Conference Review: GRASP 2014

Last week, I  visited Linköping University, in Sweden, to give a keynote address at the  ninth  Nordic conference in group- and social psychology -GRASP). My talk is available online here. I count travelling abroad as among the best things about my job, and visiting the research group who held this conference was a real treat.

The day before the conference opened, I gave a workshop for students, looking critically at some of the measures we use in social psychology with children, vis-a-vis the original definitions of the concepts we research, often coined in the 1970s. The irony of this, of course, is that while these measures were originally developed for use with teenagers (think Tajfel et al., 1972), it was not long  before they were applied wholesale to the world of post-war adult social psychology, and now, our challenge is to differentiate them for children again,  erstwhile remaining faithful to their purpose.

That same day, this piece appeared in British media. The upshot of it is, that students, reviewing their university experience in light of their tuition fees want more contact hours and online resources for their money, but won’t bother attending lectures or seminars if such content is made available on the web.

Thinking about this, in light of the workshop, and then during the conference presentations, beyond the paradox of wanting more contact hours, and yet not wanting to turn up for them, my sense that students who don’t attend classes really do miss out was affirmed. My workshop involved group-work, where students could look at the measures, talk to each other, and sit outside in the glorious Swedish sunshine.

Sunshine aside, the conference talks could not have been engaged with in the same way via ‘lecture capture’ (class-recording software). The entire, relatively small, conference had a supportive and friendly atmosphere throughout. Researchers asked questions as the talks progressed, spoke with each other at lunchtimes ( I developed a new collaboration with a lovely research group, that I am very excited about) networked, and enjoyed each others’ company, as well as the change and inspiration of different surroundings. The talks spanned social psychology, from problem-based learning, to benevolent sexism, and from childhood peer victimization to workplace team-building, ending with Ken Mavor’s keynote address on capturing social identities to explore these phenomena, and more.

As an Early Career Fellow, I see my job as training students in their discipline. Granted, not all students aspire to be academics – but face-to-face meetings and discussions, and getting along with people is a paramount skill outside academia, too. As a final meta-point, research on student social identity and problem-based learning presented at GRASP shows us that students who can develop a strong identification with their discipline experience better outcomes, earlier on.

So – more contact hours are likely to lead to better results – if students attend and benefit from the opportunities they provide, which are not, so far as I  can see, available to download online. Conferences remain for me one of the most rewarding and fruitful aspects of academia – a good one, such as this was, can set me up with a research program for the entire year. My wish would be for all students to recognise the benefits of learning in this way, both with and without their lecturers, but face-to-face, rather than simply online. Consumers or not, social psychological evidence supports that this would be good value for money for them.









Review: Incognito

This review has now been published in The Psychologist (July, 2014, p. 552)

Do you know what confabulation means?

asks Martha, clinical neuropsychologist, working with patients with amnesia,

It’s telling stories to ourselves to make sense of the world. There’s no single part of the brain that is ‘us’.

So begins Nick’s Payne’s stunning piece, Incognito. From this scene, between Martha, and new friend Patricia, we’re introduced to Henry, M. who, following brain surgery, lives continually in the present. Then there is Dr. Harvey, pathologist, who is building his life’s work around detailed study of Einstein’s brain.  And then there are those who surround these characters, trying to make sense of them, as they make sense of the memories.


Four actors and 23 characters. Characters whose stories are  introduced in fragmented scenes, that shift backwards and forwards in time, and across time. The effect is an incredible and engaging meta-journey, as we try to piece the characters lives back together, to recreate their stories in our own minds.

There is real Psychology in this. Any self-respecting Psychology graduate, myself included, will know the case of H.M. who lost his memory following surgery to correct epilepsy. They will dutifully have studied the role of the medial temporal lobes and hippocampus in memory. But that is textbook. Nick Payne moves expertly away from this towards a human story of memory. As the play is performed almost in the round, the audience is frighteningly close to the devastating emotional consequences – both of having memories one no longer wants – and of not having memories anymore –  portrayed movingly (without sentimentality) by a cast that click together beautifully, even as their characters are in constant flux.

This is a brilliant study of the fragility of the human mind,  – of how memories shape our relationships and our selves. It is also philosophy: what is it after all, that is being studied?

Incognito written by Nick Payne, directed by Joe Murphy, and performed by Nabokov, is showing at the North Wall Arts Centre until Saturday 10th May 2014. There are two performances left, and I’d heartily recommend that you see it. If there are any tickets left that is – it deserves to be sold out.

In Which I Experience A Science Bazaar

Two hundred tubes of sweets, a toy tea-set, myriad dolly pegs, safety scissors and glue, aren’t my usual choice of essentials, when I head off to engage others with my research. But in March this year, I replaced my poster tube for some Smarties tubes, and my USB stick for a rubber hand, and set out, with some postgraduates to try to get the public at the Oxford Festival of Science excited about what we have been up to in the Department of Psychology, Social Work, and Public Health.It had been a challenge over the past few months to think of activities in which we could successively and safely engage hundreds of families, in a 3 x 2 metre tent. But eventually, we ended up with too many. We had vision goggles that turned the viewer’s world upside down (how easy is throwing a ball now…?), a demonstration of the rubber hand illusion, and reading by touch, with wooden letters. We had brain-shaped cookies to tempt visitors, courtesy of Brookes catering, and in a twist on an academic engagement favourite, lift-the-flap posters: how well do you know your brain? For my part, I ran tea parties for under-fours. This was a version of a non-lexical Stroop task, developed by Dale Hay. When you ask a child to give a big bowl and spoon to a little teddy, and a little bowl and spoon to a big teddy, children follow this instruction the wrong way round, giving the bigger things to the bigger teddy.
All was quiet as we finished setting up, with Op-Trix, our 3-D illusion cardboard Tyrannosaurus Rex, on the lookout for a photo’ opportunity. Most of the activities we had were new this year: had we done enough to encourage visitors to explore? And please don’t let it rain…. I needn’t have worried. It was one of the first sunny days of the year, and hundreds of families visited the tent in Bonn Square, and at the Science Bazaar, to try out their hand against our rubber one, and to test their brain’s capacity for deceiving them. In fact, some families wanted to stay long after the event had officially closed. I know I made well over 100 peg dolls, and we had no Smarties tubes left over*.
Afterwards, I was exhausted (there was no caffeine associated with any of the tea parties I gave…). That said, I’d do it again. The visitors’ enthusiasm gave me a motivational boost to get on with my research…. 🙂

*Fortunately Hoover and Milich (1994) have debunked the sugar-hyperactivity cause and effect link, so I officially take no responsibility for hyperactive children who may have been at this event.