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By Jenny Morris

Sugar seems to be frequently vilified in the media. Just a quick google search and headlines report ‘Sugar can destroy your brain’‘Sugar is as addictive as cocaine’ and ‘Sugar addiction ‘should be treated as a form of drug abuse’. It’s frequently referred to as an addictive drug, which supports people who build successful careers out of teaching people to avoid the perils of sugar. But how well founded are these claims and should you really cut sugar out of your diet?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that we absolutely need sugar in our diets. Glucose is an essential substance for cell growth and maintenance. The brain accounts for only 2% of our body weight yet uses approximately 20% of glucose derived energy, it’s vital to consume sugar to support basic cognitive functions. Disruption of normal glucose metabolism can have dangerous effects, resulting in pathological brain function. Yet there is concern that overconsumption may lead to a multitude of adverse health effects.

Is it addictive?

The impact of sugar on the brain is partly what has led many people to compare sugar to an addictive drug. Indeed, there are similarities, sugar activates the reward network which reinforces intake. It’s been suggested that ingesting an addictive drug hijacks this reward network and causes addiction. When people mention the reward pathway they are referring to the effect of dopamine on the pathway from the ventral tegmentum (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens and the effect of opioids in the amygdala and VTA. Dopamine underlies ‘wanting’ of an addictive substance whereas opioids underlie ‘liking’. Wanting causes the motivation to find and consume the substance, dopamine can be released in anticipation which increases craving, whereas liking is the enjoyment of actual consumption.

Our preference for sweetness is the only taste we have an innate preference for and can be seen in newborn babies. This is adaptive because it signals the food is likely to be high in calories and therefore valuable, at least in the environment we evolved in where food was hard to find. However, our environment is now full of food cues and feeding opportunities so our natural preference for sweetness is now counterproductive. These cues increase the likelihood of craving and consumption, like in drug addiction. Addicts show a biased attention towards cues related to their addictive substance, this is usually measured as being quicker to detect them and finding it harder to ignore them. This is also seen with food in those who are obesehungry or have problematic eating behaviours. In our obesogenic environment this is an issue as food cues are so frequently encountered.

Our obesogenic environment offers temptations at every turn (CC0)

Despite the potential common mechanisms, addictive behaviours such as increased tolerance and withdrawal syndrome have not been seen in humans (Which the exception of a single case study). Instead most of the research is based on animal models. ‘Sugar addiction’ can be seen in rats, but only when they are given intermittent access, this causes sugar bingeing and anxiety which might be evidence of withdrawal symptoms (although this could also be caused by hunger). This addictive behaviour is not seen in rats given free 24-hour access to sugar, even in those preselected to have a sugar preference. Given that free access is most like our own environment, this evidence is not particularly compelling. Furthermore, you get similar effects when using saccharin (artificial sweetener), so addictive behaviours are more likely caused by the rewarding sweet taste rather than at a chemical level. This makes sense when you consider self-confessed ‘sugar-addicts’ tend to crave sweet foods such as chocolate, cake and doughnuts, not sugar in its purest form.

Whilst these foods are likely to be high in sugar, they are also high in fat as well as other nutrients. (CC0)

Issues with evidence?

A further issue with claims of ‘sugar addiction’ is that claims are difficult to test. One problem is that human diets are varied, which makes it difficult to isolate the effect of sugar. Effects are usually confounded with lifestyle factors and other nutrients commonly found in the “Western diet” such as fat. If you try to list some high sugar foods, you’ll probably find these are also high in fat. Therefore, studies investigating the overall western diet do not provide compelling evidence for a direct causal link between sugar and negative health outcomes. To directly test this, we would need to put a sample of participants on a high sugar (controlling for all other dietary and lifestyle factors) diet for an extended period time. For obvious practical and ethical reasons, this is not possible (ethical boards tend to object to experiments where you intentionally damage the health of participants).

Therefore, we use animal models, which go some way in addressing this issue as sugar can be isolated more effectively. However, animal studies are also subject to criticism, as models are created from them to demonstrate the effects of sugar in the brain, but they do not necessarily translate to complex human behaviour in the real world. For example, humans can compensate for sugar compensation by choosing less sugary foods later, whereas rats in a controlled environment do not have this option.

How similar do you think your behaviour is to this guy? (CC0)

Brain imaging studies are another popular method to study the short-term effects of sugar on cognition. There is no shortage of articles describing how the brain ‘lights up’ or is ‘flooded with dopamine’ in response to sugar, like the patterns of activation seen in response to addictive drugs. However, we also see the same patterns in response to listening to musicdrawing doodles and cars, but we don’t think these things are addictive. It’s also important to realise fMRI is only measuring increased blood flow to those areas, not neural activity, so the information we get from them is limited. Brain imaging studies provide valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms of behaviour, but the results should not be overstated.

Negative consequences of vilifying sugar

The issue with vilifying one specific substance is that it causes people to adopt overly restrained diets. Restrained eating is an issue because it is frequently linked to diet breakdown, overeating and weight fluctuation. Tightly controlled diets involve a large amount of self-control, which usually fail and result in disinhibited eating. Making a food forbidden increases craving and overeating of that food, particularly in restrained eaters. The breakdown of restraint often causes guilt and leads to an unhealthy psychological relationship with food. In contrast, intuitive eating/flexible dietary control is associated with improved psychological well-being and lower BMI.

Whilst there is no evidence to support ‘sugar addiction’ it’s been suggested that a better term might be ‘eating addiction’. This term would describe the behavioural symptoms of loss of control, intense craving and overconsumption, rather than the substance-based addiction. The criteria for addiction in the most recent version of the DSM-5 (a diagnostic manual for clinicians) has been extended to account for non-substance-based addictions, such as gambling. However, there is concern that the term addiction implies that the behaviour is uncontrollable, which would undermine dieting attempts. Furthermore, there is some evidence that belief in ‘food addiction’ increases food consumption, particularly in those who self-identify as an addict.

To summarise, the causes of obesity are complex and cannot be reduced to a single substance. A combination of biological and psychological influences are involved, and to complicate matters further, the relative power of different factors differ between people. It would be more convenient if we could blame the multitude of potential health issues on sugar consumption, but at present there is no strong evidence to support this argument. Finally, over-hyped headlines and advice to cut sugar out of our diet completely is potentially harmful to our attempts to make positive changes to our diets and achieve long term health goals.

Jenny Morris is a PhD student with Prof Martin Yeomans and Dr Sophie Forster. Her research involves cognitive psychology and behavioural methods to test the mechanisms of distraction induced over-eating. This post was originally published in Jenny’s research blog.

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By Ian Hadden

ResearchED is getting big. A ‘grassroots movement’ started by a former teacher, it aims to bridge the gap between research and practice in education. Since I’m researching how simple, well-timed social psychological interventions can help kids from low-income families thrive at school, I went along to their London event last September see what it was all about. That is, me and an awful lot of other delegates. On a Saturday. Standing room only.

There were some well-known names, but the main draw was the hundred-or-so school practitioners, educational policymakers and academics who presented parallel sessions in seven slots throughout the day.

The impressive Eleanor Stringer and Elena Rosa Brown of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was my first slot. The EEF has some chunky money to commission research into improving outcomes for kids from low-income families, and I took away two pieces of good news. Firstly, they’ve recently begun to expand their focus to cover well-being and non-cognitive skills as well as their original aim of increasing educational attainment. I think this is good news for everyone, and of special interest to me as one of my areas of research is looking at how non-cognitive skills can drive not only educational attainment but also employability. Secondly, they told us that a new focus for them is packaging academic research in ways that are of practical use in schools using guidance reports. They’re aware that this is a big challenge and it’s very positive that they’re starting on the journey.

Three other slots were highlights for me.

Firstly, Stephen Gorard of the University of Durham gave some shocking examples of poor education research that had somehow found their way into peer-reviewed journals. While he offered a handy guide to sifting the solid from the flaky, the talk underlined the need for trusted intermediaries between research and practice – organisations like the EEF and TES.

Secondly, Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson from Wellington College highlighted practical evidence-based ideas for effective teaching: Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction and Robert Bjork’s desirable difficulties were the standouts for me that I need to look into. The emphasis, in this talk and more generally in the conference, was on the cognitive side (dual coding, cognitive load etc.), and I see opportunities for social psychology to get more of a profile in future conferences.

Finally, Robin Launder worked the audience like a pro with Theo Wubbels’ research into teacher-student relationships, ending on a high with a video of Ian Wright meeting an inspirational teacher from his schooldays. Eyes welled, mine included.

ResearchED might not be widely known, but it seems to me that it’s generating valuable debate in two of education’s big challenges: how can practitioners and policymakers identify high quality relevant research, and how can they then apply it to classroom practice? These are tough questions, and ones to which our team here at Sussex is focused on making a contribution within our field of social psychology.

To finish, a nice practical tip. According to Carl Hendrick, one teacher asked Dylan Wiliam about his advice that feedback should be more work for the receiver than for the giver. “How does that work in practice with maths homework?” Wiliam’s answer: don’t mark what’s right and what’s wrong, instead tell the student how many answers are wrong and ask them to figure out which ones.

Now that sounds like a great recipe for developing high-quality researchers for the next generation.

Ian Hadden is a doctoral researcher looking at how simple, well-timed social psychological interventions can help school students from low-income families see school as a place where they belong and can thrive. The interventions aim to help students reframe everyday experiences as normal, rather than evidence that “kids like me” don’t belong in school

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This article was originally published by the BBC on 12th January 2018.

Thousands of people are physically and sometimes brutally attacked each year in hate crimes. Such offences not only affect the victims, but also the thoughts and behaviour of others.

Within 24 hours of the massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, protests and vigils were joined by thousands in London, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bangkok and many other cities around the world. Although a particularly stark example, the response shows how the effects of hate crime are not limited to the immediate victims: they also affect others who learn of such events.

Prof Rupert Brown presenting at the Sussex Hate Crime Project launch.

Over the past five years, the Hate Crime Project at the University of Sussex has investigated these wider impacts of hate crime, looking at how simply knowing a victim, or even hearing about an incident, can have significant consequences. Many such attacks take place: in England and Wales, for example, the number of hate crimes recorded by police has increased sharply, rising 29%, to more than 80,000, in 2016-17. Race hate crimes were most common, but victims might also be targeted because of their sexual orientation, religion, disability, or because they are transgender.

The University of Sussex project used studies, experiments and interviews with a total of more than 1,000 Muslim and 2,000 LGBT people in the UK to investigate the indirect effects of such crimes. It found that four out of five participants knew someone who had been victimised in the past three years, with about half knowing someone who had been physically assaulted. As a result of hearing about hate crime in their community, the most common responses were anger, anxiety and feelings of vulnerability.

These emotional reactions had a significant impact on both LGBT and Muslim participants’ feelings of safety. Many said they took steps to increase their own security and avoided parts of their neighbourhood where they thought an attack was likely. Others joined community support groups. One Muslim woman described how she had responded to reports of Islamophobic hate crimes, including the murder of 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem, who was stabbed as he walked home from a mosque in Birmingham. “I do feel vulnerable… and it does affect my behaviour,” she said. “I become more fearful and avoid going to certain places that I feel might be a risk to my safety. And especially within certain times, I would avoid walking within those areas.”

One reason for these indirect effects is that people feel more empathy for victims who come from their own community. When they learned about a fellow Muslim, or LGBT person, being abused because of their identity, they put themselves in the victims’ shoes and felt something of what they must have felt during the attack. This made them feel angry on the victims’ behalf, but also threatened and fearful that they could also become a victim. These feelings can lead people to change their behaviour – for example, using social media to raise awareness of such attacks – with the effects lasting three months or longer in many cases.

Dr Jenny Paterson at the SHCP launch on 12th January 2018

The University of Sussex research demonstrated these effects through experiments in which participants read newspaper articles about someone being attacked. All the articles were identical, except that some described the attacks as anti-LGBT or Islamophobic hate crimes, while the others portrayed the attacks as random, with no mention of hate as the motivation. Those who read about hate crimes reported more empathy for the victim which, in turn, made them more likely to express feelings of anger or anxiety than those who read about the non-hate crimes. The strength of their responses suggest that hate crimes can have a greater impact on the victims and those in the wider community than otherwise comparable attacks which are not motivated by hate.

Among the Muslim and LGBT people who took part in the study, simply knowing someone who had been a victim of a hate crime was linked to them having less positive attitudes towards the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the government. They were also more likely to support laws designed to enhance the penalties for hate crime and different methods of policing – for example, special procedures for dealing with victims and more police in the community. Most had not had any contact with the police about a hate crime, but members of the Muslim group who had been in touch with them were less likely to believe that they would respond effectively than those who had not had contact. During one interview, a Muslim man said: “For me it seems that a lot of the police force come from a certain background, and sometimes that’s why I think they won’t take it [Islamophobic hate crime] seriously.”

Dr Mark Walters from the School of Law presenting at the SHCP launch

Attitudes towards different forms of justice used to deal with those responsible for hate crime were also investigated. More than six out of 10 Muslim and LGBT people who took part in the study said that instead of an enhanced prison sentence, they preferred restorative justice – in which victims meet or communicate with the perpetrators in order to explain the impact of their crime and agree a form of reparation. This, they believed, was more likely to be an effective way to repair the harm caused by hate and prejudice. One LGBT person said: “I’m not sure that just sending somebody to prison… is going to change somebody’s attitude… Whereas [restorative justice is] a much better route to be able to understand the impact that their behaviour has had on somebody.”

The question for police and politicians now is what they can do to reduce the impact of hate crimes. One step might be to investigate measures – like restorative justice – that aim to address the harm to both the victim and community. Another might be to ensure greater use of community impact statements in criminal trials. With tens of thousands of people affected each year, there are many in the Muslim and LGBT communities, and other parts of society, who will be keen to know the answer.

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC and edited by Duncan Walker. 

Prof Rupert Brown, Prof Mark Walters and Dr Jenny Paterson are at the University of Sussex and are members of the Sussex Hate Crime Project, which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The project recruited more than 2,000 LGBT and 1,000 Muslim people from a wide number of sources, including specific community groups and charities -for example, Stonewall, GALOP, the Muslim Council of Britain and LGBT and Muslim university groups.

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By Dr Zoë Hopkins

Trite as it sounds, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I became interested in autism and language. Throughout my undergraduate years (as a student of English Literature, rather than Psychology), I was employed as a support worker on the fabulous Artz and Sportz+ scheme (https://www.dorsetforyou.gov.uk/artz+), for children with additional needs. At a sports workshop, I was supporting a child with autism who had echolalia; he would repeat words and phrases that I said, over and over again, and it was really difficult for us to hold a conversation with each other. The boy’s use of language suggested to me that, in conversation, there is an ‘optimum’ amount of language repetition between speakers: too much copying might be disruptive (as it was in the sports workshop), but not using any of the same words as a partner might convey that s/he wasn’t being listened to. This issue gets even trickier within the context of autism, which is associated with both under- and over-imitation (of language, actions, etc.)

Against this backdrop, language imitation in children with autism became the focus of my Masters thesis at Sussex. As a student on the MSc in Experimental Psychology – an intensive, year-long conversion degree – I was attached to the ChaTLab (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab/), where I spent a year studying and hearing presentations about children with autism, and their difficulties with social interaction. When I left Sussex in 2011, it was to move to Singapore, where I spent six months as an intern in the autism team of the Child Guidance Clinic (CGC), as part of the Institute of Mental Health (https://www.imh.com.sg/clinical/page.aspx?id=267). While working at the CGC, I supported two clinicians to run social skills classes for boys with autism; this experience in particular made me think about why conversation doesn’t always run smoothly for people with autism and their social partners.

From Singapore, I returned to Sussex in 2012, to take up an EPSRC-funded PhD scholarship in the ChaTLab, entitled ‘Meeting of Minds in Conversation’. My PhD thesis – co-supervised by Drs Nicola Yuill (Psychology) and Bill Keller (Informatics) – considered the conversational difficulties of children with autism from a language-processing perspective, drawing on theories of linguistic alignment. Alignment is the tendency for speakers to imitate each other’s language in conversation: it is widely observed in the conversations of typical adults, and is associated with more effective and satisfying interactions (c.f., e.g., Fusaroli et al., 2012). Furthermore, alignment may be influenced by ‘audience design’ (=tailoring speech to take a listener into account) and social-affective goals; these are recognised areas of impairment for children with autism. In my thesis, I report three experiments, which consider whether atypical alignment could explain why children with autism might find conversation difficult, and in turn why their social partners might find their interactions odd and unrewarding.  My thesis will be available online soon (http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/60608/).

Having survived my PhD viva in February 2016, I have since been working as an Assistant Psychologist at the Disabilities Trust, in a residential service for adults with autism and learning disabilities (http://www.thedtgroup.org/autism-and-learning-disabilities/our-services/hollyrood/news/service-user-helps-to-appoint-new-psychologist/). I continue to be intrigued by conversation in autism, and to think about what can be done to support people with autism with their social interaction. Happily, I was offered a post-doctoral position at Edinburgh University, which will allow me to pursue some of the outstanding questions from my PhD. In April 2017, I joined an ESRC-funded project – ‘Conversational Alignment in Children with an Autism Spectrum Condition and Typical Children – led by Professor Holly Branigan; Nicola Yuill is a co-investigator on this project, which will enable me to maintain my connections with the Sussex ChaT Lab.

I am very excited about the new chapter in my academic career, and welcome enquiries from anyone regarding my research interests. Please consult either my Sussex or Edinburgh University profile pages for contact details.

Academic funding:

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – doctoral research position

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – post-doctoral research position

Relevant publications:

My research has involved both experimental paradigms and natural language processing methodology.

Hopkins, Z., Yuill, N., & Keller, B. (2016). Children with autism align syntax in natural conversation. Applied Psycholinguistics, 37(2), 347–370. doi:10.1017/S0142716414000599

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By Patricio Saavedra Morales

Recently, the UN Human Rights Office published an extensive report about human rights violations and abuses during protests occurring in Venezuela from 1st of April to 31st July 2017.  In the document, UN officers accused the Venezuelan police force of excessive use of force during protests and illegal detentions of both protesters and political opponents. Furthermore, the report claimed that the right of peaceful assembly has been systematically violated, and the protesters (as well as journalists who have tried to report protests) are treated as ‘terrorist’ and ‘enemies of the state’ by government authorities. In this context, the report argues some protesters resorted to the use of violence as a method to confront the action of the police and pro-government groups.

However, the use of violence during protests is neither a new issue nor exclusive feature of Venezuelans. Social psychologists from different countries have demonstrated that emotionsthe perceived efficacy of violent actions, or the lack of collective efficacy could be antecedents for people consider getting involved in violent actions during protests. Moreover, an outstanding approach based on identity dynamics and crowd psychology has proposed that the use of violence by members of a crowd (as in protests) follows a specific logic where violent tactics are legitimised due to the indiscriminate actions of the police, and a subsequent change of group representations to ‘us’ (protesters) and ‘they’ (the police). Hence, ‘violent actions’ can be justified as self-defence or retaliation by the protesters (as a group) when they see other group (the police) as an enemy because of the use of transgressive actions against them.

Despite the findings mentioned above, both the influence of the perceived political context on bystanders (the extent to which people perceive their government and the police restricting or facilitating protests) and how these bystanders perceive that other people give legitimacy to protests have barely been explored as antecedents of the justification of the use of violence by protesters. To address these topics, we carried out four quantitative studies using samples from Chile and the UK for each of them.

A few brief words are necessary about the countries involved in the studies before describing the results. On one hand, Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar has claimed that the use of violence in protests and by social movements has been present across Chilean history to try to achieve social change. The same scholar has also argued that in spite of the presence of popular violence in their history, many Chilean people have often focused their efforts on condemning its use (because of its assumed ‘irrationality’ and supposed criminality) rather than trying to understand why or when some people have considered it as a valid approach. On the other hand, the UK (specifically England) has seen episodes such as the ‘Battle of Westminster’ in 1988 and the riots in Tottenham and Hackneyduring 2011, where the actions of the police against protesters operated as a trigger for a series of events in which the use of violence became legitimized. Regarding these facts, a group of scholars from this country have developed a scientific approach to understanding the occurrence of riots based on social identity dynamics instead of assuming that crowd’s actions are a product of pathological irrationality.

With respect to the main findings of our four studies, we demonstrated that people from the UK and Chile were more willing to justify the use of violence by protesters when they perceived their political context as more restricted in relation to protests. We also found that besides the general perception about political context, police transgressions are especially relevant for Chileans, compared to people in the UK, in their legitimisation of the use of violence during a protest.

Another significant result of our studies was that when people perceived their political context as more open to protests, they were more likely to also think that other people would legitimise the implementation of protests in the streets (a process called meta-perception). The latter is relevant because the perceptions about another important actor within the political context – other people – were included in the equation beyond institutional actors. Interestingly, we also found that for British people the perception of what other people thought about protests was a relevant factor to justify the use of violence by protesters, but this was not the case for the Chilean sample.

In conclusion, our results suggest that what the government authorities and the police do in relation to protests is an important factor that people evaluate in forming attitudes to different protest activities. At the same time, we think the special relevance that police transgressions have for Chileans may be due to historical antecedents (during the fascist dictatorship, Chilean police actively repressed and killed people during protests), and/or the unnecessary or excessive use of force against protesters frequently alleged by international organizations as Amnesty Internationaland Human Right Watch. A third hypothesis which could explain the importance of police behaviour in the justification of the use of violence in Chile is the massive use of paramilitary policing to manage protests in that country. Paramilitary policing is characterized by the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters, as well as an extensive control of public space by the police force. Although recent psychological literature has demonstrated that paramilitary policing has a negative impact on the protesters’ trust in the police and the fact that policing approaches based on coercion could help to escalate violence between the police and crowd members, it seems that Chilean authorities have allowed the police force to retain its old and repressive tactics without considering non-coercive methods before crowds events and protests (Some remarkable examples of the use of a non-coercive approach during crowds events have been carried out in the UK.)

However, a topic still unsolved is the relevance that the British (but not Chileans) give to the opinion of others for the justification of violence during protests: could this difference between countries be explained by cultural background discrepancies? Which specific cultural aspects would be behind it? Whatever the answer to these questions is, the big picture obtained across the studies matches with what other scholars have suggested on the use of violence by social movements and in collective action, which is that it follows a specific logic characterized by the emergence of new norms due to the illegitimate interaction between protesters and other groups (as the police). These new norms of interaction might mean that violent tactics (which could have been considered illegitimate in the past) become a valid strategy of action to confront or retaliate against police transgression instead of being caused by people’s ‘irrationality’ or ‘criminality’. In line with this, we suggest that knowing the extent in which people perceive their political context as open to allowing and facilitating protests would be a new piece of the puzzle to get a better understanding of the use of violence during these kind of events. Additionally, we propose the rationale described above would not be exclusive to those who actively participate in collective action but also it can be extended to bystanders (general public) who are not necessarily directly involved in the actions but can support the use of violent tactics by protesters after forming an opinion of their own political context.

Independently of the claims on international intervention in the Venezuelan crisis, we suggest that the approach described above might be applied to explain the use of violence during protests in that country. If we follow the UN report, we might conjecture that some people have justified the use of violence in the streets because of both the government restrictions to implement peaceful protests and the systematic police misbehaviour against the protesters. The latter would be aggravated whether we also consider that government authorities have explicitly considered protesters ‘as terrorists’ and sent detained protesters to military courts. Nevertheless, less clear is whether Venezuelans have considered the opinion of other people to justify the use of violent tactics in the streets. At the moment, through the press, we have just some hints that protesters (especially younger ones) perceive that the views of other people legitimise their presence in the streets to fight against the pro-government groups and the police.

This post was originally published on 7th September 2017 in the blog of the Crowds and Identities Research Group, led by Dr John Drury.

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As we start the new academic year, I am delighted as Head of School to welcome our new cohort of Undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral students to the School of Psychology at Sussex, and to welcome back our current Undergraduate and Doctoral students. I hope you have all had a fantastic summer and are ready to hit the ground running in your studies. For those of you just starting, you are joining one of the best research-led Schools of Psychology in the UK (10th overall in the last Research Excellence Framework). For those returning, we are delighted that our performance in the National Student Survey continues to show our excellence, with a 92% score for Overall Satisfaction in the 2017 NSS results.

The summer is a busy time for academic faculty, where as well as preparing new courses and revising our lectures, we are immersed in our research. Many of the faculty are presenting events at the British Science Festival, which is being held in Brighton from the 5-9 September 2017 (www.britishsciencefestival.org). A perfect way to prepare for your studies and to get a feel for the people who will be guiding you through your degree would be to come along to as many sessions as you can, including:

One of our new innovations for the coming year is to assign our incoming undergraduates to ‘houses’, designed to provide a cohesive social environment in which you can interact with your peers, students from other years, and academic and professional staff in smaller groups. Sometimes, one can feel a bit lost in a large cohort of students: the houses are designed to provide a welcoming environment so that you can feel at home while at university. The heads of houses will arrange social events as well as coordinating the academic advisor scheme, so that you can make the very best use of your academic advisors.

If you have any suggestions for further improvements you would like us to make, pass them on to the Psychology student reps and we will do our best to act on them. We are also upping our game in use of social media, with regular blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts. We would love to get stuff from students – please send material to Mar Balboa Carbon (M.Balboa-Carbon@sussex.ac.uk) who is coordinating our social media presence.

Don’t forget that it is really important for you to keep in regular contact with your academic adviser throughout the year; not only can they help you to deal with problems as they arise (e.g., understanding feedback, assistance with writing and analysis, advice about personal issues), but the more they know about you, the better equipped they will be to write that all-important reference for when you apply for jobs and further study.

I hope the coming academic year is productive and fun for all of you (and us!).

Best wishes

Tom Ormerod

Head of School of Psychology

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By Katie Barnes

Even before coming to Sussex, I was aware of the work being done by the Sussex Colour Group and knew that I would love to be involved in some colourful projects one day. The JRA enabled me to approach Professor Anna Franklin, leader and coordinator of the Sussex Colour Group and Baby Lab, who helped me open the door towards my first chromatic research experience! I had the pleasure of contributing to The Rainbow project which was developing its final stage when I arrived. The project was investigating how infants of 4 – 6 months see and categorise colour before they have developed language, and had divided into 3 phases. Phase 3 was where I came in and was focused on hue discrimination.

My JRA project predominantly focused on piloting new and engaging stimuli which would be used with infants aged 4 – 6 months. The procedure itself involved the use of an eye tracking technique, so we could gather non-verbal data from the infants which provided us with an insight into their cognition. A round, black and white sticker is placed on the infant’s cheek in order to calibrate the eye tracker and to record pupil movement. When the infant was settled and attentive to what the computer monitor was showing them, we presented two colourful patches, one of which contained an animation. Figure 1 provides examples of the patterns used in the procedure. We used a variety of colour combinations with each stimuli which were counterbalanced to avoid colour and side bias. From this we could obtain which of the three patterns is most popular with the infants and would be used in the final study. Results showed that the looming rings proved most attractive for the infants. Using this pattern, the colour pairs used will gradually become more similar in hue until the infant can no longer see a difference between the patches. This will allow us to measure the threshold of infant hue discrimination for a whole colour space.

When developing this stimuli other factors were also taken into account, such as spatial frequency and how much luminance noise to include, an example of our first set of luminance noise can be seen in figure 2. 

Working on the Rainbow project provided me with a new appreciation for developmental psychology and has helped me understand how procedures must adapt in order to fit the participant. As well as giving me an introductory understanding of the specialised equipment used in acute colour / light measurements and the theory behind it, such as the SpectraScan and VSG monitor (figure 3). I have gained an invaluable pool of new knowledge which I owe to all those involved in the work being done in the lab, particularly my mentor John Maule who was able to answer all of my questions and calm my bundle of nerves!

My main concern about completing a research project was whether I would be able to successfully analyse data statistically. Statistics has never been a strong point of mine, but the project allowed me to apply my foundational knowledge to real world data and build from there. The support I received in the lab allowed me to ask as many questions as needed as well as giving me time to solve problems by myself.

Undertaking the JRA project over the summer has boosted my confidence remarkably and will help me hit the ground running when starting my third year. My research, recruitment and communication skills have benefited immensely from interacting with participants, other JRAs and research fellows. I hope to continue the work I have completed over the summer within my third year and apply my new research skills effectively!

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By John Drury

Last week, the annual Hajj took place in Mecca (Makkah) and the other holy places nearby. This Muslim pilgrimage is one of the world’s largest crowd events – the official figure for those attending last year was 1,862,909. The Hajj has been called the world’s ‘global gathering’ because it is a place where Muslims from all over the world come together. The Hajj has also been the scene of a number of tragedies, including the crush in 2015 where over 700 people died at a crossroads near the holy city of Mina.

Despite its global significance and importance to so many people, few psychological studies have been carried out on the Hajj. Most research studies of the events are from medical or engineering perspectives. Hani Alnabulsi, my PhD student, and I recently had a unique opportunity to study the experience and behaviour of the Hajj crowd, through his research on the 2011 and 2012 pilgrimages. As part of his PhD at Sussex, Hani carried out dozens of interviews and surveyed over 1000 pilgrims, all in and around the Grand Mosque, Mecca. This unique data-set allowed us to address a number of important questions on the social psychology of the Hajj for the first time. Hani finished his PhD in 2015, and we are now in the process of writing up the work as journal articles. Here is a summary of some of the key findings.

How do people feel safe in such dense crowds?

In a first analysis, we looked at predictors of feeling safe in the Hajj crowd, which can reach densities of up to nine people per metre2 near the Ka’aba. We tested the hypothesis that the effect of crowd density on feeling safe would vary depending on whether there is shared social identification in the crowd. Analysis of the data showed that the negative effect of crowd density on reported safety was indeed moderated by social identification with the crowd. Whereas low identifiers reported reduced safety with greater crowd density, high identifiers actually reported increased safety with greater crowd density. Mediation analysis suggested that a reason that some people felt safer was the perception that other crowd members were supportive. We also found that those from Arab countries and Iran felt especially safe at the Hajj compared with pilgrims from other countries. These differences in reported safety across national groups also seemed to be because these groups experienced greater crowd identification and perceived support than other groups.

Inset shows density of 6ppm2

Psychological changes, including changed attitudes to other social groups

Towards the end of his autobiography, the activist Malcolm X described in compelling terms the revelation he experienced on attending the Hajj:

My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I had never seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors, – blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans – in true brotherhood! In unity! … It was in the Holy World that my attitude was changed, by what I experienced there, and by what I witnessed there, in terms of brotherhood – not just brotherhood toward me, but brotherhood between all men, of all nationalities and complexions, who were there. (pp. 478-479, emphasis in original)

His was not a unique experience. A brilliant ‘natural experiment’ carried out by Clingingsmith and colleagues on a large sample of Pakistanis famously showed that participation in the Hajj can lead to both more positive attitudes towards other groups and increased commitment to Muslim identity. In a second analysis, we have been investigating the process underlying these psychological changes. In line with contact theory and the social identity approach, we found that a key mechanism explaining increased positive attitudes to outgroups was identification with the Hajj crowd, which operates like common ingroup identity. In line with a social identity account of identity enactment, we found that the key mechanism explaining enhanced identification was giving social support to others. Our finding that participation in an all-Muslim gathering increases positive views of other groups (including non-Muslims) through crowd identification offers an alternative perspective to claims about the supposed role of such gatherings in encouraging intolerance.

Place, space and the virtuous cycle of cooperation

The requirement to cooperate at Hajj is not only a shared spiritual value, but also a practical necessity due to the high levels of crowd density. In a third analysis, we sought to understand the determinants of cooperation in and around the Grand Mosque during the pilgrimage. In Hani’s interviews, pilgrims described ecstatic experiences on seeing and being close to the Ka’aba. However, precisely because of its spiritual value, many pilgrims seek to be close to the Ka’aba at the same time. This leads to negative (e.g., competitive pushing) as well as positive (e.g., social support) experiences in the Mosque. Our survey analysis found that evidence of help was high across the participants, but was more likely to be reported on the plaza just outside the Mosque than inside the Mosque itself. We also found evidence of what we called a virtuous cycle of cooperation: seeing others in the crowd giving support predicted seeing them as good Muslims which predicted identification with the crowd which itself predicted giving help to others. This predictive pattern occurred in the plaza but not the Mosque itself, and suggests the role of place and space in modulating identity processes.

Conclusion

In the past, where the social psychology of the Hajj has been addressed it has been through concepts such as ‘panic’ and ‘stampede’. However, use of these concepts is not based on systematic study of pilgrims’ behaviour and experience. In addition, such concepts serve to blame the crowd, rather than mismanagement, for disasters. Hani Alnabulsi’s PhD research is the first to bring modern social psychological concepts to the Hajj – in particular the concepts of social identity and group norm. We argue that these concepts will not only provide a more accurate understanding of behaviour at the Hajj, they can also help contribute to a safer Hajj in the future by informing the planning and management of this global gathering.

This post was originally published in John Drury’s personal blog The Crowd. John is the lead of the Crowds and Identities’ Research Group.

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By Dr John Drury

There is evidence that recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw a mass mobilization of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis have served to embolden and strengthen these groups, who are now ‘bursting with confidence’. The Vice documentary, filmed among the groups as the events took place, showed how the aim of the mobilization was to build the movement psychologically:

‘that camaraderie is and trust is built on activism, and that is one of the tactics we’re adopting’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

The documentary also showed how the participants felt about and interpreted their mobilization. They took encouragement from the sheer fact of organizing together, being on the streets in such numbers, from imposing themselves on their opponents in this ‘liberal’ town, in expressing themselves:

‘This is the largest nationalist rally in over two decades in the United States. It’s been incredibly exciting… We’re going to keep having a good time and keep fighting.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

They were empowered to such a degree that they felt confident there were would be more such events in the near future and that these would escalate, both qualitatively and quantitatively:

‘I think it’s going to be difficult to top, but we’re up to the challenge… I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)

Recent social psychology research can explain how this strengthening process operates in social movements, and can also predict when and how it spreads to individuals and groups not physically present on the mobilization but who feel the same way as the marchers. Most of this research so far has been carried out on campaign groups and issues very different in political content from the fascist-type mobilization in Charlottesville: student fees protesters, Occupy supporters, environmental activists, and so on. But in terms of process, there are key concepts and explanatory principles that can be carried across.

Salience and match of self-categorization are two key concepts here. Based on self-categorization theory, research shows that, in different contexts, we can define ourselves in terms of personal characteristics (our personal identity) but also in terms of shared category memberships (collective or social identity). If our social identity is salient, and if it corresponds to the identity of those involved in the mobilization, then intergroup emotions theory would suggest that we will get emotional (and other) benefits from the event in the same way as the participants themselves who.

What are these emotional and other benefits of collective action? Work on appraisal in collective action suggests that, for those who identify with the group, the perception of our group taking action enhances our collective efficacy – our belief in our capacity to act. Seeing social support in our group taking action tells us that we will have social support for further action.

But what is the nature of this action? Does just any collective action have these empowering effects for participants and their supporters? Other research shows that it is specifically collective actions which enact identity which have this effect. We call these forms of action collective self-objectification. By turning the subjective (ideas) into something objective (hard reality), such action operates for participants as tangible evidence of their group’s enhanced agency relative to other groups, and hence is experienced as empowering.

This was clearly going on in Charlottesville, where what was previously limited to an online network now manifested itself physically. To ‘own’ the streets, to be able to shout anti-Semitic slogans, to intimidate the ‘liberals’ and ‘racial’ groups who wanted to remove the statue of General Lee – all these were ways of enacting identity and, as such, imposing a particular definition of the world on opponents. These activities therefore empowered participants, or, in more conventional psychological language, increased their collective efficacy.

From efficacy there may be just a short step to gaining legitimacy. In their BBC prison study, Reicher and Haslam showed that the prisoners turned to tyranny when it was seen to be able to operate when a more democratic system was not. Practical adequacy – the perceived ability of an organization to put its beliefs into practice – increases the extent to which it is seen as a legitimate political force by others. We have recently investigated this in the context of the student movement in Chile, where the main predictor of non-participants belief that the students’ protest action was legitimate was the perceived efficacy of the movement.

So what is the solution? The collective action literature points to the role of failure and success in increasing or reducing further mobilization. In psychological terms, success for a social movement is again action which realizes the identity – collective self-objectification – whereas failure is the enactment of the opponent’s identity and the negation of one’s own.

In our field-world and interviews and in our current experiments, we found that those actions that realized the participants’ shared identity were particularly rewarding and increased intentions to take part in further collective action, whereas those actions that ended in failure of collective self-objectification led to demoralization and reduced intentions to act. This was particularly the case for those with relatively little experience of protest. It would apply, for example, to the wider population of neophyte sympathisers that the fascist groups attempt to inspire through their shows of strength and identity enactment.

In history, the street violence of Kristallnacht sparked a further rise in anti-Semitic attacks and consolidated the rise of the Nazis in Germany; and events such as the 1936 battle of Cable Street, actions by the 43 group after the second world war, and the 1977 battle of Lewisham set fascism back as a movement. Put simply, controlling the streets builds the movement and getting them off the streets works in defeating that movement.

Of course non-violent tactics also work – my own PhD research examined how one predominantly non-violent direct action campaign had great success in making road-building seen as a political issue and in problematizing the then government’s road-building programme. But pure pacifism relies on a humanism which, if the opponents do not share – if the opponents regard us as less than human – will lead to our defeat not theirs.

This post was originally published in John Drury’s personal blog The Crowd. John is the lead of the Crowds and Identities’ Research Group.

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