The School of Psychology at the University of Sussex is one of the largest psychology departments in the UK, with world-leading researchers and a large community of undergraduate and postgraduate students. This blog intends to be a window into the life of the School.
May was a really productive month for the School of Psychology in terms of media coverage, from local publications to interviews on international tv channels.
“We are drawn towards equality” – Jo Cutler told The i. The newspaper asked Jo about altruism and what moves people to donate, in relation to MacKenzie Bezos’ announcement that she would give half her multi-billion dollar divorce settlement to charity. Jo Cutler is a PhD student in the Social Decision Lab, where she studies the neuroscience of charitable giving, altruism and decision making under the supervision of Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn. Jo also researches how our brains process good and bad news, which was mentioned in the May issue of Brighton’s Viva Magazine.
Why do we love some animals, but loathe others? Emeritus Professor Graham Davies says that disgust is a learned emotion, probably transmitted socially, culturally and within families. Graham’s research into phobias received international coverage in May, including the Manila Times, the Inquirer and Yahoo News.
Dr Sophie Forster explained why parents believe their babies have the most delicious smell in the world in The Phoenix Newspaper and Bounce Magazine. Sophie was asked to comment on the scientific evidence of the new market research by eco-cleaning brand Ecover that showed that 70 per cent of respondents preferred their baby’s natural fragrance to their favourite perfume or aftershave.
Research carried out by Prof Anna Franklin’s Baby Lab inspired a theatre play for babies aged 6 – 18 months called Kaleidoscope, which was performed at the Northern Stage in Newcastle Upon Tyne on 18 May. And Alice Skelton, who researches infant colour perception and colour categorisation in Prof Anna Franklin’s Colour Lab, spoke with The Daily Telegraph about how brands like McDonald’s use bold primary colours to influence consumers.
Amidst the controversy of the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show, the New Scientist published an article on the accuracy of lie detectors. Polygraph machines have long been discredited as reliable lie detectors, and professionals use alternative methods focusing on behavioural and linguistic cues. The article mentions an experiment carried by Prof Tom Ormerod (who is stepping down as Head of School in August), and Dr Carol Dando (from the University of Westminster), where they asked 200 people to pose as passengers and lie at airport security. Officers looking for behavioural signs detected less than 5 per cent, whereas those agents using Ormerod and Dando’s interviewing method identified 60 per cent of the lying passengers. You can read more about the experiment in their research paper: “Finding a needle in a haystack: towards a psychological informed method for aviation security screening.”
Prof John Drury was interviewed live on air by Kay Burley on Sky News on 7 May to explain why passengers stopped to collect their luggage when escaping from a burning plane in Russia. In the five minute interview, he explained that public transport operators need to rethink how they instruct people in emergency situations, to address them as a group with responsibility to others and not as a collection of individuals. His research into crowd behaviour was also quoted in this thoughtful blog, How a crowd crush occurs (and 10 tips to survive one) published on Scroll.in and originally written for The Conversation.
Prof Drury was also interviewed by Indus News in Pakistan regarding the increasing number of lynching incidents against minorities in South East Asia. John challenged the term ‘mob mentality’ and the idea that people become more emotional and irrational in crowds, which leads them to do things that they would not do on their own. Rather, John explained, being in a group empowers individuals to enact beliefs that they already had as they feel supported by other like-minded people.
As part of the Psychology Student Experience team’s wellbeing events during the assessment period, we’ve had several nature walks, exploring the many walking routes on the beautiful University of Sussex campus.
In case you missed them, here’s a summary by Dr. Megan Hurst
on the benefits of getting some exercise in natural environments during the assessment
Recharge your batteries
Green exercise might be particularly helpful if you’re
currently studying and revising hard. This kind of focus is referred to as
‘directed attention’, and it takes cognitive energy to maintain it. Attention restoration
& Kaplan, 1989) suggests that green exercise encourages ‘soft
fascination’ – a form of involuntary attention which is not so draining. Natural
environments with greater biodiversity may be particularly associated with
these feelings of restoration (Marselle
et al., 2016).
Boost this benefit: aim to walk in areas with lots of
different plants (and animals!). You can also purposefully extend your
attention outside of your body while you are exercising – what can you see
around you? You might find the woodland portion of the boundary
walk (near the Falmer Sports Complex) a particularly nice place to do this.
Focus on feeling
One of the great things about having a campus in the South Downs is the incredible landscape, which sometimes comes with some impressive hills to climb, or tree roots to clamber over. The challenges posed by the outdoors can help us to focus on our experience within our bodies and how they feel, rather than how they look. Lots of my research investigates how focusing on appearance in exercise settings can have negative consequences for how we feel about ourselves (e.g., Hurst et al., 2017). Avoiding this appearance focus can be easier away from classic exercise environments, like gyms or fitness centres (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2008).
Woodland in the South Downs
Boost this benefit: as you are walking, focus on how
your body feels, and what you are experiencing right now. You might notice and
enjoy the sun on your skin (if you’re lucky!), the burning in your legs or the
rasp of your breath as you climb a hill. There’s a good one at the north end of
campus on the Boundary walk for just this experience!
Master the challenge
The ecological dynamics approach to green exercise (Brymer et al.,
2014) suggests that exercise in natural environments is good for us because
of what these environments encourage. Natural surroundings provide more
opportunities to engage in challenges (like those hills we mentioned earlier!)
and in simple, enjoyable activities. Interviews with recreational road cyclists
highlight the ‘uncomplicated joy’ experience by tackling physical challenges
with nature as a backdrop (Glackin
& Beale, 2018).
Boost this benefit: Take a moment to appreciate the view, and what you’ve achieved when you reach the top of a hill – like the beautiful view out over Stanmer Park on the Boundary Walk. Or indulge your inner child by running down the hill in the woods at the northeast end of campus – wheee!
Fulking Hill in the South Downs
Research suggests that just 10 minutes of green (vs. indoor)
exercise can be beneficial for wellbeing (Focht,
2009), so it is worth taking even a short break outside while you’re
revising in the assessment period, or if you’re one of our PGT students writing
up your dissertation over the summer.
You can see more information about walking and running
routes on campus here.
Dr. Megan Hurst is a Lecturer in Social Psychology and module leader for the final year option “Psychology of Exercise and Wellbeing”. Outside of work, Megan enjoys walking in the South Downs, and further afield, tackling long distance routes like Hadrian’s Wall Path and classic challenges like the Lyke Wake Walk.
Research carried out by Dr Graham Hole with Dr Gemma Briggs and Dr Jim Turner from the Open University shows that using a hands-free mobile phone while driving is as dangerous as calling on a hand-held device. Gemma and Graham wrote a post for the blog of Brake the road safety charity last month explaining the results of their research and proposing that the use of hands-free devices behind the wheel should be banned. The Evening Standard includes a prominent quote from Graham in an article saying that drivers are four times more likely to crash when taking phone calls.
LADBible, the biggest publisher of news on Facebook, interviewed Dr Richard De Visser for a piece they were writing on how people should prepare for Bachelor parties. According to The Guardian, at least 30 British men died on stag dos between 2008 and 2018, while many others have suffered severe injuries. Richard pointed out how stag and hen dos tend to be seen as timeout (especially if the celebration involves travelling abroad) where the usual individual limits are lessened, and how this might lead to risk-taking behaviours.
istolethetv from Hong Kong, China [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
Prof Robin Banerjee discussed the nature of kindness in Positive News: “Time to be kind: why kindness matters.” Robin, who is the director of Sussex Kindness, explained that kindness is subjective and that what is a kind act for some might be an unkind act for others. The same article mentions PhD student Jo Cutler’s research on altruism. Jo and her supervisor Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn examined fMRI scans of more than 1000 people making kind decisions, whether for strategic reasons (i.e. expecting something in return) or completely altruistically. The study showed that both types of kindness activate our endorphin-reward system, but purely altruistic acts made other parts of our brain to become even more active, creating what it has sometimes been described as a warm glow.
Robert Avery is a student in the MRes in Psychological Methods. A dual citizen of the United Kingdom and Switzerland, Robert studied a BSc in Psychology at the University of Fribourg and is now planning to do a PhD. He is interested in the influence of gendered languages on adolescents’ gender construct and job aspirations. We asked Robert about his experience studying our MRes and how the course has helped him prepare for his next career step.
I like the most about my MRes in Psychological Methods is that it does what it
says on the box: most of our days are spent working on different statistical
and research methods. The course includes several modules designed to broaden
our methodological knowledge of specific areas of psychology, but the main
focus is on general research methods. I particularly enjoy the quality of the
teaching: the School of Psychology at Sussex is a research-intensive
institution and many of its faculty members are highly regarded for their
research. All this transpires in their teaching. Being part of such a deep pool
of keen and important minds is definitely inspiring.
expected, this Masters course demands high discipline. This particular MRes can
be quite intense: the deadlines for the various assignments are spaced out, but
the work each one of them requires comes on top of the course content. This can
be hard to juggle and you need to stay focused the entire year.
teaching is of high quality, but I think that a 1-year Masters (as is the
custom in England) is not enough time for students to take modules that would
help them cover psychology topics in more depth. In other words, this
particular Masters is a route towards a career in research, and not towards a
thorough understanding of psychological areas (e.g. social psychology,
cognitive, neuro, etc.). It feels like the MRes course has replaced those
taught psychology-focused modules with a year-long research internship; this is
precisely the hands-on experience that first attracted me to the course. A
valuable process for those like me who want to direct themselves towards
emphasis on research (that spans over both terms) required me to organise my
time and be pro-active. It is well-known that we get what we put into things
and this is no exception: the more invested in the projects you are, the more
experience you get. Your own motivation combined with staff’s proficiency
provides the potential to learn the required skills to conduct your own
research. Time management is essential to complete the course, but the MRes
does allow you to organise your time and there are always opportunities to take
part in the various activities the University and Brighton have to offer.
far, my time spent at Sussex studying Psychology has met my expectations. I
have made the most of the well-trained staff’s knowledge, and the course has
also enabled me to get to the forefront of current research methods (through
the multiple statistics modules, for example). The MRes has also given me the
confidence to write my own PhD grant application. Thanks to academic contacts
facilitated by faculty, I was able to reach out to several universities and
approach potential supervisors. I have
ended up writing a PhD project with one of them and submitting it to the Swiss
national fund for research.
course well worth it for those who have the drive to take their academic career
into their own hands!
When you think of the School of Psychology, you probably picture your lecturers in front of a class or giving you advice during their office hours. But not everything is teaching. This post is a brief summary of some of the School activities that made the news in March.
In her professorial talk last month, Prof Alison Pike provided an interesting and funny account of her twenty-five years researching parental and sibling relationships. Ali spoke about the genetic and environmental aspects of these relationships, and the active role that children play in both parenting and influencing their younger siblings’ behaviour. You can listen to the whole talk here: Happier families: The kids (and mum & dad) are alright (audio only).
Prof Pike is currently studying how children’s behaviour change when they have a baby brother or sister. Lauren Moss interviewed Ali and one of her young participants for the BBC in early March. Ali and her team are still looking for more participants. If you have a toddler and are due to have another baby in the next few months, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The EDGE Lab led by Dr Darya Gaysina have discovered that repeated episodes of depression in the first three decades of adulthood are linked to memory loss later in life. Darya’s team analysed data from the National Child Development Study which studied the life of 17000 people born in 1958 from birth into adulthood. The accumulation of episodes of depression and anxiety experienced by participants during their twenties, thirties, and forties was a strong predictor of decrease in memory function by the time they reached fifty. These findings highlight the need for higher investment in mental health support for young adults to prevent future risks of dementia.
Are you yawning yet? Prof John Drury was with Claudia Hammond in ‘All in the Mind’ explaining how social identity affects non-conscious behaviours such as yawning: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p067c4t1
Social identity also plays a role in why we ignore fire alarms. John
spoke with FM Industry about how people behave in emergency situations: “Is Anyone
John’s research shows that crowd members in emergencies quickly identify
themselves as part of the same group and self-organise. Although this is in general
positive, it can sometimes have dangerous consequences. A key problem is that
the alarms do not provide enough information (e.g. what the emergency is, where
the danger is, etc.), and they are not always reliable (e.g. is there really an
emergency or is it a test?). As a
result, people look around at how others react to the alarm and this can delay
The University news broadcast picked up on an event organised by the Psychology Student Experience Team. Part of One World Week, Desserts of the World celebrated the cultural diversity of the School. The event was very popular: many staff and students contributed home-made desserts from their home countries and many more came to Pevensey 1 to try them. The University article talks about the winner of the Most Inspired Dessert competition, Bianca Popescu who made Moldovian style munecini: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=48313?ref=email
To support the University’s One World Week, the Psychology Student Experience team hosted ‘Desserts of the World’ in the Pevensey 1 building. This event was aimed at celebrating our diverse staff and student population and using food to learn about different countries, cultures and traditions. Faculty and students were invited to make or provide a dessert from their home country with a prize for the student who supplied the “Most Inspirational Dessert”. Information about the desserts and why they were chosen was provided by the participants. Countries represented included Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Germany and Spain, alongside many from the UK.
Our Head of School serving up his Sticky Toffee Pudding
The event was a success with students enjoying the homemade
element of the event and being able to learn about new cultures. And all
desserts were eaten.
Members of the Student Experience team serving up the desserts
We will be announcing the winner of the “Most Inspirational Dessert” shortly.
Looking into how carefully-targeted low-cost interventions can reduce the psychological barriers to success of some groups of school students and help them prepare for a happy and productive life.
by Ian Hadden
It only takes a quick glance at GCSE results across the country to see that some groups of students don’t do as well as others, notably boys, students from some ethnic backgrounds, and students from poorer families. Some well-known structural barriers to success, such as poor nutrition and low-quality housing, play a crucial role. But social and cultural factors that students experience in their everyday environment can create other, more subtle, psychological barriers. Here’s a quick look at how three of these factors can lead to barriers that affect some groups of students more than others.
Barrier 1: Low
expectations leading to lower confidence. There can be widely-held expectations across
society that certain types of student will do poorly at school. This can either
be across the whole curriculum (e.g. “white working-class boys just don’t do
well at school”) or in certain subjects (e.g. “girls aren’t cut out for maths”).
Unsurprisingly, these expectations may cause students to doubt their ability to
thrive academically. The result can be a vicious circle of lower confidence
leading to lower performance and further reduced expectations.
Barrier 2: Lack of
role models leading to a lower value placed on school. Now consider students who look
around them and don’t see people like
them – family members, members of their community – doing well at school
and progressing into high-status universities or occupations. For example, when
only 6% of doctors describe themselves as being from a working-class background,
students from low-income families may not see the medical profession as a
realistic life path for them. Such a lack of role models with whom they can
identify may lead them to question the value of doing well at school.
Barrier 3: Mismatch in
values leading to a lower sense of belonging. Finally, research suggests that people from
different national, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds place different
emphasis on independent versus interdependent values. Is it more important to
flourish as an individual, or to play your part in a tightly-knit family or
community group? If school emphasises one of these sets of values, then students
from backgrounds that emphasise the other set may feel a distinct lack of ease.
This sort of mismatch can lead students to feel that they don’t really belong
in school, with predictable consequences.
have tested a wide range of low-cost, simple-to-implement interventions aimed
at reducing these types of barriers to success, and many have resulted in surprisingly
large improvements across a range of outcomes. For example, I recently trialed a
very low-cost intervention aimed at increasing the confidence of a group of
underperforming Year 7-9 students. The intervention reduced the stress they
reported experiencing and raised their academic performance; as a result, they
closed well over half of the pre-existing gap in maths scores with their peers.
So, how might
any particular school benefit from all this? Well, I’m currently testing a
three-stage process: diagnosis, design and trial.
1. Diagnosis. The first stage is to ask the
school’s students, teachers and parents about their experiences through a
series of surveys and focus groups. This will help unpack the social and
cultural factors that the students are experiencing and build a rich picture of
any psychological barriers that might be suppressing outcomes for some.
2. Design. Based on this diagnosis, I aim to identify
an environmental factor or psychological barrier that seems to be most suppressing
outcomes for some groups of students, and design a simple but potentially
high-impact intervention aimed at reducing it. This is likely to be based on a proven
intervention from prior research, tailored for the specific social and cultural
context of the school.
3. Trial. Finally, the school will test the
intervention in a randomised controlled trial across a school year. Depending
on the results, the intervention could potentially become embedded in the
school’s curriculum or working practices in subsequent years.
My work is,
of course, just the start. While a good deal of evidence has already been accumulated,
most has been in the US and it’s not clear how it will translate to the
different contexts of different schools in England. We will need an extensive
programme of research in order to fully understand in what contexts these types
of intervention are effective across the country.
This is an exciting time for
research that has the potential to make a substantial difference to the lives
of many young people.
It has been a busy term for the Ingenious Bar. Our team have spent 40 hours in the recently refurbished School Office talking to students and staff alike, and we can confirm that the new armchairs are very comfy! Since the Ingenious Bar started last academic year, we have been based in the Psychology student space in Pevensey 1 1A1 and in a private office in the 2B corridor, but we hope the School Office (Pevensey 1, 2A13) will be our definitive home: it’s easier to find, it has a smaller room for confidential conversations, and the team can consult professional services colleagues for any matter that required their expertise. Not to mention the endless provision of psychology rock sweets!
70% of all the queries and suggestions that we received this term came from undergraduate students. This is not surprising, as undergrads are the largest group in the School! We had questions ranging from student fees and using Sona to project related work. Some of them were very specific, but in general the topics discussed are of interest to most students. I’ve made a selection with some of the advice that you might find useful:
Essay planning & writing: We had several questions about how to plan and write essays. If you need any help with your essay, the Skills Hub provides useful resources for essay writing. You can also arrange 1-2-1 support with one of the two University’s Royal Literary Fund Fellows, who can help you with any aspect of writing an essay, from planning to drafting and editing. At School level, we are trying to schedule House study skills sessions, and in the meantime every module includes a section designed to develop your essay writing skills.
APA Style references: Some of the Ingenious Bar users were concerned about referencing correctly. You should consider learning APA Style because it will provide you with a set of general good writing rules, but remember: what you say in your essay is more important than the formatting! Make sure that your content is right and the rest will follow. Referencing management software such as EndNote, Mendeley or Zotero can help you save time and do your references for you. The apps have an add-on to Word that will allow you to drop in your references as you write. Once you finish, they will generate a reference section at the end of your document automatically so you don’t have to copy-paste from text. The University has an EndNote licence for the computers on campus and you can get your own copy at a discount, and Zotero is free.
Printing: Several students asked us how to arrange printing of material for their dissertation (e.g. questionnaires, information sheets, etc.). In order to do any printing, you will need to complete a Print Request Form that you can collect from the School Office. The printing will be organised by the School Office (either in-house or via the Print Unit), but you need to give them at least a week’s notice. The cost for printing will be removed from your project budget, and you will not need to pay for anything upfront.
How to claim for any non-printing related costs (e.g. travel to collect data): Your supervisor needs to approve any of these expenses in advance, so that they are aware that your claim is coming. In order to claim these expenses, you need to collect a Student Expense Claim Form from the School Office, complete it and return it to the Office. Don’t forget to keep any receipt or travel tickets as you will need to attach them to your claim (make sure to keep copies!). The costs will be refunded to you from your project budget.
Prize draw winners: You are responsible for selecting your prize draw winner at the end of your project. After you have done this, pass their contact details and details of the amount they have won to the School of Psychology (email@example.com) and the School will contact them to arrange payment. This money will be removed from your project budget (ie. you will not pay upfront).
In addition to the School Management Team, this term we also had guest Ingenious *Bartenders: Prof Alison Pike and Dr Vlad Costin, Heads of House Baddeley and Lloyd respectively, who welcomed suggestions for new House events. We invited Claire Ward from the Careers and Employability Centre to provide advice on part-time jobs and what you need to do if you want to become a chartered clinical psychologist. As a result of Claire’s visit we have added a discussion forum in the PGT and UG Canvas sites where we post about employment related events and highlight job adverts from the CareerHub.
The coffee area in the Student Space in 1A1.
The picture on the left shows a quiet corner in the renovated Psychology Student Space in Pevensey 1 room 1A1. Last spring the Ingenious Bar received a request to make 1A1 more student-friendly, and Elouisa and Emily from our Student Experience Team organised the redecoration over the summer. There are separate noticeboards for information, comfortable Sir Basil Spence chairs, microwave, fridge, hot water and cold water fountains, and a weekly supply of milk. We are also trying to organise a psychology book swap point, where people can exchange psychology related books. If you have not use this room yet, check it out and let us know what you think! Any suggestions for what else we could do there?
We have learnt a lot in these three months at the Ingenious Bar. Some of your queries have helped us identify information gaps which have now been included in the Psychology UG student Canvas sites, and your suggestions helps us improve your student experience. So, if you have any suggestions or queries, tell us! ask us! We are here to help.
The Ingenious Bar will come back at the beginning of the spring term.
Amongst other things, the Chatlab looks into how technology can be used to support children with autism to collaborate. I wanted to research immersion in technology and how this might be linked to body movement and collaboration in people with autism. This idea came about from my own observations of people with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) being highly immersed in technology, ‘digital bubbles’ http://digitalbubbles.org.uk/; combined with knowledge on embodied cognition I gained from my course at Sussex: Psychology with Cognitive Science. I thought this research could be useful in understanding the impact that highly immersive technologies might have on the embodied aspects of social interaction such as gestures and facial expressions, that are already difficult for people with ASC to understand.
I used three different technologies: the Windows Surface tablet, a 27″ Dell touchscreen computer, and the new Sony Xperia touch projector. I had a lot of trouble with technology in the first few weeks trying to get things to work, but thanks to Nicola managed to get hold of some really fun tech in the end. I was unable to recruit any participants with ASC in time for my research deadline so the study ended up being with neurotypical adults only. This means that the study has yet to be carried out with the target group, but still provides the groundwork for further research.
A visiting researcher Eleanor Drury (University of Bath) helped me with data collection. In pairs, participants played a colour matching game on each of the technology platforms. The game was designed by Stefan Kreitmayer (University College London) to encourage autistic children to view a screen as a shared space. We measured immersion in three different ways based on recommendations from Jennett et al. (2004):
Lack of awareness of time – participants were asked to estimate the time spent using each technology. A large time discrepancy indicated higher immersion.
Loss of awareness of the real world – during the technology use participants were played 12 animal noises. After completing all the conditions they were given a cued recall task in which they were played 16 animal noises and asked which ones they think they had heard. A lower accuracy indicated higher immersion.
Involvement and a sense of being in the task environment – this was a subjective measure, participants ranked each technology on how immersed they felt.
We filmed participants completing the activities so that their behaviour could be coded afterwards. I was taught how to use a behavioural coding software tool called Interact by Devyn Glass (UoS) and developed coding schemes to capture gestures (collaboration) and self-stimulatory behaviours (body movement).
In the end I found a couple of patterns:
The touch projector had the highest levels of objective immersion which was linked to enjoyment
Users collaborated more around the Dell touchscreen computer which was linked to a subjective reporting of feeling immersed.
There were no differences in body movement between the technologies, but further work is needed in autistic populations.
My research was far from perfect, but I learned a lot and am more prepared for my dissertation in third year and for post graduate research.
I learned how to understand basic computer code with the help of my friend Jon King (UoS) for the cued recall task using Inquisit software, and I also learned how to create a successful ethical review application. In addition to this, at the end of the summer, all JRAs are required to create an academic poster to summarise their research, so I got the chance to take part in a poster exhibition which was exciting!
All in all, I had a really brilliant summer. I learned so many new skills and massively improved my existing ones. I met so many great people from not just the University of Sussex but from other universities around the country. I was able to attend lab meetings and listen to experts talk about their research which was an invaluable experience. I also made some really good friends with visiting researchers and other students working in the Chatlab who I have stayed in contact with. It was a lot of hard work and things didn’t always go right but I would thoroughly recommend the JRA to any student considering post-graduate research.
Prof Robin Banerjee launching the 3rd Annual Sussex Kindness Symposium
A few weeks ago, the University of Sussex hosted the third annual Sussex Kindness Symposium in order to celebrate World Kindness Day. The event was organised by Prof. Robin Banerjee from the School of Psychology, funded by Kindness UK as part of the Kindness UK Doctoral Conference Award, and featured kindness-related work from across the university and beyond. Following an invited keynote presentation by Dr Oliver Scott Curry from University of Oxford, there was an interactive poster workshop, highlighting a number of research projects from across campus that are working to illuminate, evaluate and/or promote kindness. The symposium also included a panel discussion of how staff and students at the University of Sussex can promote (or are already promoting) kindness on campus. The event was a massive success, attracting staff and students from a wide range of academic disciplines, as well as staff members from professional services and senior leadership teams.
Loving-Kindness meditation session led by Chris McDermott
One thing that truly stood out was the multidisciplinary and diverse nature of the event. Contrary to the traditional academic symposium, the day was not dominated by jargon-heavy lectures but instead combined scientific talks with visual displays of research findings, interactive panel discussions, and non-academic sessions. The day began with the whole room embracing a guided loving-kindness meditation, led by Chris McDermott our Lead Chaplain. This was a real highlight of the day and set the tone for the rest of the event. It demonstrated one of the many ways that kindness has been used in the real world to promote well-being and this thread of kindness, meditation, and well-being was woven throughout the day. For instance, self-compassion (a core aspect of loving-kindness meditation) was highlighted by Tamara Leeuwerik (School of Psychology) during the poster workshop as a useful treatment for individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder. Chris provides guided meditations for Sussex staff and students every week and so, this also showcased one of the current initiatives on campus that works to promote and illuminate kindness and well-being in the university community.
The theme of ‘Kindness at Sussex’ was re-visited at the end of the event. A panel including Professor Kelly Coate, the pro-vice chancellor for education and students, Professor Clive Webb who is addressing staff mental health, Debora Green, Director of Well-being, and Sara Hinchliffe from the Student and Academic Administration Transformation (SAAT) team, discussed the ways that Sussex is working to promote kindness on campus. The interactive discussion began to unpick the challenges of enacting kindnesses within organisational systems that are dominated by rules, regulations, professionalism and performance targets. There were discussions on how to incorporate kindness within professional interactions and how to boost the community cohesion of staff and students for a kinder culture, a topic also highlighted in Alessia Goglio’s research poster on the socio-contextual factors that might influence kindness on campus. The panel also stressed the importance of caring for staff mental health and highlighted the need to incorporate this within staff support services. This discussion is just the beginning, but it was promising to see a diverse group of staff committed to promote — and overcome the barriers to — kindness on campus.
Alongside the attention given to organisational practices, the event succeeded in showcasing a whole host of interesting research findings and academic discussion, from a wide range of disciplines including law, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and social work.
Dr Oliver Scott Curry during his talk
Dr Oliver Scott Curry, Director of the Oxford Morals Project, at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford provided a thought-provoking keynote talk on the nature, content and structure of human morality. He explained why we are kind, from an evolutionary perspective, and then went on to show that kindness has positive effects on a giver’s well-being. The take home message was that we are wired to be kind and that people are ‘happy to help’. This message also came through during the poster workshop, where a selection of psychology posters demonstrated the positive effects of being kind on happiness and well-being, from neuroscience (Jo Cutler), social-developmental (Jess Cotney) and clinical (Tamara Leeurwerik) perspectives. The poster workshop also focussed on the role of kindness in building trustful social work interactions with children (Prof. Michelle Lefevre, School of Education and Social Work), the way that kindness may influence collective action for social change (Jolyon Miles-Wilson, School of Psychology), and whether kindness has a place in human rights protection (Xue Zhang, School of Law) and citizen aid (Dr Meike Fechter, School of Global Studies). The poster workshop also celebrated three PhD students who received the Kindness UK Doctoral Conference Award 2018, a university initiative designed to promote kindness in partnership with Kindness UK. All three winners, Tamara Leeuwerik, Xue Zhang and Ishrat Khan were supported to present their research at an international conference.
The Sussex Kindness Symposium was part of a larger initiative to conduct kindness-based research on campus. An interdisciplinary group of researchers, funded by Kindness UK, have come together to plan research that seeks to illuminate, promote, or understand kindness. The first of these projects is just beginning, with Prof. Robin Banerjee and Jess Cotney (School of Psychology) leading a qualitative study on kindness within public services. As part of this research, they will be interviewing staff and students about kindness on campus. If you would like to find out more about Kindness at Sussex, you can follow us on Twitter: @SussexKindness or email Jess, J.Cotney@sussex.ac.uk, to be added to the Sussex Kindness mailing list.