Bullying Research: At Odds with the Commentary

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that this piece caught my eye whilst I was perusing Twitter last week (the article is linked to below).


The piece describes research by Wolke and his colleagues (2015). The research made use of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK (ALSPAC) and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the USA (GSMS) longitudinal studies.The association between maltreatment, peer victimization, and mental health problems was assessed using binary logistic regression. Binary logistic regression chooses the more likely option between two outcomes in the form of odds ratios: in this case odds for the presence or absence of a mental health problem (i.e., any presence of anxiety, depression, or self-harm or suicidality).

Four groups of children were investigated. Some were maltreated only, some were peer victimized only, some were peer victimized and maltreated, and some were neither maltreated nor peer victimized. It was found that, when compared with children who were not maltreated nor peer victimized, children who were maltreated only were at increased risk for depression in young adulthood. At the same time, those who were both maltreated and peer victimized were at increased risk for overall mental health problems, anxiety, and depression. Children who were peer victimized only were more likely than children who were maltreated only to have mental health problems.

It is the last of these findings that has made the headlines, and is still being amply re-tweeted as I type. It is the comments of Dr. Jennifer Wild that I wish to make the topic of this post:

Dr Jennifer Wild, associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford, said the researchers did not investigate why bullying caused mental health problems. But, she said: “The findings are important because they highlight the devastating consequences of bullying and the need for zero tolerance programmes.

Dr. Wild is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, with expertise in anxiety – meaning she is well-placed to talk about this study’s outcome measure. To my mind, however, her comments should come with two health warnings: the first concerns what the researchers did not investigate; the second is the concept of zero tolerance.

The comment made by Dr. Wild is true. Wolke et al. did not investigate the why of the link between peer victimization and mental health problems. However, neither did they intend to do so. Their aim was “to determine whether [mental health problems] are just due to being exposed to both maltreatment and bullying or whether bullying has a unique effect”. What Dr. Wild offers here then is not, as some might be tempted to see it, a criticism of the research, but rather a suggestion for future research. More pertinent criticisms, I would argue, would concern the methods that the researchers used to address their stated aim. One example might be that maltreatment was assessed using parent-report, for UK participants.

Secondly, the recommendation for zero tolerance.  According to the OED online, this is “automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct”. Zero tolerance on bullying was widely advocated by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. One might imagine cases where zero tolerance would work well, where rules have been obviously transgressed. And where punishment has been shown to deter rule-breaking. However, when it comes to bullying, neither of these tenets holds true. I have already written about the dubious merits of punishment following bullying – and  as the research attests – bullying can be pernicious precisely because it is difficult to define when it has taken place (it often involves acts of omission that worsen with time) (e.g., Monks & Smith, 2006). This means that zero tolerance and bullying do not make good prospective partners.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Dr. Wild’s comments cloud the true value of Wolke et al.’s findings, which  demonstrate that peer victimization in childhood can have worse long-term effects on young adults’ mental health than maltreatment – and that when a child is maltreated peer victimization can denote an added detriment to mental health. These findings, together with the current pervasiveness of peer victimization, mean that government efforts should focus on finding out what leads to and maintains it. It might also focus, not on promoting zero tolerance, but in researching what the effective methods of reducing bullying may be, in schoolchildren. This should be done in order to that bullying research funding  is no longer at odds with the long-term public health concern that bullying represents.


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.

The Right Way To Do Statistics in Psychology

It’s that time of the year again. The time when undergraduate students in Psychology have collected their data, and are furiously trying to get it analyzed and written up, in time for their dissertation deadline.  It’s also the time of year when students tend to panic about the “right” way to analyze their data. But – as far as statistics go – there is no single right way to go about things. In fact, there is as much debate about doing statistics in Psychology as there is about psychological theories themselves – with whole journals dedicated to the topic. When it comes to dissertation stats, there is no single right way here, either…I explain.

I have one manipulated variable (call it Experimental Condition) and two continuous variables that I measured, Measure A, and Measure B. I want to know how Measure A and Experimental Condition interplay to influence Measure B. I have met all the assumptions for parametric data analysis. Although that research question is clearly defined, there are still several ways I could go about this.

Option 1

One way would be to perform a linear regression, entering Experimental Condition as a dummy variable and Measure A (centered about the mean) as predictors of my outcome, Measure B. If I found any interaction, I could analyse it using a simple slopes analysis. That would answer my research question.

Option 2

Equally viable, however, would be to run this analysis using ANOVA – because the maths underlying ANOVA and regression analyses are essentially the same. You can check this for yourself, by running the two analyses on the same variables: you will find that because both rely on what is called the General Linear Model the R squared value is the same for each. The distinction between the two in teaching terms is really just an historical artefact arising because ANOVA has been traditionally used for experimental designs and regression for correlational designs. It doesn’t have to be that way: whether the analysis you do make any sense depends on what you were trying to find out, more than anything.

Anyway – if I ran this analysis using ANOVA, there are two ways I could go about it. I could continue to treat measure A as a continuous variable and, in SPSS at least, force the program, via the syntax editor, to treat measure A as continuous but nevertheless a bona fide fixed factor, by adding it after the WITH sub-command:

Measure_B  BY Experimental Condition with Measure A_centred

Option 2a

I could, however, legitimately perform a median split on Measure A, creating a new variable where people are coded as either high A-scorers or low A-scorers. I would then enter Measure A _ split into the ANOVA alongside Experimental Condition, as above.

In either case, if I found an interaction between Measure A and Experimental Condition, I would analyse it using a simple effects analysis (to look at the effect of Experimental Condition at differing scores on Measure A).

The Right Way?

So – either ANOVAs or regression could be used for the above research question. Neither way is “wrong” although statisticians will point out the advantages and disadvantages to each approach. The classic disadvantage to median splits, for example, is that I would lose some of the variance provided in the variable scores (because I have changed a continuous variable to a dichotomous one).

Of course, that said, there are some things that we need to do, for any of the above options to be “right” before we run those tests. Here is a checklist, courtesy of Tabachnik and Fiddell (2007) – with the health warning that, the debate around statistics rages on, and these are guidelines – one high-profile  journal in Psychology decided earlier this week that reporting p values is inappropriate full-stop….

(1) Before you do anything, check for missing values and cases where weird stuff seems to be happening. Work out what is weird, and consider deletion of these cases, or checking against the questionnaires for human error in data entry.

(2) Check you meet the assumptions for the tests you want to do. See Tabachnik and Fiddell (2007) for myriad guidelines on what to do with the data, if you fail to meet an assumption.

jf16(3) This is not a fishing expedition. Define your research question clearly, and the type of test(s) you need to do to answer it with your data. Report what you find.

(4) If you do perform extra post-hoc tests, because something interesting has come up, don’t be afraid to admit to that. There are ways of statistically adjusting for the probability of finding significant results in such cases, and the important thing is being transparent about what we are doing as scientists, to allow effective evaluation of findings.

So – to sum this up, before you do anything with your data, look at it. Is it weird? Is it normal(ly distributed)? Can you use parametric statistics or not? Then, work out what research question you would like to answer, and what types of variable you now have. Based on this, choose among the options for answering that research question. All the time, remember to be transparent about the analysis and post-hoc tests that you are using. Just as one rationalizes the inclusion of different variables in your study in the Introduction, the Results section should give a rationale for what you have done with each variable, why, and what was found. Statistics in Psychology is about having a rationale, rather than a “right” answer.





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: http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/sites/artsprofessional.co.uk/files/legacy/AP_186_08.jpg

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038796

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.

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.




The Theory of “Cripping Up”

I went to see The Theory of Everything  last weekend.  I have to say, it wasn’t as engaging  as I hoped it might be, or as the trailers and reviews seemed to promise. But this post isn’t to add to the litany of reviews of this film that are already out there. I want to write about The Theory of Everything  in the context of a piece I read in The Guardian Online  last week, linked to below.


Frances Ryan, makes the argument therein, that as we would be outraged nowadays at the prospect of an actor ‘blacking up’, as Laurence Olivier once did to play Othello, we should feel similarly outraged at non-disabled actors playing those with disabilities on stage and on-screen. Yet, Eddie Redmayne received a Golden Globe. Ryan cites several potential reasons why we might feel differently about what she terms “cripping up”, including the business-like nature of theatre and television where celebrities sell, and the notion of “disability-as-metaphor” – that it is a symbol of human triumph; pain wasn’t real. Ryan argues that these reasons might account for audiences seeing disability as an “add-on” extra, rather than integral to a person, and therefore not to see “cripping up” similarly to the identity theft of “blacking up”. Following the recent rejoicing over the casting of a black Annie,  and, as the possibility of a black Bond, or female Dr. Who are mooted as desirable, I decided to look to the research literature, to see what it can tell us about disability-as-identity, and  media representation of disability. Is “cripping up” really bad news…?

The research shows that more representation of disabilities is needed.  For example, Bond (2013) looked at the representation of disability in children’s television. He found that characters with a physical disability were rarely portrayed, and when they were, were not of central importance to the plot.   Research  (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2010) also points to the continued unhelpful stereotyping of those with disabilities in mainstream media. And, according to Haller (2010), negative stereotypes can also have a negative impact on those living with disabilities, while positive representations can promote a self-esteem boost. In their comprehensive report, following interviews with producers, as well as consumers of mass media, both with and without disabilities, Wardle and Boyce (2009)  conclude that there needs to be more representation of those with visible loss of function; that story lines might focus on this, as well, as on incidental loss of function, that script-writers should seek to address the real issues faced by those with disabilities, and that they should look to dispel myths and stereotypes  (think Captain Hook, Long John Silver…), rather than perpetuate them.

But the need for positive representation isn’t in itself reason not to “crip up”. Couldn’t anyone represent disability? To answer this question, it is important to note that another finding has come from Wardle and Byce’s report, and from other papers (e.g., Fraser, 2014). That is, that those with disabilities would like to see less “cripping-up” and more “real-representation” in the mass media. And according to O’Reily (2009)  playwrights with a disability have begun to offer alternative narratives for characters with a disability– different stories, with different endings, with different protagonists. Writing, in other words, that takes full account of the disability.

Further to this, when it comes to disability-as-identity, Weinberg, & Sterritt, (1986) showed that encouraging teenagers with hearing impairments to identify solely as “able-bodied” led to lower social acceptance and poorer academic outcomes, than when they incorporated a disabled identity into their sense of self. More recent research by Rich et al. (2013) showing that when children are given cochlear implants, the inclusion of disability into one’s identity is still valuable. Yet, other research has shown that having this identity can hinder workplace opportunities, with Roulstone and Williams (2012) showing that, at management level, being open about this identity places limits on what others perceive you can do. Thus, it may be argued that disability forms an important part of  self-identity,  but that barriers to full inclusion sometimes result from it.

It is worth noting that all the research above covers physical disability, rather than intellectual disability, or mental health problems. Nevertheless, it shows that disability is a very real, and valued part of self-identity that can lead to exclusion.  And  research shows that more representation of people with disabilities would be welcome, by those with and without impairments. But it is also apparent that not just any representation will do. Rather, such representation needs to promote positive images, and should address the specific issues faced by those with disabilities, rather than painting  a rose-tinted, triumphant, or metaphorical picture of it. Representing this reality will surely be more difficult if the actor does not have the impairment. And maybe this is the real issue, when it comes to “cripping up”. If an actor has a disability, adjustments may need to be made, issues of accessibility surmounted, on set. The writing – everyone – would need to fully account for that disability. Maybe it is media itself that isn’t yet accessible enough to be able to avoid the use of actors willing to “crip up”. Given the importance of disability for self-identity, and continued barriers to inclusion in the real-world,  this would be an issue worth surmounting.

Much Ado About Academic Essay Writing

By virtue of a course on lecturing that I had to attend over the past year, I got to research a lot on student writing. And there’s a lot out there. I might speculate on why this is – the numerous email messages I get from students – and the high proportion of these that are about essay writing might give me a clue. In my research paper, one student gave advice for future students thus:

Make sure the content of your draft is as good as possible (i.e. read everything you want to before the draft deadline) so that the draft comments are focused on how to make the essay read better

What I sense in this, and in a lot of the messages I receive, is a fear of writing – of defining one’s own carefully thought-out arguments in the wrong way. Drafts seemed to be students’ safety net – the fear, about striking out alone. As an academic I have to do a lot of writing. And outside work, I write for pleasure, too. I love writing. It’s one of the best things about being an academic – getting paid to write (albeit indirectly).

Given the messages I’ve had from students about writing, I’d like to use this post to share some of their thoughts with you, and to look at ways of becoming a more confident writer. In a nutshell, of course.

Shut up and Write Group - Oxford Brookes Psychology

Shut up and Write Group – Oxford Brookes Psychology

1. Practise, practise, practise. Here’s a secret. If you’ve got the information straight in your mind, there’s no wrong way of writing it down. There are different ways of expressing said information, and some will be clearer than others. Play around with different ways of writing the same sentence. Find which you like. Find a voice that suits you. Don’t just write for academia either – write in your spare time; write something you’d like to read – write for no one else’s eyes but yours. The more experience you have with writing, the easier words will flow.

2. Don’t forget your reader[s]. Think about where they’re coming from, what they know already, and the  gaps you need to fill for them. In any piece of academic writing, always set out what terms mean for you, at the start. “Parenting” can mean different things to different disciplines – so can “depression” and “effective”. Tell your readers what they can expect the content of the piece to be – and afterwards, sum up what that content was. If the two descriptions don’t match – something needs revising.

3. Write [and plan] in paragraphs. Most academic pieces have word counts. So work out how many paragraphs you’ll need to write, and bound your writing into those paragraphs. Do not write outside of a paragraph. Ever. If you have six paragraphs,  you can make six points – so what are the six key points  that need to be made – what are the key things that need to be included to present your argument? Give each point a topic sentence, an exploration, and a take home-message.

4. Join a “shut up and write” group at your school or university (or start one). Sit down with a few friends in a coffee shop. Tell each other what you’re going to write, and then spend the next half hour writing, in silence. If you start with a clear goal, you’ll get more done in that time, than you thought you could (trust me). Sharing a little of what you write with the group, also prevents the isolating nightmare that academia can otherwise become from setting in, and gives you the chance to get and give encouragement.

5. Start now. Grab a note pad or start a blog and get going. You don’t have to start with writing your opening paragraph, or your take-home sentence. Start with what you like, what you know, work out what you don’t know, and write from there.

Happy Writing 🙂

Thanks to Tim Kourdi for this “shut up and write” location, and for chocolate cake to keep us going.

Video-gaming: A Pedant’s Response

My attention was caught a little while ago by a story on the BBC news website about the effects of video-gaming in children. The paper it refers to (Przybylski, 2014is published in Pediatrics. The paper reports secondary data analysis of a large ESRC survey, which divided children into four groups, according to their engagement with video games. One group played no games at all, one group played video games for less than an hour a day, one played for between one and three hours a day, and a fourth group played video games for over three hours a day.


Findings showed that the second group reported better adjustment. That is, playing video games for less than an hour a day was linked to better life satisfaction scores, more pro-social behaviour, and fewer internalizing and externalizing problem behaviours, when compared to (a) playing no games and (b) playing for more than three hours a day. There were no significant differences between playing a moderate (1-3 hours) amount and the other groups.

Then I saw this tweet.

And it got me thinking about what we mean by the word “agree” when we’re referring to scientific findings. We could look at agreement in terms of scientific merit – the problems of relying entirely on self-report measures, and the correlational nature of the findings, might lead me to be hesitant in my agreement.

I could be pedantic at this point and disagree with the tweet, because there was no claim made about “producing” well-adjusted children. But the evidence, clearly and transparently reported in the paper, suggests that playing video games for under an hour a day was associated with better adjustment.

More interesting is considering invitation to agreement as based in the readers’ experiences. The tweet might be inviting  anecdote. So I want to use this tweet as an opportunity to talk about the difference between anecdote and evidence.

You might well hear a scientist say at some point:

 The plural of anecdote is not data

This is because anecdotes and experience are prone to bias. So is science – but it is arguably less biased than reliance on personal experience. This is why we do science, in fact – to try as far as possible to uncover truths about the world around us that are free of such bias. Research evidence, of which the above study is a good case in point, takes a representative sample (so here, 5 000 children) to answer its question.

Furthermore, these  5 000 children are each an anonymous row of data on a spreadsheet, not children with whom the researchers had any emotional connection or investment in their psychological adjustment. The argument of science is that taking such a sample gives a “truer” answer than asking one or two people about their experience.

And yes, it is true that some theories we have today in Psychology are rooted in the observations of one or two children. A famous example of this is of course Piaget (1959) and his careful records of his children growing up, showing us how children (might) develop. This, is a good example of empiricism – of observation. Piaget’s early records do not lay claim to cause and effect relationships. To determine the answer to why development happens, cue the scientific method (as argues Piaget himself, e.g., Piaget, 1932).

OK. Good so far. But what about qualitative research? Here, couldn’t each data set be summarized as a collection of anecdotes? Researchers are often explicitly interested in interviewees’ stories. And that counts as data. Well, yes – eventually. The data set is a set of organized “stories” that are then submitted to rigorous analysis by researchers, to build up a picture that is grounded in all the available data.

In sum, I heartily encourage students to question empirical papers: do the claims match up to the data that are being presented? What alternative explanations might there be for the findings? But questioning agreement from the point of view of your own experience, I do not encourage. This paper showed that spending less than an hour a day video-gaming was associated with good psychological adjustment among  5000 children. This result was statistically significant. Among those children, there will be several for whom this association is not true. Scientific methods allow us to draw conclusions based on a representative picture: more than an anecdote is needed, if you disagree with them.