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.






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).


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.

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.

Paper Review: Children’s and adolescents’ moral emotion attributions and judgements about exclusion of peers with hearing impairments

Chilver-Stainer, C., Gasser, L., & Perrig-Chiello, P. (2014). Children’s and adolescents’ moral emotion attributions and judgements about exclusion of peers with hearing impairments, Journal of Moral Education, 43, 3, 235-249, DOI:10.1080/03057240.2014.913515

Browsing Research Gate earlier this week, in the name of “constructive procrastination” (read: putting off re-analyzing some data for a little while longer), I discovered the above paper. One key criticism of my group-based emotion and social exclusion research is that it is very experimental (the groups in my studies are contrived by me, and don’t ever interact with one another for the sake of experimental control), and I am keen to look at what goes on when researchers test actual, real-life groups, so this one was worth following up.

So what happened here? Well, the researchers looked at how  215 Swiss 10-, 12- and 15-year-olds attending mainstream school felt about, and judged, the social exclusion of peers with hearing impairments.This sample is worthy of comment before I describe the study. It is said in the paper that there were a number of children with hearing impairment in the children’s class – yet (while these children’s parental approval of the study was sought) these children did not participate. This struck me, because I am asked by our ethics board to include all children in my research on disability and inclusion (and have tested those with disabilities) – and even if I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t want to exclude children with disabilities. Rather, even if numerically less significant, the qualitative responses of children with hearing impairment to these scenarios would have been interesting. This is another case where half the research design is apparently missing.

Moving on. Scenarios of social exclusion in different contexts were shown to the children.  There were four different scenarios, where a hearing child and a child with hearing impairment wanted to join an activity, but unfortunately, there was only room left for one more child. The protagonist decided to pick the hearing child in doing so excluded the child with hearing impairment.  (Note: the constant exclusion of the child with hearing impairment means that we cannot be sure that later measures relate to exclusion based on disability per se, as we have nothing to compare it to). The scenarios described either (a) a group of children preparing a presentation (b) a child doing oral homework, (c) a birthday party or (d) talking with a child about shared interests. The activities always involved oral communication. Nevertheless, participants were told that the hearing child and the child with hearing impairment were equally qualified for the activity. The contextual variables here were school versus home, and group versus dyadic interaction.

Next, participants were asked what emotions the protagonist might feel with respect to the exclusion, and how they judged their behaviour. So the two questions were: ‘How do you think Erwin [the excluder] will feel? Why?’. Participants could select one or two of the following emotions: proud, happy, sad, neutral, angry, fearful, guilty, ashamed or empathetic, and ‘What do you think? Is it good or bad that Oliver chose Rolf [the hearing child]? Why?’. There are several things to say about these two questions, even though they are derived from previous research (just because everyone else is doing it….).

Firstly, the first question is forced choice. Children were asked to select one or two emotions. This limits their responses: one could quite easily imagine a situation where a child might feel guilty and sad about having to exclude the child – as well as feeling fearful of the repercussions, and angry that they had to choose in the first place. Rather then, emotions could have been measured on Likert-type scales – ‘To what extent does X feel?’.. This would allow for neutral judgments of some emotions, whilst allowing children to indicate the ones they would expect the excluder to feel most strongly (leading to a more sensitive index). Furthermore, in later analysis, emotions were classified as moral (sad, guilty, ashamed, empathetic) or amoral (proud, happy, neutral, angry, fearful). In the adult emotion literature I am aware of pride and anger are very much moral emotions (cf. Saab, Tausch, Spears, & Cheung, 2014Tangney,  Stuewig & Mashek, 2007).

Secondly, the  question, about moral judgements. One could argue that this is a leading question – is it good or bad? Some actions might be morally neutral. Yet this is not, apparently, an option. One also wonders what children might be led to say, on the basis of having a teacher in the classroom (neutral territory?), supervising the research. This question is highly susceptible to the problem of social desirability bias (for this group of children at least: of course it’s wrong!) and also to audience effects. Who are the children responding to? The teacher? The school? The researcher? Other children? As research shows, who you tell participants will see your answers, makes a dramatic difference to what they report (e.g., Rutland, Cameron, Milne, & McGeorge, 2005). Moreover, classes differ in their inclusivity norms (cf. Glasser et al., 2013) and this point of reference would be worthy of future study.

Finally, participants inclusive behaviour was assessed through  peer nomination of those in the class who “let other children participate”. This was a good idea. Having peer nominations as well as self-report reduces shared method variance, and gives a different perspective from the child’s own on how inclusive they are. The inclusive behaviour measure also brings these researchers closer to measuring actual behaviour than most of the scenario-based literature in this field. Unfortunately, participants were then split into not-inclusive or inclusive, based on the mean scores given from this task (rather than absolute scores, as used in a lot of the bullying literature) to ensure that some children fell into each category. I would argue that retaining the continuous nature of the initial variable would have led to a richer pattern of results.

Quentin Blake argues for greater inclusion of disabled characters in children's books.

Quentin Blake argues for greater inclusion of disabled characters in children’s books. Image from:

Another potential strength of this study is its mixed method approach. As you will have noted from above, the authors asked ‘why’ a character might feel that way, and ‘why’ the children felt that way about him or her. Unfortunately, as the authors note, the increasingly elaborate answers with children’s age likely reflects their writing, rather than their reasoning ability. Nevertheless, it was found, in line with prior research that reasoning correlated with emotion, was particularly astute among more inclusive children, and fell into one of two categories; moral reasons for feeling bad following exclusion (e.g., equal rights for all), social-functioning reasons for exclusion (e.g., he would slow the group down). Examples of negative moral reasoning (it was the most efficient thing to do) and positive social-function reasoning (he would have added something new to the group) were not given in the paper. If this dichotomy exists (if children did justify exclusion on moral grounds, or encourage inclusion on social-functioning grounds) a four-way split of the data would have been interesting to examine.

It is perhaps the latter of these categories (social-function reasoning for exclusion) that demands further exploration, since it reflects children’s beliefs about when exclusion is OK. As noted above, the scenarios cited the oral nature of the interaction – which children with a hearing impairment might find challenging. Given that children were told they could equally cope with the task, if one took the stance that it is never OK to exclude someone with a hearing impairment, then modifying these beliefs associated with this kind of interaction would be a key focus for intervention. Again, however, another element of the research design is lacking. Research shows that children misperceive disabilities such that impairment “spreads” (eg., Abrams et al., 1990). So, for example, in my research, children have said that a child in a wheelchair because she is unable to walk wouldn’t be able to play a musical instrument. Thus, measuring children’s exclusion justifications where a child with a hearing impairment was excluded in a non-oral interaction would be worth looking at.

It would also be interesting to take further advantage of the open-ended questioning to look at ways in which children think about overcoming the exclusion (e.g., how could you include X in the group?). I present children with a “winning ticket” scenario (the child has four tickets, and four friends) similar to the group-leisure scenario above. We discuss in groups how the friend left without a ticket might feel, and what can be done to mend those feelings. And the children come up with very creative ways of sorting things out, even when I emphasise the fact that there are only four tickets to be had. Examining children’s strategies for dealing with unfair exclusion, in order to enhance these would also be worthy of future research.

Bringing this together then, this study looked at hearing children’s responses to the reported forced-choice exclusion of a child with a hearing impairment from either a leisure or school, group or dyadic interaction, as given in a scenario. Additionally, and unlike previous research, children’s actual inclusion behaviour was also examined. And the evidence showed that moral emotions were linked to moral justifications in a similar way to prior research, with inclusive children being more in tune with this. However, this is a piece of a much larger jigsaw. We must now ask many questions: how do reasons differ for positive versus negative emotions? What audience are the children responding to? What do child with a hearing impairment think? Does the nature of the interaction matter? And what happens afterwards? Exclusion isn’t the end of the story.

Paper Review: Cooley and Killen (in press): Children’s Evaluations of Resource Allocation in the Context of Group Norms

Cooley, S., & Killen, M. (in press). Children’s evaluations of resource allocation in the context of group norms. Developmental Psychology.

What do you do when your group has a norm for fairness and equality, and someone in your group advocates for inequality that would benefit the group? Extant research shows that, for very young children, equality trumps all other values, including group loyalty and ingroup bias but that, as we get older, peer relations, existing resources, and a whole host of other factors will come into play (e.g., Blake & McAuliffe, 2011). In their paper, Cooley and Killen deal with the tension between moral values and ingroup bias, in a kindergarten setting. Children, aged three and a half to six years were asked to give their opinion of a classmate [deviant] who either (a) advocated for unequal shares of building blocks when the class had a norm for equal sharing, or (b) advocated for equal sharing of building blocks when the class had a norm for sharing the blocks in its favour (i.e., giving itself more blocks). What happened?

Cooley and Killen report that most children had a dim view of children who went against the class norm by dividing things unequally, even when it benefitted their class; they explained their opinion in terms of the importance of fairness. However, participants who appreciated those classmates who shared resources in the class’s favour reasoned about group functioning and the group benefits . With age, children displayed increasing social group nous by differentiating their own opinion of the classmate who runs counter to class norms from their expectations of the group’s likely opinion of this classmate.

This research finding is notable for several reasons. Previous research looking at fairness and peer relations in this age group had done so  in terms of dyads. For example, Olson and Spelke (2008) found that found that three and a half year-olds allocated equal resources to puppet friend dyads more often than to non-friend dyads. And, Paulus and Moore (2014) demonstrated that preschool aged children expected a person to share more with a friend than a disliked peer. More often, however, children’s experiences of peer relations are packaged in terms of groups. Children learn about group identities, like gender and ethnicity from the preschool years, and a plethora of research has shown how these categories shape their opinions of others, as well as their choices of playmate and classroom behaviour (for a review see Bennett & Sani, 2004). This research paper speaks to group processes.

And this research is more “real” than its predecessors. Often such research makes use of  a minimal group paradigm (where judgements of others and resource allocation are based solely on group membership) where the minimal groups are contrived at random,  at the start of the study. Here, children made judgements about their membership class (be it for example the red class), and an outgroup [orange] class. These were actual classes in their school and judgements were made on the basis of a photo’ board of the real class. However, judgements seem to have been made about a fictional member of the class. So, there was no prior knowledge of that individual characteristics about them, upon which judgements could have been based. The study also measured children’s identification with their class (as opposed to simple liking for it). Unfortunately, identification ratings were not then factored into any of the analyses  – and like me, they didn’t measure outgroup identification (oh, to have Dr. Hindsight as a colleague) –  but identification was measured – and found to be high – which is good.


The red room and the orange room from Cooley and Killen (in press) Developmental Psychology


It was interesting to note that the authors found no difference between opinions of the counter-normative classmate, depending on whether he was a member of the child’s class, or another class (e.g., the red class or the orange class). This is interesting to note because it is at odds with literature on the black sheep effect. (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013). Such research  tells us that ingroup members think ingroup deviants, like the classmate in these scenarios, should be treated more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same norm-transgression: it is possible that this is because behaving in line with, or in favour of, outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules. Yet, the authors state,

 ” participants viewed it just as wrong for an ingroup member to deviate from an equal group norm as it was for an outgroup member to do so” (p. 9).

This is worthy of further investigation. It is possible that this null finding is due to  the classes’ actual existence, as opposed to research where this finding is detected in minimal group settings. There again, maybe the black sheep effect itself, in children at least, is an artefact of the minimal group paradigm….It would be worth controlling for this – and also for the “reality” of the colour-coded groupings, which may carry unknown histories or status differentials. As a case in point, when I was in Reception class (UK aged 4-5 years) I was in the red group. There was also a yellow group , a green group, and a blue group – in other words, a rainbow. And the red group were the best at reading, then yellow, and so on. And as 4 year-olds, we all knew this to be the case, even though groupings weren’t used by the teachers to make this clear to us…

A further potential avenue for future exploration surrounds the initial creation, and ingroup knowledge of the ingroup norm – which is unsourced, so far as I can tell. Who is the classmate who deviates transgressing against? The class as a whole, or their teacher, or an aggregate of past exchanges (as seems to be inferred “your group like to….”?) How is this class norm knowledge obtained? Is it displayed prominently in the classroom as a prescriptive norm, or is it a descriptive norm for class action (cf. Hitti et al., 2013). One might also ask at what level the norm of  “equality” is important to the children. If the red class already had ten building blocks, and the orange class none, would they still want to divide new blocks equally? What reasons beyond group functioning could be given a priori to the children for unequal allocation of resources? What if the classmate deviant wanted to address an existing inequality in resource allocation – giving less to the ingroup? Is equality-in-the-moment, or absolute equality what matters?

Further interesting questions remain, now that Cooley and Killen have brought this finding into the group domain. Children were asked whether the class/they as participants would like / want to be friends with the deviant classmate. This leads me to wonder what the effect of the class actively friending or de-friending versus individually friending or de-friending the deviant might be? How would this manifest itself in the classroom(s)?  What does to like/dislike or friend/not-friend a child look like to the children? How would they expect the deviant child to respond? Does the outgroup class know of this like/dislike ? What do they make of it? And, in the case of ingroup deviant dislike, are the boundaries between the [sic] red and orange classrooms permeable? Can children move classes? Would the outgroup class be more likely to accept an ingroup deviant into their fold?  Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than dislike or de-friending (reported based on the forced choice they were given)?

This research suggests that children aged three and a half to six years privilege equality over group functioning – recognizing differences between their opinions and the likely consensus of the group, as they age. The best kind of research asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s moral reasoning as group members.

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.









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.

Picking Teams on the Playground: A review of Hitti et al. (2013)

Hitti, A., Mulvey, K.L., Rutland, A., Abrams, D. & Killen, M. (2013). When is it okay to exclude a member of the ingroup? Children’s and adolescents’ social reasoning. Social Development. doi: 10.1111/sode.12047

teamspickingWhen I was a child, at school in the UK, we used to pick teams on the playground. Allan Ahlberg reflects on this in his poem Picking Teams, published in Please, Mrs. Butler:



When we pick teams in the playground,
Whatever the game might be,
There’s always somebody left till last
And usually it’s me.
I stand there looking hopeful
And tapping myself on the chest,
But the captains pick the others first,
Starting, of course, with the best.

Maybe if teams were sometimes picked
Starting with the worst,
Once in his life a boy / girl like me
Could end up being first!


Social exclusion and rejection are typically labeled in school policy as a form of bullying, and picking teams in this way is less popular than it used to be, because it  could exacerbate problems surrounding social exclusion (e.g., Sleap & Wormald, 2006). The emphasis in anti-bullying policy advice is on inclusion. Yet, might there be occasions when children consider it better in the long-run to exclude a child (and when adults might agree with them)? As a case in point, consider that school exclusion is one of the more popular methods of dealing with bullying, as I discussed in this blog post.

The above question is the one considered by Hitti and her colleagues (2013). They tested 381 children between the ages of 9-13 years, finding that the acceptability of social exclusion from a peer group, following rule breaking  decreased with age, but, interestingly, also changed according to the rule that was broken. Where the rule concerned dress code, exclusion was viewed as much less acceptable than when they had allocated money between groups unequally, and broken a “fairness” rule. The authors claim that no research has yet looked at when children think exclusion might be legitimate.

The specific claim here then, is that the type of rule, or group norm, that is being violated matters. And for some rules, exclusion is OK. Let’s look in a bit more depth at how they arrived at that conclusion. This was an interview study for nine year-olds, and a survey study for 13 year-olds. Participants were shown a group of eight children of the same gender and asked to choose a group symbol and, from a list of activities, the kind of things that they get up to together. They were told about the groups’ norm, ‘Your group does x’ ‘The other group does Y’, and were given vignettes to read:

Dress Code Rule-Breaking

These are groups that are given special shirts that they wear to the school assembly.
 This way everybody knows which group people belong to. In the past, your group has
 worn their green and white club shirts. In the past the other group has not worn their red
 and black club shirts because they think it’s not ‘cool’. . . . Stephanie, who is also in your
 group, wants to be different from the other members of your club. She does not wear her
 green and white club shirt to the first big assembly of the year.

Money Allocation Rule-Breaking

The Student Council . . . [has] $100 to give out to the groups. . . . In the past, when your
 group has talked about it they have voted to give $50 to your own group and $50 to the
 other group. In the past, when the other group has talked about it they have voted to give
 $80 to their own group and $20 to your group. . . . Sally, who is also in your group, wants
 to be different from the other members of the club. She says that your group should get $80 and the other group should get $20. 

Following this, children were asked for reasons to justify the (il)legitimacy of exclusion of the ingroup deviant. To my mind, it is these findings that are the most interesting part of the research, as I’ll explain below.

So, what was it about the rule violation that led to the legitimacy judgments?  Participants were told that the ingroup deviant was excluded for (for example) distributing money equally, rather than in the ingroup’s favour, which was the group’s rule, – but what does this actually constitute, rule-wise? In other words, is the exclusion justified in terms of behaving out of sync with ingroup norms, or for behaving in line with the out group’s norms (because, in this case, it is the outgroup  that has a rule for equal distribution of money between groups)? Children’s reasoning makes reference to both possibilities:

‘She’s going against what the group wants.’

‘She’s acting like she’s in another group’

Research on the black sheep effect (e.g., Abrams, Rutland, & Cameron, 2003, Abrams et al., 2013)  tells us that ingroup members think deviants should be punished more severely than outgroup deviants, for the same crime: it is possible that behaving in line with outgroup members represents more of a threat, than simply not following the group rules (for example, by distributing all resources to a charitable cause, thereby following neither groups’ rules). This may be particularly threatening where children can choose to be in one group or another (and when there is mobility across group boundaries) – as opposed to groups which we don’t choose, like race.

A further potential avenue for exploration surrounds the initial instigation of the ingroup norm – which is said to come from the school, for shirt-wearing, and the result of an ingroup vote for money allocation (see the vignette above). Thus, the  child who deviates by not wearing the shirt is breaking a school norm – was it this, rather than the in group norm, that served as the  basis for the participants’ responses? Some participants mentioned this in explaining why the child shouldn’t have been excluded ‘he was doing what the school wanted’. The relative weight of peer group versus school norms is a current topic in this research area, with findings suggesting that peer group norms trump school norms…..(see Nesdale & Lawson, 2011). In the other instance, the deviant is going against a collective, democratic decision: what if this norm had instead also come from the school?

Further interesting questions remain. The participants are told that the in group deviant was present when the exclusion decision was made. This reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, wherein conferences are held among the schoolchildren about whether to send a child to Coventry. What is the effect of publicly versus quietly dismissing the in group deviant?  How does the deviant child  respond? Does the outgroup know of this exclusion? What do they make of it? Would they be more likely to accept this ingroup deviant into their fold? Would the children, given the option, suggest that this should be the case, rather than exclusion into the ether?

This research suggests that children aged 9-13 years perceive something different about appearance versus allocation rules. The best kind of research is fertile research, that asks more questions than it answers, and this is undoubtedly the case here.There is so much we still have to find out about children’s reasoning in groups.


Book Review: Bullying – Experiences and Discourses of Sexuality and Gender

Rivers, I. & Duncan, N., (2013). (Eds.)  Bullying: Experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender. Oxford: Routledge. 

pp. 192, £24.99 (paperback)

photo (11) workingsop

The children in the photo’ above are trying to decide whether telling someone that their new coat is gay is okay or not. Often I find that opinions on this vignette  divide a class of 13 year-olds. Some children don’t see any problem with this; others think it is always unacceptable. Why is this? Where do these opinions come from?

The use of language surrounding homophobia and norms of masculinity are just two of the issues covered in Bullying: Experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender. Key questions for researchers looking at the gender- and sexuality-based bullying in schools include why this kind of bullying happens and how anti-bullying interventions may help to address this issue. The editors have pulled together a wealth of evidence to speak to these questions, and the result is a state-of-the-art account of the relevant research.

photo (10)The editors and authors cover the nature and effects of bullying and cyberbullying in general terms, from individual level analyses that focus on the pathology of bullies and victims, to ‘collective’ explanations that take into account the role of the peer group (giving me my first in-book citation for a research paper in the process 🙂 ). They also consider specific issues faced by LGBT+ (and heteronormative) youth: using information about sexual preferences to hurt others online, sexting and sexual bullying, the race for social dominance in girls’ friendship groups, LGBT+ issues in sport, and stereotypes concerning disability and (lack of) sexual identity. Importantly, the editors also include chapters on how gender- and sexuality-related bullying may be addressed through Gay-Straight Alliances, teacher training, and carefully planned interventions.

Notable is the wide range of research methods covered. While Helen Cowie’s findings are the result of longitudinal research, Paul Poteat uses established scales to measure homophobic bullying, Schneider reports interview data, and Eric Anderson presents a personal (perhaps auto-ethnographic) account of homophobic attitudes in sport. The work is also multi-disciplinary, with input from those working in Psychology and  Education, and accessible to those working in these and related fields.

As the editors acknowledge, several questions remain. There is an increasing amount of research on the L and G in LGBT+, yet not so much on the rest of that picture – do the issues surrounding homophobia and sexual violence also concern transphobia in the same way?  What are the optimal resources and school settings for genuine inclusion? I would also argue that there is more work to be done theoretically: why  is it that gender and sexuality-based bullying in schools is so norm-dependent, and that peers have such influence in this arena….?

Nonetheless, the central message of the book is positive: perceptions of LGBT+ identities are changing and malleable, and research is bringing us closer to a position where we can effectively confront, and ultimately reduce, the level of sexuality- and gender-based bullying in schools. A recommended read.