partly, that’s because Zoltan is high-hypno-hero-priest, up there with Irving Kirsch, and few others could hope to achieve the insights that he has; and partly, because he’s my supervisor for my Master’s degree and, assuming everything goes well, for my PhD in experimental psychology, specialising in hypnosis. Or should I say ‘phenomenological control’? Either way, what a fantastic opening to our (hopeful) series of interviews with academics. I can only hope that Graham Wagstaff gives me the same level of gossip, or that Donald Gorassini is secretly a Mason.

(Side note: Amy thinks that hypnosis should be rebranded as Zoltanism, because it just sounds so mystical. I didn’t get to ask what he thought, but I imagine Zoltan is more interested in removing the mysticism than he is in adding it, hence phenomenological control. Sorry, Amy – this rebrand isn’t going to happen.)

This interview was originally featured on hypnosis website Cosmic Pancakes.

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It’s 2021… and we are still dealing with misogyny in the name of open science

By Anonymous

A few of you might have followed a very recent pile-on on Twitter. For those that have not, here is some context: a recent paper by Felig et al. (2021) investigated the notion of whether women that dress lightly in the evening when going out, feel “hot” despite the cold temperatures and if this phenomenon could be explained with self-objectification. The authors are female PhD students and early-career researchers (ECR) from Florida. After their paper – first published in the British Journal for Social Psychology – was promoted on Twitter, it was heavily criticized by – what has been coined – “bropen science”. Although supportive posts quickly outnumbered the initial attackers, the consequences for the authors and those involved are heavy. In this post, I will outline why we should view such attacks under a lens of power asymmetry, and why this is particularly detrimental for those still trying to gain credibility. I make some suggestions on how to deal with this issue.

Considering psychology’s (especially experimental social psychology’s) replication crisis, the idea behind exposing “bad science” is certainly not a bad one; exposing intentionally p-hacked, dubious, or fake studies is important for gaining credibility as a field. However, when such “vigilantism” involves crossing boundaries and either attacking the researcher(s) personally or questioning the entire relevance of the study subject (or both) we should ask: Who is in power in such conversations? 

The open science movement conveys the message that we as researchers need to be transparent and make our work accessible to be credible. Because of that it has become a powerful institution and dictates research routines more and more. However, the system seems to work better for some than for others. Against its initial objectives to reform the field and make it better for all, it rather is a reflection of societal power structures and privileges, benefitting those who have achieved a position that does not make them worry about career prospectives anymore (e.g., academic tenure, but also retirement). It systematically allows little diversity, imposes often impractical requirements on research strands that are not quantitative, and keeps its eyes closed when those that, in line with the movement’s criteria, transparently provide their work and by doing so exhibit potential shortcomings, limitations, or imperfections, get punished, rather than positively reinforced.   

The twist in “bropen science” then linguistically illustrates which characteristics are fostered by the system (Kirstie Whitaker and Olivia Guest provide a brilliant elaboration on the term) and who seems to get away with such attacks in the name of open science. The asymmetry in power relations in those attacks become obvious when considering that, first, the target of such attacks often is a woman, women-led research or a team of females researchers (even established ones, such as in the case of Dr Amy Cuddy), concerned with women empowerment; second, that such attacks can have heavy consequences for the attacked; the least harmful might revolve around pre-existing statistics anxieties which may become worse among the attacked but also among to-be-authors after witnessing what online promotion can entail. As many have pointed out, while the attackers will move on, the scars will remain with the victims; and that third, the consequences weigh heavily also for the reputation and credibility among those that are still building such up (i.e., PhD students and/ or ECR). 

What happened to Felig et al. (2021), concerned with self-objectification among young women, shows such signs of asymmetry: The attack involved an original post by a now retired researcher retweeting the promotion of the paper, ridiculing its relevance, and questioning its statistical credibility while tagging established others from which, presuming, support was expected. While this remained absent, the post was promptly turned into a heavy pile-on, involving people – among them established statisticians and psychologists – almost entirely men (followed by a few “Karens”[1]) sharing silly memes and ridiculing the paper and authors even more. The attack went on over days, even after (or because of?) Felig defended herself online but was evidently emotionally affected. It went as far as re-examining the (transparently!) provided dataset by including outliers and DVs that were openly declared by Felig et al. (2021) as left out for good reasons. Apart from the fact that some might call this p-hacking, that such re-analyses take place in public space is not helpful for the authors, nor is the original attack that contributed nothing to constructive feedback from which the authors could have learned and improved their skills for future open science studies, if necessary. 

Fortunately, since then, many academic Twitter users stood up for the authors and called the unacceptable behaviour out. This not only involved other PhD students, established academics, and even one of the peer reviewers but also researchers who admitted to having engaged in similar inappropriate behaviour themselves before but who now had “learned their lesson”. One of the people who had initially jumped on the pile now even took the time to carefully analyse the paper and provided the authors with constructive feedback and emphasised the effort and transparency the authors provided. Again, whether such public criticism is the best solution, is up for debate. 

Publishing and promoting academic work online is crucial for us as researchers; for our reputation, for job perspectives (after the PhD), and networking, but it makes us vulnerable, too. The recent situation has shown me even more how vulnerable we are. Criticism is always uncomfortable, and while no serious researcher ever wants to engage in questionable methods, mistakes can happen, especially in early work. Although open science should reward learning processes, the recent situation has revealed how public engagement in the name of open science can also be detrimental; those that engaged in the pile-on were neither interested in contributing to “good science” nor in mentoring the to-be-scientists, but acted in self-interest, cementing their position of power, and using it against a group of ECRs, who are still building up reputation and credibility.

So, what can we do?

Get in touch with the authors or editor if you have concerns 

The first author provides their email address for a reason. If you see a paper, you do not agree with or you have your concerns about, why not get in touch directly? You can do so with the authors themselves, but also with the journal or editor. This way, concerns can be expressed and clarified in a way that gives the authors a chance to write a correction or erratum if needed.

Get in touch with the authors and/ or influential others if you want to support them 

Being a female PhD student myself, I was in shock observing how the conversation unfolded. The fear of being yet another target has made me step back from calling out anyone on Twitter myself. Instead, I decided to get in touch with the first author and express my solidarity. I also reached out to an influential researcher who was tagged in the tweet and asked them to act. However, I was left disappointed since they explained that they would prefer to stay silent, which unfortunately only contributes to letting the attackers off the hook, unpunished.   

Contribute to shifting power dynamics 

Open science being a powerful movement, we should focus on its core values, namely, to make science transparent and accessible and to foster learning and improvement in a respectable way. Observing the situation unfold, supportive and constructive comments eventually outnumbered the original attack by far. You can contribute to this by speaking out yourself or by amplifying such posts. In this way, weights may be shifted in the conversation.

Leaving Twitter? 

Finally, the majority might agree with me that Twitter is not an ideal medium for academic discussion (perhaps not for any discussion). However, the reason why I put a question mark at this point is because that there are obvious benefits in being on academic Twitter: It helps us with staying up to date with research and colleagues, networking, promoting ourselves, and perhaps even with finding a job. So how can we reconcile the benefits and risks? While I do not have a definite answer, there are ways to protect yourself on social media, including using a fake name or anonymous account (or writing a blog post anonymously?!). You may be even able to change your name on the publication and use a pseudonym. The obvious downside is that with anonymity, publications cannot be attributed to us and therefore not contribute to professional development. Thus, protection goes at the expense of progression and reputation!

Concluding, what we have witnessed is unacceptable, and strongly shaped by what the open science movement allows to happen. Fortunately, people have positioned themselves and supported the ones concerned. I have outlined some ways in which you can contribute to this without exposing yourself or others (even more). 

[1] The “Karen” trope is commonly used in the context of racist attacks on Black people, dominantly in the US. A “Karen” thereby represents white middle-class, middle-aged women complaining about what they – against all face value – describe as “criminal behaviour” of a Black person (mainly men). This can go as far as calling the police (which can constitute lethal consequences for the Black person). I argue that we can use this term here too since the trope represents an attempt by a “Karen” to gain her share of the power in a (white) male-dominated world by playing along with it – even at the expense of those systematically disadvantaged, which on another level includes the “Karen” herself.

This post was originally published on the Crowds and Identities Research Group blog.

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

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What is COP26?

COP26 is the 26th meeting of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, taking place in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November. COP26 will bring together 197 countries to agree how the world will tackle climate change and limit global warming to no more than 1.5C. This is the most important COP meeting to date, because with the world already at 1.2C of warming, we are now very short on time to decarbonise the whole of our societies, and governments’ current pledges for greenhouse gas reductions are falling far short of what is needed – in fact, right now we are on track for at least 3C of warming by the end of the century.

The aim of COP26 is for international governments to agree how they will each make the cuts in carbon that are needed to transition to net zero emissions by 2050. Developed countries such as the UK need to make larger carbon savings, while developing countries need help to grow sustainably, including financial assistance from developed economies. Agreeing the collective path forward is probably the biggest political challenge ever undertaken – but not doing so puts us and the planet on a collision course for climate catastrophe.

2C of warming would mean ‘widespread and severe impacts on people and nature. A third of the world’s population would be regularly exposed to severe heat, leading to health problems and more heat-related deaths. Almost all warm water coral reefs would be destroyed, and the Arctic sea ice would melt entirely at least one summer per decade. We cannot rule out the possibility that irreversible loss of ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic could be triggered, leading to several metres of sea level rise over centuries to come. At 1.5C the impacts would be serious, but less severe. There would be lower risks of food and water shortages, and fewer species at risk of extinction. Threats to human health from air pollution, disease, malnutrition and exposure to extreme heat would also be lower. That is why every fraction of a degree of warming matters’ (UK government COP26 explained FAQ).

As well as the negotiations taking place amongst world leaders, COP also hosts talks and events from NGOs, charities, and campaigners. Expect to see lots of news coverage the next two weeks, both on what world leaders are saying – or what they are failing to say – and how campaigners are encouraging our leaders to be bold in taking the big steps that need to be taken to limit warming to no more than 1.5C.

At Sussex, we are aiming to become a net zero university by 2035. Read more about our sustainability strategy and plans to become the greenest university in the UK here.

Are you a Sussex Psychology student? We have 3 Green Reps in the School of Psychology who are working with faculty and Psychology staff to make our teaching, research, and buildings more sustainable: Naomi Goldblatt (undergraduate & masters), Alaa Aldoh (PhD) and Harry Lewis (PhD). Contact them if there is a green change you want to see happen in Psychology. The Psychology faculty green officer is Charlotte Rae.

Want to find out more about COP26?

Posted in Green Tips

The active essay writing initiative

Earlier this summer, Dr Wendy Garnham was one of the “torch-bearer” in the virtual torch relay event organised by AdvanceHE.

In the spirit of the Olympic Games, Wendy joined colleagues across the globe to celebrate best practice examples of assessment methods and how they overcame a very challenging year.

The project was part of the Connect Benefit series, which celebrates HE sector colleagues’ ingenuity, resilience and empathy to adapt to the changes in teaching, learning and assessment during the pandemic.

In spring, AdvanceHE invited academics to share examples of assessment practices they had introduced in response to covid-19. The purpose was to examine the different challenges academics faced to adapt their assessment methods for remote, hybrid or occasionally socially distanced in-person delivery. They then selected 89 best practice examples, which they are now publishing.

Later in July, AdvanceHE uploaded two to three contributions (short videos, posters, text documents) a day to an interactive map, where people could follow the torch’s journey across 21 countries.

Wendy’s video was published on 23 July, and we have now included it in this post with a complete transcription (automatic caption is not very accurate). It’s a brief presentation of the innovative essay writing assessment method that Wendy and Dr Heather Taylor use in our psychology foundation modules:

“Why is this cow relevant to my example of assessment? Because, as you may be aware, a cow is known to regurgitate cud as part of its normal digestive process. When faced with the task of writing an essay students often resort to regurgitating the lecture you gave them, telling you exactly what you told them. How dull! Not only that, but students often do this at the end of term, in a rather rushed fashion.

Active essay writing program rewards students for the process, as well as the end product. Using fortnightly tasks, starting with asking students to generate their own ideas about the question before they look at the academic literature, they document each stage of the process, using creative collages and digital tools.

Student feedback was positive, and wow! the essays were so much more interesting to mark. They were now thinking like kingfishers. Why kingfishers? You may not know this, but the kingfisher’s beak acted as the inspiration for an engineer to a Japanese rail company to solve a problem with high-speed trains. Innovation trumps regurgitation.

What is the moral of the story? Creativity and innovation can be fostered through effective assessment. It pays to be more like the kingfishers than to follow the example of the cow.”

As Wendy explains in the video, the assessment activity is divided into smaller two-weeks-long tasks. Each phase has an intriguing name such as ‘conversation collage’, ‘sling your hook’, ‘geographer’s dream’ and ‘painting a Rembrandt’, and they encourage students to think outside the box and come up with their own ideas for their essay questions.

The structured nature of the exercise helps students to develop their time management skills and reduces last-minute stress. And at the end of the process, they have a portfolio of materials that help lecturers identify weak points and provide helpful feedback. The results are better quality essays and fewer cases of plagiarism.

Dr Wendy Garnham is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. She’s the Director of Student Experience for the Foundation Year programmes and the co-founder of the Active Learning Network.

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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

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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