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.

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.






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


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

PowerPoint: In Memorium?

pptLast weekend, a world-renowned University of Oxford professor stunned me when he told me he had never used PowerPoint. Realizing that small group teaching is at the heart of Oxford University’s pedagogical approach, I could see that it might not be necessary here – but not to have used it ever? What about conference presentations? Open days? In stark contrast, a quick straw poll of our MSc in Psychology cohort for this year has just revealed that they have never had a teaching session without  PowerPoint or Prezi. I know that all of the seminar speakers visiting our Department this year have also used this technology in their talks. In light of this dichotomy, I am dedicating this blog post to thinking about the use of PowerPoint* in teaching at university.

Initially, the emerging literature on PowerPoint was glowing. Researchers noted that when there was variety in the slides presented (Clark, 2010) and relevant text and images were presented (Bartsch & Cobern, 2003) PowerPoint could be an effective learning tool. With regards to Psychology, Erwin and Rieppi (1999) compared the effectiveness of multimedia and traditional classes. It was found that students in the larger multimedia class averaged higher grades than those in the traditional classes.

However, other research showed that the relative benefits of PowerPoint over the more traditional “chalk and talk” lecture might be illusory. For example, Savoy et al. (2009) showed that students preferred PowerPoint presentations, but retained 15% less information from such lectures. Relatedly, Amare (2006) assessed students’ written performance, after delivery  using PowerPoint versus traditional lecture, and found better performance with traditional lectures.

Of course, when it comes to such research it can get quite messy. Neither the assignment of students to lectures versus seminars, nor the group size were controlled for in Erwin and Rieppi’s paper and in Amare’s study traditional lectures were accompanied with handouts, whereas the PowerPoint lecture was not. The controls in each study (and many others) were wildly different from one another. Thus the jury is out when it comes to the effectiveness of PowerPoint over other teaching methods.

That aside, it remained troubling to my mind  that while some lecturers did not use PowerPoint at all, some cohorts of students apparently receive very little but instruction by PowerPoint, at least as far as group teaching sessions are concerned. So, it was a surprise when I attended the Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference 2015 #bltc15 yesterday, and was met with – almost no PowerPoint. The closest I got was an image of an umbrella – and a list of discussion questions.


So what happened instead? Well, the first session was led by @georgeroberts as a “walk and talk”. We took to a lane behind the university campus as a group, and ambled along it, taking it in turns to talk to the topic of inclusivity in education. In other words, we thought about inclusion in the classroom, outside the classroom – and perhaps, as a result, outside the box. For what it is worth, participants felt that their ideas flowed more freely in this setting, and it’s certainly one I would like to add to my arsenal for my next seminar (British weather permitting….).

Next was Isis Brook’s keynote, also delivered without PowerPoint. One of my colleagues admitted to being perturbed by this. I will admit to finding it more difficult to concentrate on what was said, without visual clues if my mind wandered. But – the session was far from dydadic –  questions were asked about our own experiences for intermittent discussion with colleagues.

cliffordThe afternoon gave way to further discussion about culture shock and mental health in international students, and included a guest appearance from Clifford the Elephant (the elephant in the room who visits events to open up conversations about mental health). To be more specific then, the afternoon was spent listening to students’ experiences (sans computer), to playing a game of human diversity bingo and to (re-) meeting Clifford and the issues he represents. Barely a slide was in sight.

So we come to today. Which must be these MSc students’ first experience of a large class teaching session without PowerPoint. We’re running a “shut up and write” group, to help them with their assignment motivation. On balance, as a participant and a teacher, I think I prefer teaching methods that don’t involve PowerPoint …I’m about to find out what my students think of it all. …

*Other presentation software is available.

Guess Taboo? Children’s Discussions of Race and Ethnic Prejudice

guesswhoIn a recent study, Cameron, Brady, and Abbott (2013) tested a group of children using a version of the children’s game, ‘Guess Who?’. The game was contrived, so that asking about the race of your opponent’s character would enable winning more quickly than not asking about it. Yet, rarely would children ask this question – and they were even less likely to do so in ethnically diverse classrooms. In other words, children would rather lose a game, than mention the category “race”. Why is it that ‘race’ is taboo for children?

I was reminded of these findings earlier this week at a talk I attended by Darren Chetty, @rapclassroom, from the IoE in London. In speaking to his 2014 paper, he argued that two books, Elmer’s Special Day and Tusk Tusk, both by David McKee, and both recommended by Philosophy for Children practitioners as starting points for philosophical enquiry into racism, multiculturalism and diversity, do not truly allow for an open discussion on race. Rather, he argues, ‘animal stories’ separate racism from its temporal and spatial context, limiting opportunities for engaging philosophically with the topic – and maybe even contributing, paradoxically, to the taboo.


Elmer, the patchwork elephant


To briefly review the texts, Elmer  is a patchwork elephant, who really wants to be like other grey elephants, who are happy. But he  is nothing like them. To resolve this, the other elephants have an Elmer day each year, where they paint themselves in a vast array of different pretty patterns, like Elmer’s patchwork. Elmer paints himself grey. Tusk Tusk  tells the tale of the black elephants and the white elephants. They don’t like each other. So, some of them fight and die. The ones that don’t fight, go to the jungle, and emerge years later as grey elephants. The book ends with the big-eared elephants giving funny looks to the little-eared elephants. I listened to Chetty’s analysis of these stories, with a social identity theorist hat on, and found myself, sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing with the points that were made.  Before going further it is worth noting that McKee states he never intended the books to be about colour or race. Nevertheless, what follows is my take on the two ‘elephant stories’, given Philosophy for Children’s recommendation.

Elmer is a patchwork elephant. But, If there are no other patchwork elephants, there is no opportunity to talk about group differences. Since ethnicity is a group categorization, this does seem at odds with a pathway into discussing ethnic prejudice. It might open up talking about exclusion, and exclusion can be on the grounds of race, so we could discuss the immorality of excluding someone on the grounds of race, on this basis – but it would be hard to cast this as a group-based exclusion – which ethnic prejudice arguably is – because there are no other patchwork elephants. The felt exclusion is of one  individual, and ethnic prejudice is more than that.

Tusk Tusk  has the group element that Elmer lacks. So, as a social identity theorist, this would make for better material. There are two groups, who dislike each other, and fight. This is resolved by all the elephants becoming grey over time. End of group differences, or not, as the text hints. So, we can open discussion about groups that dislike each other. There is no reason given in the texts about why the groups dislike each other – which Chetty argues is undesirable. Whilst I  agree that the lack of power dynamic isn’t helpful – ethnic prejudice is about a majority group’s treatment of the minority – the lack of explanation would, on the other hand, allow a competent, confident teacher to talk about the possible reasons for the intergroup hatred, and even to introduce the notion of power. …

One philiosophy for tackling ethnic prejudice is colour-blindness. This argues that everyone should be treated equally, and attempts at differential treatment  by race should be disregarded and dismantled. Perhaps this hints at the ontology for the taboo above. Maybe, if teachers use this strategy, they are implicitly telling children not to talk about race.  An alternative philosophy to colour-blindness is multiculturalism (for a discussion of these ideologies and their respective benefits, see Plaut, Thomas, & Goren, 2009). Multiculturalism acknowledges the differences between races, and in social identity terms, is about  acknowledging and celebrating group differences, because not to do so undermines the cultural heritage of non-white individuals, and, is thus detrimental to the well being of ethnic minorities. Multiculturalism doesn’t enter the picture in Tusk Tusk.  Group differences lead to hatred. The elephants are content to the extent that they all see themselves as similar. But there is celebration of difference in Elmer and I see whispers of multiculturalism here. Again though, Elmer  isn’t so much a culture, as an individual…if only there were other patchwork elephants…..


And what of the historical context of ethnic prejudice? Neither text addresses the inequalities or tensions between different elephants. And reflecting on the social identity research with children and race (and ethnic prejudice) I realize that  not much of it addresses this element either. Drew Nesdale and colleagues (e.g., Griffiths & Nesdale, 2006) and Killen and colleagues (e.g., Brenick & Killen, 2014) research real-life ethnic minority / majority affect- but only take implicit account of the group histories. These studies show consistently, when conflict is current and historical, that children have an ingroup-bias for their own ethnicity. It would be worth, I realize, from Chetty’s talk (with thanks due to him), looking at children’s understanding of the reason for group’s prejudices towards each other, and how groups should treat one another in light of these histories.  Might we then see a more positive attitude towards the outgroup than the ingroup – in stark contrast to the findings of the papers cited in this paragraph above?

In sum, Elmer  and Tusk Tusk  are each decidedly lacking in some of the elements that would be useful for direct discussion of the stories’ in relation to the topic of racism and inter-group prejudice. A competent teacher might well still be able to use them as the basis for discussion, particularly for Elmer  in terms of social exclusion, and Tusk Tusk  in terms of intergroup hatred. There is reason not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when this is borne in mind. In light of  the taboo around race, which might lie in the colour-blind ideology, there is also good reason, given that we know children display ethnic ingroup bias, to (a) look at children’s reasoning about multiculturalism, and (b) to put ethnic prejudice  into its historical context, in our social identity research. The results could be revealing.

Memory Monday: How are you today?

In the spirit of blogging culture, this morning, as Time to Talk Day 2015 approaches, I’d like to look back on a post I wrote this time last year, and ask what, if anything, has changed.

The original post may be found here.


Well, I still have an open-door policy, and I still see a lot of students in my office with mental health related concerns. And students are still very welcome to come and raise concerns with me; nothing has changed there. Indeed, from where I am sitting, mental health concerns at university are still normative.

But the plural of anecdote….

….is not evidence. So what’s changed, evidence-wise in the past year? Time to check the oracle (read: internet) .

First thing I realize is that since February last year, there has been a huge upsurge of student voices talking about mental health at university. There are many pieces on the taboo that surrounds it, noting, as I did last year that according to the latest NUS survey (2013) that one in five students say that they have a mental health problem, but most stay silent about it. I can’t find evidence (but am happy to stand corrected) of more recent large-scale surveys of UK student mental health. But this year, there are  more stories about mental health at university out there, with The Guardian having an overwhelming response to a request for them – gathering over 200 pieces. True, that the plural of anecdote is not evidence….but maybe the time is ripe for a qualitative study of student experiences…..

It was also interesting to note, on two counts for me, that the conversation has expanded. It’s not just about student mental health anymore, but also about mental health in academia. There is evidence that academics, from PhD students to professors are struggling in high-stressage environments. Alongside this, is the hypothesis that there is a culture of acceptance around mental health problems in the academy: in other words, social psychology is at work – stressage is part of the job.

And recently published research by Ken Mavor and his colleagues (2014) supports this contention. That is, a strong social identity as a medical student is associated with high levels of social support and improved well-being  (strong social identity = good) , but this comes with a set of unhealthy group norms (for overwork et al.) that may have a greater influence on students with a strong social identity, encouraging them to do things that put their well-being at risk (strong social identity = risk for poor mental health). Maybe the same is true of PhD students, top professors, early career researchers…If we cast the latter as peripheral group members  to use Jolanda Jetten’s term (that is, those who are on the edge, and want to be in the group of “established academics”) there would be even more reason to suppose that ECRs would be at risk….there are another two hypotheses to test.

So, what has changed? It seems that people are more vocal these days – and that there are a lot of stories out there about mental health in academia. But, beyond small-scale experimental work, there is not much hard-core evidence on the nature of the problem. Now it has been driven out from underground, and now that the hypotheses are being put forward, the time for up-to-date full-scale research seems to have arrived.

How are you today? The Department of Psychology, Social Work and Public Health will be marking Time to Talk Day at 11am, this Thursday, 5th February. If you would like to join us, drop me an email.

Remember my open door policy, if you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece – and the variety of support offered by Brookes Well-Being. And you can always contact Samaritans or Nightline for help and support, too.




Privileged Participation: EASP 2014 In Review

I have been abroad a fair bit for research this year. From 9-12th July this year, I attended the European Association of Social Psychology’s triennial conference in Amsterdam. This conference is always impressive. This year, it was bigger than ever before with over 1 400 delegates, from within and outwith Europe, and four full days of  twelve parallel sessions to choose from. Added to that were twice-daily poster sessions with over 100 posters apiece. I was privileged before I had started, to be going as not all submissions are accepted.

And I was glad that I went. The sheer range of sessions meant that there was always something of interest, if not of direct relevance to my research, on offer (and often it was the case that I had to choose between two or more directly relevant presentations). Social identity was writ large here, its applications spanning ever further –  from physical to mental health, sexual orientation to gender identity, emotion regulation to morality. That, as well as cutting edge looks at the usual suspects: collective action and intergroup contact to name but a few.

The meta-contact was, as ever invaluable. Great conversations were had over coffee, and at the conference dinner, there was ample opportunity to catch up with old colleagues, and to spark new connections.   

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Maybe the important thing here is that social psychology makes social identities visible. The privileges of being European, of being educated, of being from that social class, that ethnicity, along with the differences between being male or female, or transgender, heterosexual or LGBT+, are studied. Privilege is scientifically demonstrated. You cannot attend this conference and not leave with a sense of just how much social groups matter. And I was proud of the way in which social psychology is moving forwards to uncover identities that are often otherwise erased by society.

I was also pleased with the way in which the “green” agenda ran through the conference. Although, maybe this is where I need to make the conference team aware of their own privilege. A privilege of not having a physical disability. It was a green decision, no doubt, not to have conference bags. But, when you can only use one hand, some fore-warning of this would have been helpful.  We still had things to carry, after all. It would also have been useful to have coffee breaks every morning and afternoon – if only to give time for swapping between conference sites between sessions. The buildings of Amsterdam are gorgeous, but cobbled streets and bicycle jungles don’t make for the easiest of passages. I had to forget plans to change destination in the midst of sessions at the outset.

But this is a small point, for next time. Because I will be back next time. This is the social psychology conference not to miss.

Something Different: British Academy Social Exclusion Event Review

When delivering a children’s sermon recently, at the church I attend, I asked the question, ‘what does it mean to be friendly’? I had some idea (of course, as any teacher would) of the kind of answers I wanted. But the one I got was much better. One child told me being friendly is about understanding each other. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is’. That key word there: understanding. It was in this spirit that Ayse Uskul and Lindsey Cameron organised this event at Kent University, on 6th June, to help us, as academics, speak to and understand policy makers and practitioners working on social exclusion.

I have never been to a meeting quite like this one. Each academic talk was followed by a commentary from a practitioner, offering more “grass roots” insights on the topic under consideration. The subjects spanned homophobia, ageism, mental health stigma, ethnicity and religion, engaging charities, and human rights organisations along the way. The accessibility of each presentation was impressive, as was the range of ideas noted at the panel discussion for ways in which we can move forwards in collaboration with each other. My only criticism is that I wish this latter discussion was given more “air-time”.

The aim of the event was undoubtedly met: we got to a better place of understanding one another. This got me thinking about research on social exclusion. It seems to me, at the moment, that the zeitgeist is for the contact hypothesis (e.g., Everett, 2013): that increased contact of various forms emphasises similarities between in group-out group members, making the other less scary, less different. A classic example of this is the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ set-up studies, showing you’re more likely to come to the aid of in group than out group members: the more similar they are to you, the more likely you are to help. And it’s all about framing. If you support Manchester United, you’ll help a fellow ‘football supporter’ but not necessarily the same person, framed as an ‘Arsenal supporter’.


Arsenal, Manchester United, or football supporter?

The interactions at this event got me thinking. What would happen if we went beyond emphasising intergroup similarity in research?  Everyone, everyone on Earth is different. There are songs that only you can sing, and conversations that only we can have, thanks to our myriad different experiences. Arguably, emphasising similarity reduces anxiety – it’s a necessary first step towards good relations –  but it also reduces the other’s humanity, their uniqueness. True understanding – that might only come through exploring – not by ignoring – differences. I wonder if oftentimes it is frustrating to be categorised in a certain way, and understood on that basis, however positively, especially if one belongs to a stigmatised group.

As a case in point, one speaker argued that the key difference between researcher and practitioner was the wearing of a tie: yet, a quick glance around the room revealed that this was not true of those present. And, while I wasn’t wearing a tie – there are other reasons, besides being a researcher,  for that. Indeed, one way forward that was discussed was a blurring of the lines between research and practice: true understanding of the ways forward at this event was borne out of exploring different aims and ways of working on a case-by-case basis, for researchers and practitioners.

Children see that being friendly is about understanding each other as individuals. Understanding and working with our differences was key to the success of this event. Maybe it is time to start applying this to the subject of our research, too.

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.









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.

Researcher Abroad

Back in September, I got my first ever research grant 🙂 It was an Early Career International Collaboration Scheme award, supported by the BPS Developmental Section, and it was to fund me for a short, international research visit. April seemed like ages away then, but it really wasn’t, and the past two weeks have seen my first longer-than-a-conference research trip abroad. I went to the Universita di Padova, to work with Gianluca Gini, and his research team. I took off with quite a lot of the trepidation that goes with embarking on something new, but now, I don’t want it to be over. The time flew by, and I’d happily go again.

Having had my first experience of this kind of trip, I’m going to use this post to make some recommendations for your first PhD or post-doc trip away to a university (because you absolutely should try it).

5. Find out where you are going before you leave home. Do that research, and write everything out with old-fashioned pen and paper. I thought I was being so organised, having multiple maps stored in Safari bookmarks, only to find when I arrived in Padova, that there was no wi-fi connection anywhere that I could see near the railway station, and I could barely remember the road where I was heading (or the road that the Department of Psychology was on).

4. Learn some Italian or [insert other relevant language here] before you arrive. I’m OK with languages. Particularly Latinate ones. And I thought I’d be OK, given that, simply knowing the basic basics – ” please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”. But, as Padova isn’t a central tourist destination, it would have been helpful to have come equipped with more. To be able to buy a train ticket, order in a cafe, ask which lane was meant for the slow swimmers….Then there was that moment when a colleague’s four-year-old was trying to learn English colour names. She first of all presented me with a pink pen. At which I excitedly exclaimed “rosa!”, this being the only colour name I could give in Italian. The way she then laughed out loud at that point said it all…..

3. Give a research talk. Even if it is arranged at the last minute (I am told this is typical in Italy…) and only a handful of people turn up. It was about quality not quantity of the audience. My research was novel to those who did show up, and there was a useful half-hour discussion, too, during which I got some insightful and time-saving advice.

2. Be realistic in your work plan. I was lucky here. I managed to achieve what I said I would in my application, and had a weekend free to explore the city. But that was done through working full days while I was away, and I’m not sure I could have cracked that pace for much longer (maybe I underestimated how tiring simply being somewhere different would be….). I knew I wouldn’t be able to collect data in that space of time – but I didn’t reckon on quite so many relevant papers having come out since I last checked, for me to go through, to plan out new research materials. I guess, if I had realised, I could have done more reading before I left home. I also find it reassuring to be leaving Padova with a follow-up plan for doing the research, and writing it up. 🙂

1. Be friendly with as many people at the university as possible. It’s a great way to get useful advice and information, when you’re stuck not being able to speak the local language (not that you will be), and you begin to discover the world really isn’t that big a place after all. I saw someone on the corridor who I hadn’t seen for three years, and didn’t know she was still in Padova. And a Fulbright scholar sharing my office turned out to share similar interests to me, and it was lovely to spend some of our spare time together (and she knew where all the best gelati-retailers were in town 🙂 ) It’s all about networking and setting up new collaborations, after all, and who knows who you might be sharing your desk with…

Here’s hoping that I’ve persuaded you that it is a worthwhile (and fun!) thing to do. You can see info. about, and apply for, the specific grant I got at:   I’m going to check how long I need to leave it before I can apply again…..

Thank you Developmental Section 🙂