The Wonderful World of Research

Over the summer a number of students visited on Nuffield Research Placements. These give sixth form students hands-on experience of a professional research environment through a placement in their summer holidays. Each of them worked with an academic on a mini research project. Here, three of them, working on a project looking at whether imagined contact in children would reduce prejudice towards  those with disabilities,  give a candid account of their experiences.

 

nuffield

From left: Forogh, Farzeen, Tashreefa

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Flaky children or flimsy evidence? Why bullying might not make you stronger

Perusing the web earlier this week, I came across a tweet to this piece in the Daily Mail, 8th June, 2016.

dmfarce

In it, Claire Fox (not  that Claire Fox traditionally associated with bullying  research) argues that teenagers are getting upset far too quickly and easily, by ideas going against this opinion. And she attributes this to them being mollycoddled at school :

Meanwhile, the old motto ‘Sticks and stones . . .’ is now forgotten, as we teach children that words can indeed hurt them. Bullying has been redefined to include ordinary playground verbal tussles. I remember my niece telling me, aged 11, that she was being bullied at school. I feared she was being beaten up or viciously taunted. In fact, she was being ‘excluded from her friendship group’.

I expected, since Claire Fox is a “top academic” that her claims would be supported with robust evidence linking teenagers’ vulnerability to their past protection from bullying. However, it was not.

Since we know from reasearch that exclusion and verbal insults from a friendship group have real and devastating effects on a child’s later development (see for one example among many Klomek et al., 2015) I decided it would be appropriate to offer a counter-argument. Here follows my thoughts on why bullying does not necessarily make you stronger or more resilient as an adult. With research evidence.

The premise that we’re starting from is that a litle bulying makes you stronger. You learn from it. That you gain skills from it. That you can respond better next time. But Fox argues that having adults deal with the supposedly terrible dangers of bullying in the playground, can do more harm than good….it denies children the experiences they need to develop, to gain social skills that they need to deal with later conflict/ challenging opinions for themselves.

But surely, in relation to any arbitrary noxious stimulus (whether it be bullying, poison, whatever) – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true if and only if you have something equivalent (in relation to the given noxious stimulus) to an effective immune system. Thus, in relation to bullying, a little bullying could make you more resistant to bullying only if you already have access to the structures/resources (whether internally or through readily available support from others – peers, teachers, parents, websites, whoever) necessary to transform that experience into knowledge of how to respond to and cope with future attempts at bullying.  Research bears this out. Friendship (Bollmer et al., 2005; Hodges et al., 1999) can serve to protect children against bullying’s negative effects. On the other hand, ineffective humour use can increase the risk for future victimization (the other Fox et al., 2015).

Without resources like good quality friendships, small amounts of the noxious stimulus could just gradually weaken the target. A physiological analogy would be arsenic: small amounts of arsenic over time don’t make you more resistant to arsenic (we don’t have the physiological capacity to learn to cope with arsenic, as I understand it), small amount of arsenic gradually make you weaker and more ill over many years.

Taking the analogy of inoculation further (for inoculation is a good real and empirically grounded example of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” cliche being true), perhaps one could argue that better than exposure to small amounts of actual bullying would be exposure to a *deactivated* equivalent to bullying (viruses are commonly deactivated or dead prior to being used in inoculation): in other words, role play bullying scenarios could be used, in a safe environment that also provides the resources necessary to learn from (rather than be weakened by) the experiences.

So – bullying could make you stronger – assuming – and it is a BIG assumption – that you have been given the requisite social skills to deal with it, both in a de-activated form in the classroom (through role-play etc.) and ‘online’ as the active experiences unfold. Unfortunately, as we know from research over 50% of bullying goes unreported, so the children experiencing it go without help.

A further problem – as I see it – is that there is wide acknowledgement that social skills to counteract bullying (from the perspective of perpetrator, target and bystander) need to be learnt by children (see the other Fox & Boulton, 2005), but less acknowledgement from government that these skills need to be *taught* as part of the curriculum.  Children’s social worlds are complex: without that teaching, bullying can grind a child down.

A little bit of it won’t then make them stronger.

 

One like me! Toying with the Doll Industry

Psychology @ Goldsmiths

JonesSianE

Dr. Sian Jones is a Teaching Fellow at Goldsmiths, Univdersity of London. Her research focuses on discrimination and prejudice among children and adults based on membership of a given group – and how friendships may be encouraged between children from different groups. Here, she looks at the Psychology behind the importance of representing disability in the toy industry. 

A lot of attention has focused on the toy industry of late, alongside changes in what is available and who it is targeted at. This ranges from the “let toys be toys” campaign pressuring for non-gendered marketing of products, to a plethora of companies like this one  marketing toys specifically designed to eradicate ethnic bias in dolls. This is coupled with changes to Barbie dolls both to make their shape more realistic, and to represent the careers that women may pursue.

Another avenue of change has been led by the #toylikeme campaign, with a recent petition garnering…

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Paper Review: Keeping secrets: Young children and group loyalty

Misch, A., Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2016). I won’t tell: Young children show loyalty to their group by keeping group secrets. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, 96-106. doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2015.09.016

It was at a conference last year that I first saw this paper presented. Interested, I banked it to read later. Then I saw it on the BPS Research Digest. It was time to dive in. This study involved 96 German 4 or 5 year-olds, interacting with hand puppets (developmental research is good fun 🙂 ) . The children and four of the puppets were introduced to each other, and then allocated to either the yellow or the green colour group, with two puppets put in each group. Groups were flagged by the wearing of a coloured scarf, that the child was also invited to wear. The child then left the room with the researcher, supposedly to help look for something, and on returning discovered two of the puppets, either from their own group, or the other group hiding a book.  The puppets  told children that the book was the group’s secret and urged them not to tell anyone. They hid the book and left. Another puppet, the same gender as the child participant, but not assigned to either group, called Siri then bribed children with up to five stickers to tell the secret. What would it take to get them to give up the book’s location?

 

Four puppets. Image from Misch et al., 2016

 

Female Siri, with her sticker bribes, that were revealed sequentially. Image from Misch et al., 2016

The findings showed that 61% of the children kept the secret, in spite of Siri’s bribes (and the last heart-shaped, larger sticker on offer). More importantly, for developmental psychology,  more children, aged either 4 or 5 years, chose to keep the secret when they were urged to do so by puppets in their own group, as opposed to the other colour group. Thus, according to the researchers, children as young as 4 years will make a sacrifice for group loyalty.  This study is simply yet beautifully designed, with a clean-cut and striking finding, building on past research that asked children to evaluate group members, towards assessing their behaviour as a group member. But what exactly does it show? And what does it mean for our understanding of children’s tendency towards group loyalty?

 

 

 

The authors note that the children had only joined the group minutes before being asked to keep the secret. The effect of minimal groups has been well-documented in children and adults alike (see Diehl, 1990 and Dunham et al., 2011). My repeated critique of such studies in children is that according to Tajfel et al.’s (1971) definition of a minimal group – one doesn’t ever see other group members – either from the ingroup or the outgroup. Yet one does meet group members in the current study. Thus, one doesn’t know (for certain) whether it is the gender / hair colour / voice etc. of the puppet, rather than their scarf that the child is evaluating. That said the yellow versus green group difference remains. And along with the authors, I’d ask: what about real groups? I’d also ask, what about “just-joined” status? Tajfel (1978) noted that those on the edge might be very ready to get their new group to see them  as fully supportive group members. Is it this, rather than loyalty that is driving the effect seen where the puppets were from the ingroup?

The Procedure to this study was clearly carefully thought through. It was important that the children were first introduced to the puppets, an attempt was made to ensure that they would treat the puppets as fellow children (the extent to which this is the case rather than the situation being seen as pretend play is debatable – but pretend play is a whole other research area), and the illusion of a secret hiding place for the puppets’ book was maintained. But what about the book?   We’re told it contains writing (which presumably the children would struggle with: do the children assume the puppets can read?) but not about the information in it. Would the game change if the yellow group and the green group were in competition, and the book contained the winning strategies? Telling then could have serious implications (depending on who Siri talks to: does she know members of the yellow or green groups?) And what is the relation between the yellow and green groups? And of course – the children were told the secret minutes after joining: maybe the secret wasn’t that much of a secret after all. One would expect stronger effects if the groups were pitted against each other – and if the secreted item had real value.

Talking of value leads me to ask about cost. The children in this study had to make a sacrifice – as the authors note – in foregoing the stickers. In doing so, they were giving up something that they never had. One could potentially make the effect stronger by raising the stakes. What if, instead of gaining something from telling, the child lost something for not telling – something that they already had in their possession?  What if they lost resources belonging to their own group? Would that cost be worth it in terms of the way they are seen by their ingroup? How would their ingroup value their loyalty? How would they view those who are disloyal? And following from this, and from the work of Rutland and colleagues showing that children will bully for the sake of group membership: what would happen if moral and social questions collided? If the child were asked to keep a secret for the ingroup (or the outgroup) that helped that group to cheat in some way?

Perhaps, for understanding proclivity for group loyalty, the most important question is why  children chose not to tell. The researchers did ask this – but unfortunately their findings were relegated to the “online supplementary material.”. Here, it is reported that children told the secret because “Siri wanted to know”, because “I  wanted the stickers”, because “I wanted to”, because “there was only writing in the book” – or they didn’t know. Refusing to tell was down to the fact that “I was not allowed to,” because “the others asked me not to tell it”, because “it was a secret”, or because “I didn’t want to tell”, or because they didn’t know. This information wasn’t broken down by age group or by which group the child was being (dis)loyal to. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that it is only upon refusal that the children defer to group loyalty (the puppets asked them not to tell), while other responses concern individual motives and understanding (deference to an individual, wanting the stickers,the special status of secrets). This difference is worthy of further investigation: what reasons do children give for (dis)loyalty? More specifically, does disloyalty occur only when it is self-serving or in response to an individual request? Would children pass on the secret to a fellow in-group puppet? And is the special status of secrets only retained when speaking to non-ingroup members?

So, this was one of the first studies to look at such young children’s understanding of group loyalty: not just to ask them to evaluate group members, but to look at their behaviour as a group member. It showed that children had awareness of the nature of secrets, of their choice to tell or keep that secret, and for whom they were keeping that secret. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining.  What about morality?  What is the extent of the children’s loyalty? How does thischange according to the group and the secret in question? Children’s loyalty, and their reasoning surrounding it, is indeed a rich area of research.

 

 

 

 

Paper Review: Elementary School Children’s Reasoning About Social Class

Mistry, R. S., Brown, C. S., White, E. S., Chow, K. A. & Gillen-O’Neel, C. (2015), Elementary school children’s reasoning about social class: A mixed-methods study. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12407

Against the backdrop, in the UK at least, of the imminent Labour Party leadership election, with supporters for the left-most candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, arguing for  “an economy which works for all, rejects austerity and places wealth and opportunity in the hands of the millions and not simply the millionaires”,  it seemed timely to look at this paper, examining as it does, children’s conceptions and understanding of social class.

The authors looked at 117 U.S. children’s (aged 10-12 years) placing of their family on a ten-rung ladder from people who have most money, to people who have least money, and were asked to tell researchers why they had placed themselves there. Additionally, children were asked what came to mind when talking about “rich, middle-class, and poor” people, and completed attitude scales of people in these categories. Further to this, their parents reported on the family income and subjective social class.

Children were asked to indicate what proportion of [rich] people would display each trait.

Children were asked to indicate what proportion of [rich] people would display each trait.

This was one of the first studies to test not simply the effects of social class (there are many of those studies out there) but to look at children’s understanding of social class. The authors expected that children would express the most negative beliefs about the poor as compared to the rich and middle class, and that childrens beliefs about the middle class (the modal class) would  be most positive.

The authors found that children’s understanding of their family’s income was informed by knowledge of material possessions, by lifestyle characteristics, and by comparison with others. Children rated “the poor” as having fewer positive attributes and more negative attributes than the “middle class”, and fewer positive attributes than “the rich”. Children who perceived that they were poor held less positive attitudes toward the poor than children who saw themselves as more middle class. But what does this mean for their understanding, exactly? 

Developmental Intergroup Theory

This study was framed within Developmental Intergroup Theory (DIT; Bigler & Liben, 2007) which, simply put,  proposes that children will categorize individuals according to salient perceptual dimensions and, seeing these dimensions used by adults in their classifications, develop hypotheses about why these dimensions are important for classification. What is it then that children pick up about social class categories?

Support was found here, for the tenets of DIT. Specifically, almost three quarters of the children in the current study rated their socioeconomic status as somewhere in the middle (i.e., ladder ratings between 5 and 7). Children seem to consider themselves part of the normative group. Furthermore, children were particularly focused on the concrete aspects of their social class, such as what they are (or are not) able to buy, what their house is like, and how their lifestyle differs from their friends’ (as opposed to noting more abstract features of having / not having money, such as security). 

As well as this, this paper goes beyond quantitative findings, and details careful qualitative exploration of why children understood their socio-economic status to be as they did. For example, one child said:

Well, I was thinking that at the top of the ladder, thats someone like J.K. Rowling, theyd just breally wealthy and the next one is like someone who is pretty wealthy and this one is [pointing to the next rung on the ladder], they probably live in a really big house and I think I might be here [points down] because I think my family has enough money to be comfortable and were happy and like we dont have a hard time, but its not likwe have a lot of money and its not like we live in a huge housewe live in a little house in [neighborhood] but its just nice and a nice size.  (p. 10). 

clearly indicating social comparison, and concreteness in describing their house size.

Who lives here?

Who lives here?

However, it may be that the tendency to identify as middle class is precisely because children imagined extreme examples of rich and poor (as above), and by default, somewhere between those extremes implies middle class. It would then be the nuances within “middle class” that would be interesting to look at – how do I compare with my friends? classmates? And how does that matter? 

And Beyond DIT

Further results showed that children did  associate the most negative attributes with the poor relative to the rich. They rated the poor as both higher in negative attributes and lower in positive attributes compared to the other social class group. When it came to their own group,, children who saw themselves as poorer rated the poor as having more negative attributes than the other more middle class children. This has echoes of the doll studies of the 1970s – where Black children preferred the White doll, rating the Black doll negatively. However, as the author’s note, in absolute terms, negative ratings weren’t that bad – only a “few” or “some” people had the negative traits.

Considering that children were asked to identify their socioeconomic status on the ladder rungs, it is also worth noting that no child rated themselves on the two lowest rungs of the ladder, and none self- identied as poor per sé. It is also worth mentioning that a measure of social identity with one’s social class was not taken. And, although the qualitative reports indicated some understanding of where money might come from, social mobility across social class was not measured either.

There is also the issue of this being a one-shot study, with a correlational design. That is, it is a snapshot of one school, at one point in time, with set diversity in terms of social class. Further research might usefully open up this diversity. For example, what happens in affluent areas, or private schools, where socioeconomic class is normativity high? Or between those who have or have not won scholarships for their study? How do perceptions of social class shape in-class interactions – or vice versa? And crucially, for a research program basing itself in the developmental intergroup framework – how do these perceptions develop? Only 10-12 year-olds were tested here: where did their ideas come from? And is the class system fair? Is it fixed?  Children were furnished with three class categories here: given the homogeneity in seeing themselves as middle class, what are the important  differences for them?

So, this was one of the first studies to look at children’s understanding of social class. It showed that children had awareness of their class, had differential attitudes towards other classes, and could explain how they came to perceive themselves as belonging to a given class. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining. What about “social identity”? How does age play a role here? How do children understand the notion of “social mobility” when it comes to SES? How does this interact with their moral reasoning about equality and justice? And then other, related questions spring to mind: how should we treat children from different classes? How do children’s perceptions relate to those of their parents? If you’ll excuse the pun, children’s reasoning about social class is indeed a rich area of research.

Guest Post: Happy Slapping: Why Bother?

Liberty, 16 and Sofia, 17, have been with me this week on work experience. As they are the same age as the teenagers involved, I asked them to respond to this news piece. Their comments are below…

happy slapping

Happy slapping is “the practice of attacking, especially slapping, an unsuspecting passer-by and filming it with a mobile camera phone, footage of which is then circulated for the amusement of others” (http://dictionary.reference.com/).

Following the incident of the Birmingham “happy slappers”, (reported by the BBC News, 15th July, 2015) it is evident that something needs to be done to prevent these videos of violence and hence public humiliation. In our opinion, criminalisation is indeed the right course of action to take. It is not necessarily the action of someone with any sort of mental or emotional instability who films mild violence and robbery, but that of a young teenager who has grown up in a society ever more dependent on social media and the ability to share everything that everybody does. One would think that the possibilities to get recognition and attention on social media would be enough with ‘selfies’ and ‘video blogs’, but perhaps there has been so much now that has been shared and made viral that these young girls felt the need to do something even more extreme in order to be recognised.

Other possible lines of action that could be taken against these teenagers could be a warning, grossly flooding the media with what the girls did, or even offering them professional mental health care by default, but it is our belief that these measures would do nothing to help prevent any possible future instances such as this one, as these reactions are not measures to be feared, or perhaps measures that would not be feared by the youth of today.

A warning would merely act as an invitation to repeat the extreme actions of violence. Infiltration of the media could potentially give the girls exactly what they wanted (attention and recognition), and professional consultations alone would be a small price to pay for the crimes they committed. In criminalising these ‘happy slapping’ videos, it is not only forcing the young girls from Birmingham to face the consequences of their actions by being sentenced in a juvenile detention centre, but also sends out a warning to the rest of the nation: adolescents, adults and children alike who feel the need to carry out attacks such as this one, regardless of their motivations, will be punished.

In doing this, it will hopefully not only save innocent victims from unnecessary trauma, but will push the younger generations to think of more creative ways of getting their voices heard, as opposed to their mugshots seen.

Paper Review: Children’s Prosocial Behaviour after an Earthquake

Vezzali, L., Drury, J., Cadamuro, A., & Versari, A. (2015). Sharing distress increases helping and contact intentions via one-group representation and inclusion of the other in the self: Children’s prosocial behaviour after an earthquake. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. doi: 10.1177/1368430215590492

As a study of real-life social identities, and among children, I couldn’t wait to read this paper. So, not put off by my university’s lack of access, I approached an author for a copy. And having read it, I can confirm that it is very well conceived. The authors looked at 517 Italian children’s (aged 7-12 years) responses to other children said to be similarly affected by two major earthquakes in the country (details of the earthquake are linked below).

quake

This was a first – to test a social identity account of disaster responses among survivors, rather than third party helpers in a quantitative way – and to do so with children as participants. The authors found positive support for a social identity account, showing that social identity processes can explain positive responses towards survivors who were once seen as “other” outgroup members– but what does that mean exactly?

Identity Fusion 

Work in adults suggests that if you are psychologically adversely affected  by an event (and experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress) this can lead to feeling closer to other disaster survivors, and to inclusion of those other survivors in your concept of yourself. The authors employed an oft-used pictorial measure (Aron, 1992) to tap into into this – with one circle representing “you” and one “another survivor” . The circles were drawn with increasing degree of overlap between them, and children had to choose the circles-pair showing how close they felt to other survivors.

And it was found that there was a positive association between the degree of post-traumatic stress reported, and identity fusion (closeness to other survivors). And while I could argue that closeness is just the emotional part of one’ s social identity, and the authors could also have measured the cognitive and centrality aspects of social identity,this is compelling and face-valid evidence that being affected by the earthquake is linked to feeling close to others similarly affected.

Common Ingroup Identity
The authors tested the Common Ingroup Identity model (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) as a framework for understanding how identity fusion could lead to positive responses to other survivors. This model posits that certain circumstances, like earthquake disasters, can lead to people in the ingroup, formerly “us”, and in the outgroup, formerly “them”, being subsumed , in the mind’s eye, into the same superordinate category “all of us”. This, in turn, means that people once seen as “them”, will now be evaluated using the same positive regard once reserved for “us”.

Based on this, the authors hypothesized that perceiving other child survivors of the earthquake as part of a common group should explain why identity fusion is asssociated with a greater desire for contact with, and help-giving to, other, formerly outgroup member, survivors. This was measured with one item, “Children involved in the earthquake belong to the same group, the group of children.”. Only contact, but not help-giving was linked with the perception of being one, common group. This could be due to the use of just one item, or due to differential understandings in the sample regarding what this “one group” meant. We know from other research that belonging to a group, and what that means, is understood differently by 7, 9, and 12 year-olds (e.g, Sani & Bennett, 2004).

Helping and Contact Intentions

The authors outcome measures were contact and help-giving intentions towards formerly “other” outgroup members who were also earthquake survivors. The rationale for this was that adults are more likely to want to meet and help people perceived as belonging to the ingroup (Haslam, Reicher, & Levine, 2012), so to might children.

They used three items, adapted from Cameron and Rutland (2006), and from Vezzali, Capozza, Stathi, and Giovannini (2012) to measure outgroup contact. Children were asked, if they met at the park an unknown child involved in the earthquake as they were, whether they would like to meet, play, and have an ice cream with him/her. For help-giving, three items from Vezzali, Stathi, et al. (in press), were used, asking whether participants would help an unknown child involved in the earthquake as they are writing, doing mathematics, and finding a book s/he has lost.

Here, it was found that the greater the perceived identity fusion, the greater intent to help and make contact with other child survivors. However, it may be argued that the term “unknown child” is ambiguous here. Might the unknown child actually have been seen as an ingroup member before the earthquake? Perhaps they were not in the same class or friendship group – but they were told that the child was in the same school.  As other research (e.g., Nipedal, Nesdale, & Killen, 2010 ) uses ingroup / outgroup distinctions along school lines, a definite attempt to situate the unknown child as a formerly “outgroup” member might fruitfully be made in future research.

So, there was a positive link between most of the variables that were considered here. Greater post traumatic stress symptoms were linked with greater identity fusion. Greater identity fusion was linked to a greater desire fore contact and for help-giving – and there was also a positive link between identity fusion, common ingroup perception and contact. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining. What about other aspects of “social identity”? How does age play a role here? How do children understand the notion of a “common ingroup” and an “outgroup member” in this context? What about intentions to agress / be unhelpful towards / avoid other survivors? And then other, related questions spring to mind: What if the other child was worse / better off than them before / after the disaster? How do children’s perceptions relate to those of their parents? Do cultural norms associated with helping matter? Children’s capacity for prosociality in the face of adversity is indeed a rich area of research.

Mind the Gap: Social Psychology, not Social Psychology, and the Spaces In-Between

logougI spent  two days last week, underground, at a conference on visions for the future of social psychology at the London School of Economics, UK  #LSEsocpsyvision. Scrolling back through the Twitter feed, and reflecting on the event, I realize I am more struck by what was not said, than I am by what was discussed: the liminality of the spaces in between. Here I want to take the opportunity to reflect on that.

What is social psychology anyway?

Looking back – I realize that no one sought to define social psychology per se. In fact, no one mentioned what first comes to my mind when someone mentions the term social psychology. Its text-book definition, or the one I learnt, courtesy of Allport (1954) as a first year undergraduate.

Social Psychology is the effect on thoughts, emotions, behaviour of the real or imagined presence of others.

Alongside talk of transdisciplinary successes was an often careful comparison-drawing with what social psychology is not. On the one side, it is not, it was argued, sociology – on the other – it is not neuroscience. We work, the consensus seemed to me, – at the meso – or human level. Social psychology is about the individual in society. The individual in the group. Interestingly, when clearing her office space last week, my office mate found her final year exam paper in Psychology in the 1970s; one of the questions read:

Since sociology is the study of social systems and biology is the study of the body, including the brain, there will come a time when Psychology is no longer needed. Discuss.

She would have been asked to write on this for three hours. There was, over the course of the two days, much talk of boundaries and borders. What counts as British social psychology? Where do the edges of social psychology lie? I was reminded, in this discussion, of a sermon one given by the minister of my church, Rev. Dr. Carla Grosch-Miller. In it, she argued that, instead of putting careful fences up around Christianity, to protect, for example, the sanctity of male-female marriage, (do note:as a church we fully support same-sex marriage) we should aspire to be like the cattle-herders on the plain. Their cattle have no fences. And they are not needed – because the cattle are drawn to the well-spring in the middle of their land. They stay there. As long as we are life-affirming (as a church) people will be drawn to us. So, I would argue, it should be with social psychology. While we have something useful to offer, we needn’t worry about fences – people will be drawn to us to enrich their explanations of social phenomena, and we will both thrive.

Exodus from Social Psychology

The painful question facing us then, and voiced by Sonia Livingstone, @Livingstone_S is why  people rapidly exiting social psychology, in leaky pipeline style.  There are very practical reasons, of course, in terms of career opportunities, and funding – but what about beyond those? This is where I must admit to suffering from identity confusion. I research social identity theory. I research group processes, diversity, and social exclusion. I research bullying and friendship. Yet I have only once published in a social psychology journal. What I find instead, is that my research enthuses developmental psychologists, educationalists, the press. I have been told my findings are not news-worthy enough for social psychologists.

This Autumn, I have been warmly welcomed to a theology conference, where I will present on group support for youth who have been socially excluded for being LGBT+. In spite of this, I still would like to think I am a social psychologist. But the novel interest, it seems, in my research, is found in taking social psychology elsewhere: in offering it in explanation for social phenomena away from the traditional social-psychology box to the spaces in between. I found I came up with oodles of new ideas for my research at a talk in the School of Education. I have made links with collaborators there. Does this make me less of a social psychologist?

Faces and Voices of Social Psychology

To borrow and re-work a phrase from Steve Reicher, I research social psychology, not because I am interested in social psychology, but because I am interested in the social phenomena I study. Passionately so. Research is me-search, after all.  I want to seek good collaborations to research those phenomena well: I want to take social psychology out to other disciplines, and to bring other disciplinary explanations back to it.

Something else that was observed at the conference, by Georgina Randsley de Moura @GeorginaRdeM :  at least one of the panels was made up entirely of middle class, white, older men. Where were the younger voices represented? There was a Twitter hashtag associated with the event – and much of the younger voice could be heard there – indeed several more eminent social psychologists argued that Twitter is the premise of the young. But, I don’t think it is. I learnt how to tweet academically from Dorothy Bishop @deevybee – and I don’t think she’d mind me saying that she is not a young academic. Moreover, on this occasion, it allowed me to bring other voices to the discussion – those of a civil servant, for example. Research-wise, it allows me to disseminate widely. What about altmetrics was a way forward for REF2020?

Social Psychology of Movement 

It was suggested, and perhaps the exam question attests, that we  could have sat in that room 20 years ago (age-permitting) and had that discussion. What’s changed? I would argue that we could not have had this discussion back then. For one thing, the way that we view classic studies, and investigate the phenomena now, their context, has changed – dramatically so. But more than that,ultimately, even though we are all social psychologists, we are all different, with different visions, as Caroline Howarth concluded. And that’s got to be a good thing. Again, to return to Steve Reicher, he argued that there is a need for greater academic debate to move us forward. Again this concurs with a theological book I read, called You are Mine (2009) by Alison Webster, @Alisonrwebster. In it, she states:

Most of us find it easier to come to terms with the other by making him or her like ourselves; by refusing to open to experiences that are not our own. …[but] there are few things we all share. p. 19

Webster’s book is a call to embrace differences, even those that superficially seem like commonalities; to be open to one another – and to develop shared understanding from this. I would argue that, having exposed our differences as social psychology researchers and theorists at  #LSEsocpsyvision. they would be a good place to open academic debate, and to enrich the content of social psychology.

Maybe, now that we are back, flung wide  across the UK, this debate would take the form of an online (Twitter?) chat – or communal blog – that included or potentially included, everyone’s voice. I realize on nearly finishing this piece and in true l’esprit d’escalier, that, ironically,  blogging was not mentioned at the conference. …

Nonetheless, the discussion was passionate, and engaging and I thank the organizers for that 🙂 and for finding a place for me there. As I look to my future research: I hope it can continue to retain an element of the social psychology that was at its roots at the beginning of my research career.

Guest Post: EEG, Eye-Tracking, and Evaluation: Finding a way into Psychology

Last week, Lora, a student from Year 12 at a local sixth form, visited me in the Department. I asked her to blog about her experiences. This is what she said:

I decided to search for work experience in Psychology because it is a new and exciting subject for me that I have found extremely interesting to study throughout my first year of Sixth Form. I am also considering taking on Psychology at university next year, so I felt that this experience would be valuable.

Monday

Today was my first day and I had a mixture of nerves and excitement, the latter proving more dominant. After asking several people how to find my way to the correct building, floor and office, I was successfully directed to Siân. Once there I: introduced myself, was given my very own work-space (a whole room in fact) and was shown the rest of the department.

My first task of the day involved 48 questionnaires for a visit to school tomorrow. I had to fold, staple, sort and proof-read (correcting any errors I found) . Two of the piles did not have a specified condition on the front, so Sian gave me the job of working this out. Now, I hadn’t finished quite yet as I needed to have two piles (one male, one female) of questionnaires and they needed to be randomly sorted. Another task I had to do was create an Excel document and write out all the questions. Not such a mammoth task seeing as the questions were the same. Accomplishment – a feeling which was felt on numerous occasions throughout the week.

Other things I got out of the day involved: reading social development papers, obtaining two massive, free text-books, because there was a departmental book clear-out, and beginning to use and get to know the statistics program SPSS. Nice people, a nice subject and free resources to keep – what a nice way to start off the week.

Tuesday

child school

Image from brookes.ac.uk/psychology

This morning I continued to help Siân input data she had collected the previous week into SPSS. Fortunately, we managed to finish this before we set off to collect more data. The primary school may have been local, but the commute took us about one hour. We arrived in plenty of time so that we could set up in ease and I could be given instructions on what I was to do. The children filled out the questionnaires very quietly and the school made us feel welcome. In my opinion, the classtime and the day were successful.

Wednesday

eyetrackThe day that Siân and I managed to input all of the data from the previous day into SPSS –accomplishment, once again. After this I was lucky enough to participate in an experiment for a postgraduate student’s research project. The experiment involved a structured interview, filling out questionnaires and then several stages of activities. The project focused on the link between ‘Eye Contact and Social Anxiety’, (i.e. some research suggests that people with high levels of social anxiety make less direct eye contact than people without social anxiety).

Later on in the day I attended a departmental seminar which took form of an IT workshop on Open Access and the REF. If I have to be honest, all the information didn’t really make sense to me because it was something I had never come across. So, halfway through, I migrated to reading Siân’s online blog. And here you are reading my first piece which has been published online.

My final job of the day was to make a start on sorting out a massive pile of evaluation forms from the Friendship Workshops that Siân had conducted in 2014 and 2015 so that they were ready for data input.

Thursday

On Thursday morning I attended Siân’s “Shut Up and Write” session. This session is a great way to be productive by just sitting down and getting on with your work, in silence. I occupied myself in drafting a Methods section for the research we did in school on Tuesday. Siân was kind enough to lend me her PhD for the session so that I was able to use the method section as a template. I was also given a whistle-stop tour on how to use SPSS to  get basic statistics. We were particularly interested in the means, standard deviations, and correlations.

Moreover, we had lunch with Sarah and several other colleagues from the Psychology Department – everyone was really friendly. And for the rest of the day I continued work on the hundreds and hundreds of evaluation forms, and I managed to finish this job! Need I say the feeling again? (Hint: the word begins with an A.)

Friday

Image from brookes.ac.uk/psychology

Image from brookes.ac.uk/psychology

My last day. The week has flown by. But as idioms go, time flies when you’re having fun. A good sign, surely. And I will be back again at the end of next week with my school in order to attend the Psychology conference. They haven’t got rid of me that fast!

So, for my last day, as Sian was away at a conference, I was cared for by the lovely Sarah and met even more colleagues. I was able to write this blog piece, do some transcribing and visit the EEG lab. Transcription consumes a lot time. One has to listen to the audio file, type what each speaker is saying, listen carefully to understand what they are saying and do this hundreds and hundreds of times. I had a go at one today and I didn’t even get through the full file. The interview was about 35 minutes long and I only got through 10 minutes! I guess it’s not too bad for my first go, but I didn’t get that full accomplishment feeling…

EEG stands for electroencephalogram. It is where the brain’s activity is recorded to help diagnose or manage certain conditions. Brian cells continuously send one another messages and signals that can be picked up as small electrical impulses from the scalp. This process of picking up and recording the impulses is known as an EEG. I was shown the swimming-hat-net-like-cap, made up of electrodes, which a participant would wear. Apparently, baby shampoo is put on the participant’s scalp in order to aid conductivity. How bizarre. However, the procedure is painless and the participant should feel comfortable throughout.

Overall, this week has been a valuable experience that I’m sure I will never forget. I really do appreciate everything that was done for me. The week has shown me the opportunities that await me and things I could be doing in future. For anyone reading this that enjoys Psychology and is considering the subject, I highly recommend doing work experience in this field. So that’s it for this blog piece. I hope it has been as successful as my week…

Very well-accomplished, blog-post, Lora – you’d make an excellent blogger in Psychology, if you fancy that later on…. I should also say that Lora was fantastically helpful to me in getting us ready for school, remembering things when we were at school, and in dealing with the aftermath of the visit. She also reminded me why I love working in Psychology so much. Here’s to the next generation of students …

Book Review: Mermaid

When I heard that a new picture book that has a protagonist with a disability – and that had been written by a person with a disability – had hit the bookshelves, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Helping children develop positive attitudes towards children with disabilities forms part of my research (as I’ve blogged before), and the Guardian’s  review struck a chord.

Like Burnell, although I spent a fair amount of time as a child at the back of my wardrobe, and managed to devastate my parents, aged nine years, with the news that I wanted to leave for boarding school,  there were never really characters in books I could identify with because of their disability*. The closest I got was Matilda  who could mysteriously move things with her eyes (if I stare hard enough at my right hand fingers, they will move  without my conscious intention). I liked that. And yes, things have improved, since the days when disability was tragedy, and children in books were healed of it, (cf. What Katy Did, The Secret Garden, Heidi) to a place where disability is more positively represented, (Curious Incident)  representation from within – and with an under-the-sea theme (am a bit of a fish, myself) had me hooked.

photo (4)

The story itself (beware: spoilers) is about a little girl, Sylvia, who can swim, and a little boy, Luka, who can’t. Sylvia appears at the beach one day, and teaches Luka how to swim, and he loves it. And, when Sylvia appears as a new pupil in Luka’s class, and the children “murmur” why are you in a wheelchair?  Luka tells them that she is a mermaid: the focus is on what Sylvia can do.

And this has to be a strength of the (mermaid’s) tail. Often, when it comes to characters with disabilities, the illustrations and story centre on what the child cannot do. This story is different, and highlights the positive ways in which friendships can be built around commonalities. It also flips the whole ‘I must help the child with the disability’  mantra, that children seem to develop when I talk with them about disability, on its head: it is Sylvia that helps Luka, not the other way around.

From a research perspective? There are two empirical questions I’d like to follow up. The first is about friendships. Are friendships with children in a wheelchair easier for children to imagine in this context (the swim), than in the context of the classroom / playground – or somewhere where the character with a disability would likely need help?

And relatedly, if it were easier, why is this? Is it because the taboo is less of an issue when help isn’t needed? It would be interesting to know what children pick up from this story about the taboo surrounding disability. It is mentioned that Luka “hardly noticed” the wheels of Slyvia’s chair – yet to the children in her class – and in the illustrations – they are very prominent. What would happen if the words about the wheelchair were omitted?  If Luka did notice the wheelchair? If the children in her class didn’t? If Sylvia was introduced to the class as a swimmer, or as a child who uses a wheelchair?

I liked this story. It gives a positive message about the possibilities of friendship and playing together and helping one another. It focuses on can, rather than on cannot.  Plus, I love swimming :-). Realistically, I’m not so sure about Luka’s not noticing the wheelchair, nor about whether dismissing Slyvia’s wheelchair to the class is helpful. But both could be empirically investigated to determine the effects on children’s attitudes (any eye-tracking colleagues wish to collaborate here…?). As I head for a BPS symposium on children growing up with diversity on Thursday, it will make for a silvery sea of discussion. Before that – I’m off to the pool 🙂

Mermaid  is written by Cerrie Burnell and Laura Ellen Anderson

32pp, £6.99

Scholastic

*For newer readers, it’s worth knowing that I have a congenital right hemiplegia.