Shining the light on implicit bias: Do we really know what we believe?

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By Charlotte R. Pennington

In everyday life, you will be asked to report your attitudes and opinions towards a whole host of different things.  When buying a TV, you may be asked retrospectively to provide ratings of the product, or even the person who sold it to you. The reporting of attitudes has become so sought after by companies that specific websites have been developed providing people with an open forum to post their opinions and evaluations of accommodation, restaurants, and services, and even receive arbitrary points and badges for their reviews (e.g., Trip Advisor).  Given the plethora of surveys and questionnaires utilised on a daily basis, you may therefore think that measuring attitudes is relatively easy. Simply ask someone what they think and they will respond with an honest answer. However, psychology has shed light on the limitations posed by self-report tools, such as questionnaires and surveys, which are so readily used by companies and organisations alike.  

Gauging attitudes: A problem of measurement or construct?

Explicit attitudes refer to consciously accessible thoughts and feelings towards people, objects or concepts. They are introspectively accessible, meaning that you can reach inside your mind and report your feelings and thoughts. However, there are many issues when it comes to measuring people’s attitudes accurately. Reflect on the following example; a builder may measure the height of a window frame to fit double-glazed windows. Each time he/she does this, the window measurements remain the same. Windows can be measured, and the builder has the best tools to yield the correct measurements. Unfortunately, the same is not true when it comes to measuring attitudes; they are mental constructs and not tangible things. They are slippery and shape-shift depending on context. This presents numerous issues for researchers trying to measure them.

Studies have shown consistently how people’s attitudes can be altered by systematic factors, such as how the questions are framed and even what order they are presented. For example, a recent study demonstrates how the number of scale points in a questionnaire affects the extent to which gender stereotypes of brilliance are expressed. Specifically, female course instructors were more likely to receive a top rating on a 6-point scale relative to a 10-point scale, whereas this difference did not emerge for male instructors. The author’s reason that this effect occurs because of cultural meanings assigned to the number ‘10’ – perfection. As such, a top-score on a 6-point scale does not carry such strong performance expectations. To me, this is a landmark study demonstrating how the features of tools that are frequently used to judge merit can powerfully affect people’s responses. Who knew that something which appears meaningless can shape our answers in a way that tells a completely different story?

Another issue plaguing questionnaires is that psychologists – or whomever uses them – need to trust that the questionnaire can tap into exactly what we want to measure. When asking people about socially sensitive topics, such as prejudice or discriminatory behaviour this is rarely often the case. Consider how you would answer the following questions when asked by a researcher, someone you barely know: “Do you treat people from other races the same as you treat people from your own race? Do you willingly give to charity or those who need it the most? Think hypothetically about your answers for a minute. Now, reflect on your previous behaviour and try to gauge whether the answers given provide an accurate representation of how you really act. What you might uncover about yourself here is called the ‘willing and able’ problem; people may not be willing to report their honest attitudes, and when put on the spot, may not be able to accurately reflect and report what they truly feel. Answers to questions are usually influenced by self-presentational motives – that is, people’s desire to look good in someone else’s eyes.

A more interesting question is that we might not know what we actually believe. To a lay audience with no psychological training, this may sound surprising. How can we hold attitudes that we are unaware of? Psychology holds the answer. The past three decades of psychological research have revealed the frailties of introspection (the inner workings of our mind), and how little control we possess over our own thoughts. This has led researchers to coin the term ‘implicit attitudes’; introspectively unidentified traces of past experience that mediate favourable or unfavourable feeling towards social objects. The general argument is that individuals harness attitudes that they are not aware of, and these can manifest as judgements or actions.

How do we measure attitudes that people aren’t aware of?

The development of implicit measures have afforded remarkable insight into the human mind, and opened up a new research field termed implicit social cognition. This may leave you wondering, how do we measure such attitudes, and how do they develop in the first place?

Whereas explicit attitudes are measured by asking people directly about their thoughts and feelings (e.g., through questionnaires), implicit attitudes are assessed indirectly through tasks that typically measure response times towards various stimuli and compare systematic variations in people’s performance. One of the most well-known tasks of this kind is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which tests how quick (or slow) people are at pairing different social categories with various attributes. The race IAT, for example, requires test-takers to categorise pictures of White and Black faces with positive and negative terms as quickly as possible. The underlying theory is that people will be quicker to pair concepts with attributes that are strongly associated in memory, compared to those weakly associated. In order to understand this better, think about learning a new language for the first time; you will always be quicker to think about words from your own language compared to those from a newly learned language because of the automaticity of your native tongue. Going back to the race IAT, research has consistently shown that White people are quicker to associate pictures of White faces with positive terms and Black faces with negative terms. This is referred to as implicit bias.

Social psychologists theorise that implicit bias, such as that demonstrated by White people taking the race IAT, are learned through experience. This occurs either directly through encounters with a particular social group, or indirectly through exposure to information about this social group. In Western cultures, White people are inundated with cultural messages and stereotypes that portray Black people as uneducated, relatively poor and more likely to be in trouble with the law. Consequently, implicit bias may form through exposure to cultural milieu. Do you know what your own IAT test result shows? Anybody can take these tests through the Project Implicit website. Your test result may surprise you, but it’s important to recall that this might not reflect your personal beliefs but rather learned associations imbued through exposure to your cultural or social environment. Research has revealed remarkable findings through the use of the IAT.  For example, a recent longitudinal study shows that implicit attitudes towards race, skin-tone and sexual orientation have trended towards neutrality over the last 12 years (i.e., people’s implicit bias towards these social categories seems to be decreasing). However, attitudes towards age and disability have remained stable, and have increased in relation to body-weight stigma. Moreover, implicit attitudes appear to hold predictive validity; studies have shown that people’s preference for White people on the race IAT predicts intention to vote for a White relative to Black presidential candidate. Now that’s a cool finding!

However, implicit measures have also received their fair share of criticism. Research indicates a weak relationship between explicit and implicit attitudes, suggesting that they may reflect separate attitude representations. An alternative theory, however, is that explicit and implicit measures allow people to edit their responses to varying degrees. In 2016, as a PhD student I wrote my first commentary reflecting on what exactly do implicit measures assess? In addition, although the IAT has shown some predictive validity (e.g., voting behaviour), other research indicates that for more socially sensitive attitudes, the IAT does not predict resulting discriminatory behaviour. Although the IAT was heralded to provide new insights into human cognition and behaviour, some researchers believe this test has been oversold. Nevertheless, I argue that the reason that implicit attitudes may not predict real-world behaviour is influenced by the same issues that plague self-report measures – social desirability. That is, people may think negatively about a certain out-group member, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will act upon this. The same may be true for weak correlations between explicit and implicit attitude measures; people distort their attitudes on self-report questionnaires, whereas implicit measures aren’t susceptible to these self-presentational motives. Should we expect correlations between these two measures when one is tapping into controllable beliefs and the other is uncovering introspectively unidentified traces of past experience?

In order to answer these questions, I was awarded funding through the Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Research Awards (VC ECR Award) at UWE Bristol to investigate other implicit socio-cognitive mechanisms that may predict implicit bias. The blue sky thinking behind this research is to develop other measures that can potentially measure implicit behavioural manifestations of bias. At this stage, we are too early in our research endeavour to reveal any findings; however other influential and impactful avenues have already stemmed from this research.

At the same time as I have been conducting my research, Ellie Bliss (Adult Nurse Lecturer) and Alisha Airey (BME Project Officer) have been running staff workshops at UWE Bristol, reflecting upon how implicit (unconscious) bias can play out in the higher education classroom. I am now involved in supporting these workshops, providing research-led guidance on how we access implicit bias, and answering the many questions that staff have about this rather ambiguous construct. One interesting discussion centres on whether implicit biases can be viewed as unconscious when we are increasingly acknowledging them through teaching and training. The majority of attendees come away from the workshop with new reflections on how teaching practice is orientated towards Western culture, and with classroom strategies to implement to prevent implicit bias playing out. However, a handful of attendees are surprised and doubtful of the concept of implicit bias and the tools that purportedly measure it. They have difficulty in accepting that they may hold certain biases. But the truth is, we all do.

Where is implicit social cognition headed?

In this blog post I hope I have demonstrated that we are shining the light on what implicit bias really is and the nature of our unconscious attitudes. Such research has paved the way for training workshops which teach people to acknowledge their deep-rooted attitudes and reflect upon how these may impact our thinking and behaviour towards other people. But what’s next for this research arena? There are still lots of unanswered questions and controversies surrounding implicit bias, which makes it an exciting topic to study. Do implicit measures really provide a window into the unconscious mind? Is implicit bias relatively stable when measured at different time points? Can implicit bias be changed, and if so, are such changes short or long-term? Are attitudes towards some social groups easier to change than others? Can we, as a field, develop other (implicit) behavioural measures that more accurately predict implicit attitudes better than self-reports? Such investigations will represent the future of implicit social cognition and I, for one, am extremely excited to see what’s to come.

The arts and wellbeing: A burgeoning research area

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By Nicola Holt

“I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” Frida Kahlo, artist

“To write poetry is to be alive.” Rainer Maria Rilke, poet

The therapeutic role of the arts in fostering healing, growth, well-being and emotional expression is well-attested and long-standing. Whether painting, creative writing, crafting, singing or colouring, arts-based approaches are beginning to be recognised as credible and effective ways to promote good psychological health for all.

There is currently a burgeoning of research on the arts and health, that is impacting policy and treatment. For example, recent research has suggested that singing can help reduce post-natal depression and improve lung-functioning, dance can help improve the balance and gait of people with Parkinson’s disease, poetry therapy can be a useful intervention for patients recovering from anorexia, expressive writing can decrease stress and improve immune system functioning, art making can help to reduce pain and distress in cancer patients, improve mental health and enable positive experiences such as happiness and mindfulness. Bodies such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing  have assimilated such findings, and, based on these have made policy briefings recommending the increased commissioning of the arts to improve health and wellbeing (including ageing well, mental health, and the self-management of chronic conditions). While this may be having some impact (for example, the Government’s recent plans to increase access to arts on referral), caveats remain. There are limitations with the evidence base and numerous questions about the efficacy of the arts remain unanswered. For example, effects require replication, many reviews include heterogenous interventions, groups of people and wellbeing outcomes. This can make it difficult to know which art treatments work best for whom, and why. It is also unclear how interventions should best be delivered, for example, the number of sessions required and the optimal spacing between them. The long-term benefits of arts interventions are also little known. Much profitable research has yet to be conducted on the arts and health, which will help to answer such questions.

I became interested in the arts and wellbeing when studying for an MSc in consciousness studies twenty years ago. I became interested in the shifts in conscious experience (e.g., perception, attention, cognition, mood, awareness of body, time and agency) that I personally experienced while painting and began to explore the literature for explanations, leading to an MSc thesis and a PhD on consciousness and creativity. One common type of experience, described by humanistic psychologists such as Rollo May and Abraham Maslow as a form of ‘peak experience’ or ‘creative attitude’, and popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the ‘flow state’, involving detachment from time and space, absorption in the activity of the present moment, deep fascination and concentration. The accounts given by Marion Milner, in her book ‘On not being able to paint’, were my favourite ones at the time, for example, she described what she called moments of ‘creative participation’ in the following way:

“The process always seems to be accompanied by a feeling that the ordinary sense of self had temporarily disappeared, there had been a kind of blanking out of ordinary consciousness; even the awareness of blanking out had gone, so that it was only afterwards when I had returned to ordinary consciousness that I remembered that there had been this phase of complete lack of self-consciousness.” (Milner, 1950, p. 152)

Indeed, my recent research suggests that ‘flow’ might be one mechanism to explain the health benefits of engaging with the arts. The arts might offer people the opportunity to experience degrees of absorption or flow in their daily lives, in a way that promotes wellbeing, either by being temporarily distracted from one’s pain or worries, or through engagement, joy and a consequent sense of mastery. Various crafts and arts activities might facilitate this experience, including drawing, knitting, and colouring. Colouring is an and accessible art activity that has been increasingly advocated for wellbeing, and evidence supports its use as a stress-reduction tool for University students. Recent research that I have conducted at UWE, with students on our undergraduate psychology programme, suggests that, not only might colouring, temporarily, at least, improve mood and promote the flow state, but might also improve cognitive functioning – both selective attention and creativity, potentially helping students to solve problems in everyday life.

Of course, the flow state can be experienced in many activities in everyday life, and a range of other mechanisms have been proposed to explain the health benefits of art-making, some specific to particular forms of art. For example, it has been proposed that expressive writing may reduce cognitive rumination and anxiety following stressful events, creating a meaningful and more manageable narrative, impacting both psychological and long-term physical wellbeing (by improving immune system functioning). Further, many art groups perform an important social function, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation and improving people’s ability to relate to and communicate with others. Research on the mechanisms behind any wellbeing effect is important because we can help to identify to active ingredients of arts for health interventions (e.g. type of art, skills of the arts practitioner, group interaction) and modify these accordingly to optimise wellbeing.  

In the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at UWE we have a number of academics interested in the arts and health, including our music therapy team. Academics from different disciplines come together as a teaching team on the Level Three Psychology module, The Arts and Mental Health, led by myself, delivering an exciting and diverse array of topics, including art psychotherapy, music therapy, music in prisons, poetry therapy, craftivism, and the arts and dementia. As a next step I have begun a multidisciplinary Special Interest Research Group at UWE with Dr Liz Jenkinson, hoping to facilitate research collaborations on the arts and health, within and beyond UWE. This is entitled DRAW: Developing Research on the Arts and Well-being, housed within the Promoting Psychological Health strand of PSRG (Psychological Sciences Research Group). Interests of DRAW include developing new arts interventions, evaluating existing arts interventions, researching mechanisms to explain the health benefits of engagement with the arts and the use of the arts in creative research methods.

The members of DRAW bring together a diverse range of knowledge and expertise and we are looking forward to collaborating and extending our research and evaluation of arts for health. For instance, Dr Liz Jenkinson and the health psychology team at UWE are experts in understanding patient experiences of acute and chronic health conditions, and the design and evaluation of effective psychosocial support. The use of the arts in health care as a therapeutic tool in promoting good psychological and physical health is an area in which DRAW has begun to collaborate with organisations such as Fresh Arts, who provide arts-based interventions for patients at Southmead Hospital, including arts on referral for cancer patients. Liz is also working with colleagues at UWE in Visual Culture and the Arts with the aim of developing a new arts for health intervention with young mums. Another DRAW member, Dr Mike Chase has over 20 years of experience of working and researching in the voluntary and statutory community sector, and has been using mixed-methods to evaluate the use of music and arts interventions in community settings, including the Outsider Gallery, in London. Mike hopes to extend this collaboration further, for example taking arts and music interventions to young people’s forensic units in Bristol.

At DRAW we have also been evaluating whether ‘prescribing’ a course of art workshops to people experiencing depression, anxiety or loneliness can improve wellbeing. ‘Arts on prescription’ or ‘arts on referral’ forms part of the wider remit of social prescribing, where doctors, nurses or other primary care professionals prescribe non-clinical activities (including nature walks, cooking or singing workshops) with the expectation that this will improve the health of participants. Although the Government plans to increase the use of social prescribing in the NHS, including arts on prescription, there is only a limited, but encouraging, evidence base for its efficacy. I have been working with the recently formed Bristol Arts on Referral Alliance (BARA) to help contribute to the evidence base for arts on prescription. BARA provides 13 art workshops across Bristol, and 6 follow-on groups, embedded within a larger social prescribing scheme, funded by Bristol City Council, Bristol CCG and charitable foundations. We have been using a mixed methods design, including semi-structured interviews with participants, and drawing on existing pre-post intervention evaluation frameworks. Further, based on my research using the experience sampling method, participants have been tracking their mood over time, for the duration of each 12-week-long art course. Indeed, this has become a meaningful part of the art workshops for participants, reflecting on their current mood at the start and end of each workshop. This data will enable us to test whether any increases in wellbeing at the end of each course are predicted by reductions in stress, increased energy and happiness, directly following making art. The first round of data collection is now complete and will be analysed and disseminated over the next few months, some initial outcomes having been presented at the 1st International Social Prescribing Network Research Conference in June 2018.

The team at DRAW are interested in using the arts themselves as tools for collecting and disseminating data. Led by Victoria Clarke, and in collaboration with Psychologists at the Universities of Aston and Bath, Liz and I have received funding from the BPS to run a seminar series exploring the potential for creative and arts-based methods for applied psychological research. You can learn more about this venture here. We hope that this series will inspire us to use the arts more creatively, as a research tool, in future projects. Using the arts and evaluation tools might offer a creative, more empowering and enjoyable way for participants in arts for health interventions to communicate their experiences and to disseminate these to others.

These are exciting times to be conducting research on the arts and health, with potential for new and innovative projects and collaborations. We hope to grow our research and evaluation at UWE on this topic and develop collaborations with others, within UWE and beyond.  We welcome members to our new special interest group, DRAW, and hope you can join us for our upcoming seminar series which runs from May-July 2019. In the meantime, why not have a go at some arts for health activities – for example UWE’s Feel Good February events include crafting and creative writing!

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be… or is it? Exploring the psychological benefits of nostalgia for people with dementia

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By Gary Christopher

In this blog, I shall talk a little about my research on nostalgia, and in particular how it relates to dementia.  I am interested in exploring the power of nostalgic recall on a person’s sense of self and well-being.

Dementia is forever in the news.  It is now seen as being the most feared of all conditions.  It is generally thought to be intrinsically linked to old age, and it is true that age is the biggest factor associated with various dementias, but it is important to be aware that it can affect people relatively early on.  Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.  Dementias start off by causing very specific problems in cognitive functioning but, with time, decline is global, impacting on all areas of a person’s life.  Rate of deterioration varies but, in all cases, progression is unceasing.  There is also no known cure at this stage for dementia.

The sheer terror of the word ‘dementia’ sets off a cascade of mental and physiological responses, all of which, if not carefully managed, could quickly spiral out of control.  Our wider research programme is concerned with helping people confront the existential threat of dementia while at the same time better managing the associated feelings.

Back to nostalgia.  It is worthwhile exploring what I refer to when using this term.  Before doing so, let’s consider what people generally understand it to mean.  Nostalgia as a concept seems to crop up in many places.  In fact, it might be seen as being the new buzzword.  For my colleagues and me, this is unfortunate as the true meaning of ‘nostalgia’, or more accurately ‘nostalgic recall’, is very specific and has powerful psychological effects.

Again, I digress.  So, nostalgia.  What is?

The origins of the word ‘nostalgia’ bear little resemblance to the common interpretation of the word.  It derived from two Greek words, nostos (return home) and algos (pain), and was first coined in the 17th Century to describe soldiers’ poor state of mind during the time of war where many experienced an overwhelming longing to return to their homeland.  Initially, it was looked upon as a somewhat negative state to find oneself in.  Now, nostalgia is getting better press.  So much so that, as one leading expert describes it, nostalgia is “absolutely central to human experience“.  That quote was by Constantine Sedikides, to whom I shall return very soon.

When you ask for synonyms of ‘nostalgia’ in your preferred search engine,  you see listed terms such as wistfulness, longing, regret, reminiscence, and sentimentality.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “Sentimental longing for… the past.”  A nostalgic memory is something that is meaningful and generally positive.  It is a specific memory of an occasion that holds high personal value.  It is a memory that can be brought vividly back to one’s mind by a particular trigger.  This could be a certain smell, taste, location, or myriad other forms of stimuli.

There is another component to this definition that I left out, where nostalgia also describes a “regretful memory of a period of the past”.

There is a sense, then, that nostalgic memories can be bittersweet in nature.  The memory you bring to mind is powerful, full of positive emotions, but there might also be a sense of dismay or sorrow that you are recalling a memory of a time that is now past, reflecting a life once lived.  However, a characteristic of nostalgic memories is that, although there may be an initial sadness evoked by it, positive emotions associated with the event win through in the end leaving the person feeling strengthened.

One particular nostalgic memory for me is triggered by hearing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  This piece of music immediately unleashes a clear sense of being at an open-air concert listening to a world-class orchestra.  It was a beautiful evening.  The sun was setting.  Peacocks were peacocking (or whatever the word is for the noise they make).  All was sublime.  The bittersweet element comes into play as I was there on my own, with no one at that time to share the moment with.  With that, there is a tinge of sadness, but the beauty and power of the moment soon leaves me feeling all is right with the world.  It was a true Morse moment.

A great deal of work has been carried out within social psychology exploring the benefits of nostalgia.  The leading experts in this field are Professors Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut at the University of Southampton. Throughout their career, they have amassed a vast body of experimental evidence to back up their claims that nostalgic recall boosts a range of psychological resources.  They have shown that nostalgic recall strengthens a person’s belief in themselves.  It makes them feel as if they are the same person they have always been.  It increases their sense of connection to other people.  Also, after recalling a nostalgic memory, people feel more optimistic and experience a greater sense that their life has meaning.

The research on nostalgia that I will be talking about here is a collaboration with Professor Rik Cheston, Emily Dodd, and Dr Sanda Ismail at UWE Bristol.  This work developed out of an existing collaboration we had with Constantine and Tim where we had been working on exploring how memory often functions to protect us by filtering out information that we might find threatening.  We were interested in seeing if we could show the same effect in people with dementia that they found among healthy adults.   I am happy to report that we did.  Regarding nostalgia, again we wanted to see if we could obtain the same effects in people with dementia.

Our work on nostalgia started with Sanda who was a PhD student at the time.  He began by conducting a systematic review of the relevant literature.  Given that ours is the first series of studies to examine nostalgia in dementia, he focused on reviewing the literature looking at the impact of nostalgia on well-being.  Reminiscence therapy is concerned with discussing the past.  There was little evidence to suggest reminiscence therapy is effective.  That is not to say it does no good, it just means that, when looking across a range of studies, the overall statistical effect is weak.  Reminiscence therapy appears to have an impact on people’s lives.  However, we argue that any positive results are due to people recalling nostalgic memories, and so it is this component that we need to emphasise in order to maximise benefits to the individual.  I shall come back to this shortly when I talk about the intervention we are developing.

We ran a series of experiments where we induced nostalgia.  In one experiment, we looked at the impact of a nostalgic piece of music on a person’s mood and outlook.  In all cases, we found the positive effects of nostalgia that we talked about earlier, but this time in a group of people who had been diagnosed with dementia.

We are continuing to explore the benefits of nostalgic recall in dementia.  We are seeing that nostalgia helps people deal with any disconnect between their current experience and what happened in the past.  One of the things to develop from this work is a new intervention.  Indeed, we are currently trialling a nostalgia-based therapy explicitly aimed at people with dementia.  It explicitly asks people to bring to mind the highly nostalgic memories I talked about earlier.

The findings so far are encouraging.  When developing any intervention, there are some practical issues to take into account.  Will people be able to fit it into their daily routine?  Will it take up too much of their time?  Will they lose interest?  This is before we can consider whether it has any beneficial effect or not.  We also need to assess if there are any negative implications for this form of intervention.  So far the feedback has been positive.  Both the person with dementia and their carer/spouse have been able to find times throughout the week to actively engage in nostalgic recall, and the effect has been beneficial for both parties.

An essential part of any intervention, especially one aimed at improving quality of life, is to obtain feedback from those you are trying to help.  For this intervention, both the person with dementia and their carer play a pivotal role in helping us modify the procedure so that it will be more acceptable and useful.  This careful, iterative process will enable us to have more confidence that the intervention we offer will have substantial practical benefits for all concerned.  Once revised, we will conduct a larger trial to assess its impact on a broader range of people and settings.

I started this blog by reflecting on how the word nostalgia has been adopted into everyday language, and as a result, its true meaning has been lost.  It is important to remember these words were around long before people like us decided to give them specific psychology-related definitions.  What we are arguing is that, when it comes to the therapeutic use of nostalgia, we need to be explicit what we mean.  The reason why we need to be precise is that we believe it will improve a range of key psychological resources.

Nostalgic recall is something we can all do.  It does not require a massive amount of time or effort.  In fact, a few minutes, listening to a particular piece of music, contemplating a photograph, bringing to mind a profoundly personal memory that the sound or the image instils, will make us feel better.  It will enable us to better deal with what life throws at us, especially at times when we feel threatened.  In the case of people with dementia, nostalgic recall is something that can be carried out on one’s own, or with a loved one.  After all, believing in oneself, knowing we are the same person regardless of our health, being surrounded by people we care about, feeling optimistic, and knowing our life has meaning is central to living well with dementia.

Promoting resilience and questioning resilience

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By Miles Thompson

Your 30-second summary. This blog is about resilience. A term that is now, seemingly, everywhere. Below I provide a quick overview of the term and of psychological research into the resilience of children. Then I contrast these research findings which note multiple contributing factors at multiple levels, with the focus of many resilience interventions: often the individual in isolation. I note how this reflects an old but important debate within psychology that sparked the emergence of community psychology from clinical psychology in the 1960s. I also explore how resilience researchers today are adopting the same guiding frameworks as community psychologists. This again might make us wonder about the appropriateness of individually focused resilience interventions when what make us all more or less resilient might stem from broader, more systemic levels.

Back in September I wrote my first post for the Psychological Sciences Research Group (PSRG) blog. It was about a session colleagues and I were delivering at the 4th community psychology festival in Hertford. It focused on student mental health and on the potential of community psychology to complement or even replace “resilience workshops.” In this post I’d like to focus on the topic of resilience itself, but notice that community psychology will get brought back in later.

The word resilience derives from the Latin for rebounding, leaping or springing back. A large amount of psychological research in this area has focused on children. This research goes back to at least the 1970’s, although in those early days terms like “invulnerable” and “stress-resistant” were also used.

Of course, in recent years the term resilience seems to have crossed over into the mainstream and is now a desirable characteristic in many contexts including working age adults, teams, organisations, cities, even countries. We will come back to this later, but for now, let’s focus on the psychological research into children and more recently wider child / parent units.

Professor Ann Masten
Professor Ann Masten

Very simply, after some form of adversity, some children seem to fare well – they bounce back – and others fare less well. The obvious question is why? Is there something “special” about those who bounce back? One of the leading contemporary figures in this research is Ann Masten. Her answer to this question has often been summed up by the phrase: Ordinary Magic. Here Masten is suggesting that resilience is both common and that it arises from ordinary rather than extraordinary protective factors. More specifically, research in this area consistently talks about the importance of: individual, relational and community attributes. Borrowing terms directly from a recent review, these include:

  • Individual: problems-solving skills, self-regulation skills, hope or faith, mastery motivation, and meaning in life.
  • Relational: secure attachment relationships early in life and later good relationships with extended family, friends, mentors, and romantic partners.
  • Community: connections to effective schools and community organisations.

It is interesting to note the broad scope of factors that potentially contribute to resilience (individual, relational and community). The evidence seems clear that this is not something that comes from within the individual alone. This sits somewhat in contrast to the target of many mainstream resilience interventions. In psychology, these interventions can sometimes seem very individually focused. Sometimes they closely resemble the mental health interventions delivered by clinical psychologists, like myself, simply repackaged and resold as a “resilience interventions”.

For example: the aptly titled “Penn Resilience Programme” is a programme delivered to school aged children based on cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT). Equally, an examination of the contents of books about resilience can look almost identical to the chapter headings from an individually focused CBT self-help book. This may seem odd, because remember the evidence for resilience also points to the importance of relational and community attributes. We might also wonder whether traditional CBT, or any other psychological intervention, is evidenced to reliably move all of the individual attributes potentially relevant to resilience. In short, it seems possible that there is a disconnect between the findings from contemporary resilience research and the contents of contemporary resilience interventions.

Part of the reason for raising this concern, is that it points to an old but important debate within the field of clinical psychology and applied psychology more generally. The debate centres on the concern that applied psychology and our interventions can sometimes be too individually focused. That, perhaps without meaning to, we can too easily place both the problem and apparent solution to problems within the skin of an individual. Sometimes even seeming to “blame” the individual. As I say, this is not a new debate, in clinical psychology it has been going since at least the 1960’s. An entire field, community psychology, (remember the festival from earlier?), arose in response to it and tries to promote a broader response to these issues.

Interestingly, this old debate has direct and recent echoes in resilience research. For community psychology, systems thinking and ecological theory is very important. Very simply this means thinking beyond the individual. For example, developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner noted the importance not just of the individual, but of different systems of broader scales around the individual including micro-, meso-, exo-, macro- and also time (chrono-). These ideas are key in community psychology.

What is interesting is that Masten and others psychologists interested in the resilience of children and families have relatively recently started defining resilience as: “the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to significant challenges that threaten its function, viability, or development”. They use the word “system” deliberately because their thinking is explicitly influenced by exactly the same systems thinking and ecological theory as community psychology.

As a clinical psychologist, I am very aware that there is a place for individually focused interventions. But I am also aware that sometimes the key to the solution does not lie there. It is interesting, for example, that in recent reviews promoting resilience frameworks for children and families Masten highlights the importance of wider systemic interventions (e.g. boosting resources like housing support, health care, food programs, tax credits or cash transfers) as much if not more than individual or family focused work (e.g., the quality of parent–child relationships, maternal depression).

As resilience gets talked about more, in more and more settings – we perhaps need to be a little more alert as to where the problem and solution is being situated. Perhaps we need to wonder aloud whether all the responsibility, and even implicitly the blame, is being placed on the shoulders of the individual and if that is appropriate.

For example, are individually focused resilience workshops “the” answer for stressed colleagues working in the NHS? Maybe. I can imagine a place for them. Especially if everything else is working well in the NHS at wider levels – if waiting lists aren’t heaving, budgets aren’t being cut, and pressure isn’t being put on individual staff to deliver more and more, with less and less. But if some, or all, of those things are happening, are individually focused resilience  interventions really the answer? See here for one local account of how these workshops are experienced by some NHS staff. Like the Doctor interviewed in the article, I am in no way anti-mindfulness (see my publication record), but there does seem to be a potential tension if adopting an individual approach to resilience ignores wider issues, or even more problematically situates the problem within the individual.

Articles like the above are small signs that a public debate around resilience is growing and becoming more nuanced. This is to be welcomed. Another example is a recent, short, Radio 4 programme about resilience, from the series “Keywords for our time”. Here GP and broadcaster Farrah Jarral discusses the term, its popularity and, like this blog, wonders if there might be a possible dark side to its use.

Finally, rightly, other academic areas are also involved in the conversation. In geography, the resilience of urban and regional places is a subject of study. And here similar discussions are being had. Specifically, the potential risk of placing the problem and solution within the smallest unit (e.g. a disadvantaged community) while ignoring the wider factors that are as, if not more, responsible for causing the issues in the first place. Interestingly, in disciplines like geography, terms like: political critique, power structures, material resources, global capitalism and neoliberalization seem to appear more often than they do in mainstream psychology publications. Perhaps we should all take note. If resilience is increasingly talked about at many different levels of society, and psychology and psychologists are asked to comment or deliver interventions – what is our response, at what level, and how effective can it be?

Research Experience as an Undergrad: My summer internship and placement

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By Josh Lee

I’m a second-year psychology student at UWE, and throughout my first year I found myself developing a keen interest in psychological research. The more I engaged with my degree, the more interested I became, and I started actively seeking opportunities to gain research experience towards the end of first year. I was interested in learning more about the research process, and I also know how valuable experience can be for postgraduate applications.

In May of this year I went on an animal behaviour research trip to the island of Lundy. This was shortly after applying for my first research role, a paid summer internship with Drs Kait Clark and Charlotte Pennington. I learnt a lot on Lundy and made friends with the other student researchers. Towards the end we realised we were on the same wavelength…three fellow Lundy attendees and I had been invited to interview for the same position. The interviews were scheduled for the week after our return from Lundy, and we were now friends competing against each other. All we could do was wish each other luck in the interview and hope for the best.

The interview was competitive, and we were all given a short programming task to attempt in advance. Maybe there was something in the sea air, but when an email came through from Kait offering the job, all four our names were on it. Taking the extracurricular opportunity to learn and conduct psychological research on Lundy perhaps led to an edge in the interview, and we now had the chance to contribute to a legitimate paper together.

The main aim of the project was to develop a set of visual and social cognition tasks for the purposes of establishing test-retest reliability, building on a recent study by Hedge, Powell, & Sumner (2018). Our first task was to complete a comprehensive review of visual cognition literature. Although I had experience of examining research papers to get references for essays, this was much more in depth and specific. The process of comparing the different papers took a while to get used to, but it has been eye-opening to review papers with a view towards designing our own study rather than evaluating a proposition for an essay. It highlights different issues within and between papers that I would not have considered otherwise, and I feel like it has helped me develop a more complete approach to evaluating research papers in general. We were given lots of freedom to conduct the review and research – this was hugely beneficial as it left a lot of potential for creative ideas and individual contribution.

We chose measures for which the test-retest reliability had not already been established so our research could have the most impact. Each of us then chose one measure and worked through writing the Python code to implement parameters in alignment with previous studies. We are using PsychoPy, open-source software, to program our measures. I have limited coding knowledge (but enough to pass the interview stage!) so using Python has been a learning experience. Although frustrating at times, help has always been available and through a combination of initiative, trial and error, and advice, the measures shaped up nicely. I developed a motion coherence task, and piloting it on my friends has been interesting – explaining what the task is for and the wider context requires a thorough knowledge of it, and I am genuinely passionate about it. I never thought I’d be excited about a spreadsheet.

During our summer internship we also had an opportunity to meet with Dr Craig Hedge, whose recent paper has inspired our current work. We got to hear about his research first hand and discuss our project and how it related to his paper. It was interesting and insightful to talk about his work and how our test-retest reliability project came about.

Now we’ve finished the development stage of the project, and with all the tasks up and running, it’s time for data collection. I’m continuing to work on this project as my work-based learning placement for my Developing Self and Society (DSAS) module. Time slots are available on UWE’s participant pool for students to book in, and so we have all been running sessions for up to four participants at once. This involves briefing, setting up the experiments on the computers, giving instructions, addressing issues that arise, and ensuring that the conditions are the same for every session. It’s fun to discuss the study when debriefing the participants, to raise awareness of what is being investigated and help them understand why they did the tasks involved. The integration of my internship with one of my second-year modules shows how beneficial an opportunity like this can be. In isolation, it is good experience on its own, but linking it with my regular studies and incorporating my experience into university work has made it invaluable.

It’s been great working closely with Kait and Charlotte in addition to Austin, Triin, and Kieran. Chatting with staff as well as students in a different year to me has given me insight into the university and the course itself. I have learnt a lot already and will continue to do so. The project will also help me with my own research project and my degree in general. I’m excited to see what the rest of it brings.

Community psychology perspectives on student mental health

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By Miles Thompson

The 4th UK Community Psychology Festival is being held on the 23rd and 24th of September 2018 in the Hertford Theatre, Hertford. It follows the success of the 3rd festival, which was held at the Arnolfini in Bristol and was joint hosted by UWE’s Social Science Research Group.

Three members of UWE’s Psychological Sciences Research Group are curating a slot at festival number 4 titled: Community psychology perspectives on student mental health. In the festival spirit they want their session to be as interactive as possible and are asking all festival goers to participate in their session – before it takes place – whether they are able to attend the actual session or not. In short they invite people to read the extract below from their festival abstract and respond:

Mental health problems for students in UK higher education are receiving increased attention. Since 2008, some universities have experienced a threefold increase in demand for student support services. Student suicide has also been on the increase. A new document by Universities UK called “Step Change” has started to shape policy in this area.

You are a psychologist – interested in community psychology – teaching at a UK university. The university has concerns about growing student mental health issues. It is keen to tackle the problem by offering 1st year students a series of “resilience workshops” that focus on individual emotional regulation skills. What community psychology perspectives, evidence and even interventions might you suggest to complement or even replace the current suggestion?

Specifically, we invite festival goers to respond in advance of the session by either:
Posting a comment at the end of this blog post
Tweeting a response using the hashtag #commpsySMH
Or e-mailing: miles2.thompson@uwe.ac.uk with their response.

We plan to spend the timetabled session considering both the responses to the scenario above and wondering together about how UK community psychology might contribute more widely to this area.

Remember, please respond to the above scenario before the actual session whether or not you are able to attend it. Thank you.

Introducing our new lecturer, Dr Gamze Arman!

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By Gamze Arman

My name is Gamze Arman, and I have recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Occupational Psychology.

I received my undergraduate and master’s degrees from the most prestigious universities of Turkey (Bogazici University and Koc University, respectively) and my Ph.D. degree in Industrial/Organisational Psychology from DePaul University in Chicago – IL, USA. Prior to joining UWE, I worked as an assistant professor at MEF University (Turkey) for two years, with a joint appointment in the psychology and business administration departments.

At UWE, I will be primarily teaching at the masters’ program specialized in Occupational Psychology, and I will be involved in the modules such as training and development, and psychological assessment, in addition to the undergraduate module on research design and analysis.

My research is relevant to the “Optimising Performance and Engagement” theme of PSRG and focuses on two key areas: 1) diversity and interpersonal relationships in organizations as determinants of the task and 2) contextual performance in the work context. Within the broad scope of diversity, I am interested in gender and culture as the critical bases, and in my research so far, I have specifically focused on the following topics:

  • Career development of female employees (What is the role of senior female managers on career development of junior women? How does involvement in Women in Business student clubs impact the career perceptions of female university students?)
  • Expatriates and high skilled immigrants (How do host country nationals perceive and treat expatriates from different cultural backgrounds? What are the factors facilitating or hindering female expatriates’ career development in a given cultural context?)
  • Functioning of multinational teams (How does subgroup formation take place in teams consisting of members from several national backgrounds? How does it impact team functioning?)

Within the area of interpersonal relationships in organizations, I am primarily interested in:

  • Abusive supervision and the dark side of leadership (What is the role of third-party observers in abusive supervision cases? Which factors impact their perceptions and willingness to help the victims?)
  • Relational energy among employees (How do people in a work context impact each other’s mood and motivation?)

Although my priority is research, I am a proponent of the scientist-practitioner model of occupational psychology. In my experience as a practitioner, I worked for human resources departments of multinational companies such as Accenture, and I engaged in consulting projects in the USA and Turkey. I look for opportunities for collaboration with practitioners since I believe consulting and delivering training programs to professionals provide valuable inspiration for my research via the interaction with people working at different organizations.

The Power of Yoga: Using yoga to promote psychological and physical health

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By Emma Halliwell

I was 21, living in Brighton, studying and partying when went to my first yoga class. I was immediately hooked. I have been practicing yoga, with varying frequency, ever since. In those early days yoga helped me cope with the aftermath of late nights and exam stress. Over the subsequent two decades yoga has helped me cope with more serious health and emotional issues.  I can definitely attest to the ‘power of yoga’ in my own life.

Despite my long relationship with yoga, I’ve only begun to research yoga relatively recently. Fortunately, I have a brilliant yoga teacher, Sam Burkey, as a collaborator. She has a wealth of experience and expertise about the benefits of yoga. Together we take an evidence-based approach, integrating evidence from the academic literature, classic teachings and professional experience.

Yoga improves both physical and psychological health. It offers benefits for numerous health conditions including diabetes, cancer, anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Of course, beyond peer-reviewed research, there is also an extensive and rich literature on yoga. The seminal text, The Yoga-Sutra, was written two-thousand years ago (although references to yoga date back 5,000 years). Numerous texts have been published as guides to practice and as testament to the benefits of yoga. Based on these resources, we can draw some clear conclusions and also identify some significant challenges.

For many people yoga is a lifelong pursuit. The benefits of this sustained practice are well documented. These benefits also change and emerge in response to an individual’s own development. There is also evidence that relatively brief yoga courses improve health and wellbeing.

Currently, we are seeing an explosion in the types of yoga on offer, from the more traditional to the more bizarre. It is not clear whether positive impact of yoga extends to some of the more recent variants. Also, we are seeing the emergence of programs that seem to take yoga away from the basic philosophical routes of self-compassion and acceptance, e.g. “beach body yoga workout”.  These developments makes it more challenging to simply recommend yoga as a route to improve well-being.

Against this backdrop, our aim is to evaluate stand-alone yoga-based interventions that also provide a foundation for future practice that will support psychological and physical well-being. Specifically, we are developing brief yoga-based interventions that

  1. target and improve specific aspects of psychological and physical well-being and
  2. offer an informed entry route into yoga practice.

To date, we’ve delivered yoga interventions in schools and university. Our initial data indicates that our targeted yoga-based intervention approach is effective. For example, our yoga-based intervention led to sustained improvements in mood and body image among young women and 40% of them continuing yoga practice.

We have many other projects planned. Most imminently, with an extended cross-disciplinary project team, we are working on yoga programs for individuals who’ve experienced cancer.

So far, this research area has been extremely exciting and rewarding. The significant intervention effects are very promising. Of course, some of the most compelling evidence comes from qualitative feedback. In our most recent study, one participant reported…

“I have taken up yoga and want to do it forever”

Welcome to the Psychological Sciences Research Group blog!

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Welcome to the Psychological Sciences Research Group blog!

We are a team of researchers based at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and our work clusters around four themes: Applied Cognition and Neuroscience, Optimising Performance and Engagement, Promoting Psychological Health, and Ageing Well. We conduct diverse research and have a common interest in exploring the workings of the mind and brain and an ultimate goal of translating our findings for real-world applications. We aim to apply our research to inform the environments in which we live – environments at work, in schools, in sports and health settings, and in our wider communities.

Our ever-growing group began just a few years ago, and we are now launching this blog to continue to engage with researchers internally and externally as well as the general public. We will be posting content every few weeks on a range of subjects associated with psychological science. We’ll discuss current issues in psychology, opinions on ideas and trends in our discipline, and updates on our current projects.

Please follow our blog for new posts and updates, and use this space to interact with us via the comments section!