Guest Post: Happy Slapping: Why Bother?

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

happy slapping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is social psychology anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

Exodus from Social Psychology

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

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

Faces and Voices of Social Psychology

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

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

Social Psychology of Movement 

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology of Desk Entropy: A Review of Vohs, Redden & Rahinel (2013)

For  those unfamiliar with the term, desk entropy, as defined by Jorge Cham, is the a measure of the degree of disorder of a work space, and that frustrating inability not to be able to find things when you need  them.


Reproduced with permission: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham 

My desk started tidy at the beginning of the semester. Honest, Mum. It now looks like this:

photo (14)I was reflecting on this earlier this week, after someone tweeted about this paper:

Vohs, K., Redden, J., & Rahinel, R. (2013) Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24, (9), 1860-1870.

What does my desk say about me? These researchers did three studies to look at the effects of tidiness. Study 1 showed that participants in a tidy room chose healthier snacks and donated more money to charity.Study 2 showed that participants in an untidy room were more creative. Study 3 showed that those in a tidy room preferred a “classic” option, but those in an untidy room preferred a “new” option.

The news here is that untidiness isn’t all bad. In these studies, although tidiness was associated with healthier choices, being in an untidy room enhanced creative thinking. I’d say that my desk is decidedly cluttered at the moment. There’s a hairbrush and scissors out of place, and wonder-duck is just sitting around, having recently taken part in an MSc lecture. My papers couldn’t be classed as “filed” in that in-tray. So – should it stay like that to enhance my creativity? That would be good for my research…

Participants in Study 2 of this paper were introduced to a messy or tidy table, and asked to come up with up to ten alternative uses for ping-pong balls. The creativity of the ideas was rated by independent coders with a good kappa score (i.e., good inter-rater reliability), on a scale from 0-3. By this method, average and overall creativity were higher when the room was untidy, and the number of ‘3’ rated ideas was also higher. Yet the number of ideas generated across conditions was similar: it was the creativity  of the ideas that varied. 

And that’s what I want. I have limited time and resources, so a few highly creative research ideas are more valuable to me than hundreds of mundane ones. Research evidence shows that other factors, not taken account of here, are important, however. Foss et al. (2013) found that gender and social support for ideas generated creativity, with women’s ideas less likely to be taken on board than men’s. Lukersmith et al. (2013) found that it was time for thinking, and incentives that were good indicators of creativity. These papers had a wider variety of measures of creativity, which were related to real-life work problems. The measures also had greater scale variability, than 0-3 as used by Vohs et al. (2013). But they didn’t measure untidiness of the work environment. This could have trumped the factors that were measured….

So what about untidiness? Other research on untidiness shows that it is problematic for normally contentious people, but not for un-conscientious individuals (Mateo et al., 2013) in terms of task accuracy. So personality types have a bearing on the effects of untidiness. Ramos and Torgler (2012) found that academics and postgrads were more likely to litter in a messy environment than a tidy one. So untidiness affects social-norm violation, in the form of littering. It is possible then, that effects of tidiness generalize beyond the students tested by Vohs et al. But what of norms? What are the processes that link untidiness to creativity? I’d want to know more about those before I resorted to not tidying up.

Research suggests that untidy environments, in the form of documents everywhere, might help academic research via accessibility of information. In a paper on open-office spaces, Lansdale et al. (2011) report that their research shows that the cluttered environment of a research office can aid memory retrieval, and that the accessibility of possibly-useful-at-some-point information in a messy space (over a ‘hot desk’ that has to be cleared at the end of the day) may help to generate new research ideas. So untidiness might just be helpful in my particular creative domain….

To bring this together then,I probably should tidy up. While there was a strong effect found on creativity in a messy environment by Vohs et al., other factors need to be controlled for, before I can conclude that untidiness is a good thing for my research (especially if I count myself as conscientious, for example). Further to this, I would need to measure creativity in more depth (and in a relevant way to the creativity I need) and would want to look more closely at what should be untidy (and how untidy)  to prompt creativity (my desktop on my PC has a beautiful filing structure). Is untidiness just about the physical environment….

I did love the end to this paper. As Einstein noted ‘If a cluttered desk, is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk, a sign?’…..there is hope for me and my desk-space yet…