We are excited to welcome two new social psychologists to PSRG! Matt and Emily joined UWE in January 2020 and have recently joined the Promoting Psychological Health theme of PSRG. Read on to learn more about our newest members!
My name is Matt Wood and I have joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.
I conducted by BSc in Psychology and my MSc in Health Psychology here at UWE. I then moved to Newcastle where I joined the EPSRC Centre of Doctoral Training in Digital Civics to conduct my PhD. My PhD was about how young people construct and contest a gendered and sexual identity through digital technology, using discursive psychology to consider how young people talked about sexual bodies, sexual cultures & sexual health.
The majority of my work is situated in Human Computer Interaction (HCI). At its core, this is about how people (users) interact with computers, and a great deal of work in HCI is focused on interfaces and making these more usable. HCI is however an incredibly broad field, incorporating perspectives from computer science, psychology, sociology and design, to name but a few.
Broadly speaking, I am interested in the qualitative dimension of social computing. This means I’m interested in the role digital technologies play in our social interactions with others – which of course has become highly topical since the pandemic of Covid-19. But in adopting qualitative methods, I am interested in unpacking the ‘messy reality’ of the social role of technology in people’s lives. These can often be contradictory, difficult, and intercept with other aspects of people’s lives, including identity and personhood. A great deal of my PhD was spent looking at young people’s talk/discourse around digital technologies, and how they positioned these in negotiating a gendered and sexual identity.
I am thrilled to join the dynamic researchers at PSRG, and I am excited to call this interdisciplinary group my research home. In May 2020 I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor Early Career Research Award to explore the qualitative dimensions of immersion in virtual reality, with an application to Science Communication, which I’m conducting in partnership with UWE’s Science Communication Unit.
My name is Emily LeRoux-Rutledge and I have joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.
As a Canadian, who has lived in Kenya, France, Bangladesh and the UK, it’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve been drawn to research on identity and migration. My current research looks at how the identities of refugee and diaspora groups in the UK are affected by ongoing violence in their countries of origin, and how this impacts wellbeing.
Broadly, my research examines the identities of marginalised groups in global contexts – which encompasses a lot of things! For example, I look at how the media constructs narratives about people, how people interpret media narratives, how people construct their own identities, and how they negotiate their identities in the face of local and global narratives about who they are, and who they should be. I use primarily qualitative methodologies, and take a narrative approach to identity.
I previously held a Lectureship in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey, and I have taught at both the London School of Economics and the University of Bristol. I earned my PhD in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics in 2017, my MSc in Social and Public Communication from the London School of Economics in 2007, and my BA (Hons) in International Relations and English from the University of Toronto in 2004.
Prior to my academic career, I spent ten years working in the field of international development, managing research for organisations using media and communication for development, and I continue to work as a consultant in this sector. I’ve conducted research on a wide range of topics, from public health to climate change, and I’ve worked in more than 20 countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Kenya, Niger, South Africa, South Sudan, Senegal, Serbia, Tanzania and Uganda.
I’m delighted to join the Psychological Sciences Research Group at UWE, and look forward to working and collaborating with my many wonderful colleagues!
Thanks to Matt at Housecat Productions, we have videos about PSRG and each of our themes (footage recorded pre-pandemic). Check out each of the videos and the work that we do. Feel free to get in touch in the comments below or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
An overview of our whole research group:
About our Ageing Well theme:
About our Applied Cognition and Neuroscience theme:
About our Optimising Performance and Engagement theme:
implications of nomothetic psychotherapy research
Psychotherapy research has made significant progress in providing strong evidence for process and outcome in favour of specific approaches. However, after many years of research and advanced methodologies, we are still unsure about why psychotherapy works, and how and to what degree these findings can be applied in everyday practice (Kazdin, 2009). Evidence-based approaches do not appear to be effective for everyone, and the mechanisms of change are still investigated with diverse findings. Randomised controlled trials (RCT) and meta-analyses inform policy and guidelines followed by the likes of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Illustrating this, NICE Guidelines for the treatment of Depression state that “well-defined” depression can be treated with CBT based on its proven efficacy, however “it is not effective for everyone” (NICE, 2009). Clinicians need evidence-based recommendations to inform their work with clients. It is notable though that evidence-based practice is based on nomothetic, quantitative approaches of inquiry but what is actually demanded from practitioners is to apply these theories in an idiographic context and adjust to the needs of the individual who seeks help (Persons, 2008).
One cannot reduce psychotherapy to specific factors and cannot reduce the person to a specific list of symptoms. Added to that, each psychotherapeutic encounter is unique, in terms of transference and real relationship factors. Rigid diagnosis criteria are challenged and culturally sensitive, social models of diagnosis are encouraged in the literature, which question the constant pursuit of functionality, fulfilment and happiness (Kirmayer, Gomez – Carillo & Veissiere, 2017). In reality, clients with the same labels are likely to experience their diagnosis in different ways (Hayes et al, 2019). Moreover, each therapist has inherent biases and internal processes of interpreting each client before deciding which interventions to apply and how (Makhinson, 2012). The therapist’s training, expectations, overgeneralisations and pressure for positive results have a significant impact on the decisions they will make for therapeutic action plans. Lastly, each psychotherapeutic dyad is different, each process that unfolds in this context is a different experience for both parties. Even if the therapist follows the same approach guidelines, they will be different with different clients (Hill, Chui & Baumann, 2013). Each therapeutic encounter forms a new interaction and discussion; a new therapy (Baldwin & Imel, 2020).
psychotherapy efficacy research struggles to capture the level of complexity therapeutic
interactions entail. The findings make inferences about the general population but
do not necessarily apply to the individual (Hayes et al., 2019). Another issue
is the difficulty in defining each therapeutic modality given the new
approaches that appear and their variations in application. Too many approaches
are now presented in the literature for too many syndromes which account for
too many statistical models, and the number is growing (Hayes et al., 2019). Moreover,
there are many confounding factors when trying to measure the effects of
psychotherapy, such as the therapist’s subjectivity, training, supervision, the
therapist and researcher’s expectations and the clients’ presenting
difficulties. The researcher’s subjectivity must also be recognised in the research
process even for the most rigorous RCTs. Psychotherapy research entails bias
and the effectiveness of psychotherapy can be exaggerated. Moreover, many
studies may remain unpublished if results support null or negative hypotheses
(Dragioti, Karathanos, Gerdle & Evangelou, 2017).
back to case analysis: the idiographic paradigm in psychotherapy research
Psychotherapy is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon. How can we understand and represent its variability in evidence-based findings? Research is moving away from protocol and approach specific treatments towards a more client-centred way of exploring psychotherapy efficacy; it instead becomes a “personalized treatment” (Zilcha-Mano, 2019, p. 694). The focus is on the implementation of methodologies which can do justice to the complexity and variability of the phenomenon of psychotherapy. Qualitative research allows the exploration of the multidimensional interactions in psychotherapy encounters and the emergence of unexpected results (Hill et al., 2013; McLeod, 2011). By implementing methods such as the Narrative Assessment Interview (Angus, Levitt & Hardtke, 1999), the Change Interview (Elliott, Slatick & Urman, 2001) or the Hermeneutic Single-Case Efficacy Design (Elliott et al., 2009), qualitative research is nowadays being used more often in exploring psychotherapeutic processes and effects.
As psychotherapy researchers, we need to pursue a route that is different to “protocol-to-syndrome.” We are moving away from labels and therapy “brands” (Hofman, 2020, pp. 297 – 298) towards elaborate descriptions of people and therapies, focusing on what works, why and how, for both specific individuals or groups that share common characteristics. The suggestion is to distance ourselves from theory-driven process and outcome studies, from measurable and quantifiable behavioural changes (Hill et al., 2013) and instead to approach the client’s perspective in an open and explorative way; to enable learning and knowledge derived from the clients’ experience of psychotherapy efficacy. In particular, idiographic qualitative phenomenological research offers the means to explore intrapsychic change. A well-designed case study provides detailed, in-depth knowledge which is readily applicable to everyday clinical practice (Persons & Boswell, 2019).
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is a qualitative methodology that focuses on the individual’s unique experiences of the situation studied. IPA can make a significant contribution by enabling researchers and practitioners to gain insights into client’s experiences of therapeutic processes. The philosophical, epistemological, and methodological underpinnings and guidelines of IPA allow for an in-depth exploration of the client’s experience, leading to significant conceptualisations on how therapeutic approaches work (Larkin & Thompson, 2012). It is based on the phenomenological paradigm as outlined by Husserl, Heidegger, and Merlau-Ponty (Smith, 1996; Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). It provides the framework to place the therapeutic encounter in context and analyse it; to go back to the phenomenon of psychotherapy “on its own terms.” The focus is on individuals, their subjective accounts and perceptions, bracketing the understanding of preconceived ideas, beliefs, and expectations. IPA methodology views persons in-context as they expound on embodied, dynamic, and interactive experiences. Interpretation in IPA implies moving away from the obvious, focusing on the meaning participants attribute to their experience, engaging in a dialogue with the data, and illuminating sense-making (Smith, 1996; Smith et al., 2009).
Adhering to an existential framework,
IPA methodology does not rely on psychological theories for the collection and analysis
of data. It is data-driven, emphasizing personal experience (Smith, 2017). It
is deemed a useful method for psychotherapy process exploration as it frees the
researcher from the compounds of psychotherapy theory and gives voice to the
clients’ unique experience and intersubjective meaning-making processes
(Larking & Thompson, 2012). Phenomenological methods have been applied to
the exploration of adults’ experiences of psychotherapy during their childhood
have changed their live, clients’ experience of positive change and to psychotherapy outcome studies
(Binder et al., 2010; Midgley, Target, & Smith, 2006; Olofsson et al.,
2019; Wilmots et al., 2019). IPA applied to psychotherapy research allows for
the exploration of the clients’ perspective, the meaning they attribute to
seeking and receiving help and how they conceptualise the psychotherapy process
rendering the results useful for incorporation into everyday clinical practice
(Binder et al., 2010; McLeod, 2011; Midgley et al., 2014). IPA guidelines help researchers keep the focus
on the participants’ experiences and meaning-making processes, and can further
bolster and clarify the knowledge of psychotherapy effects from the clients’
approaches to research claim that there is one absolute truth outside of us to
be discovered (Ponterotto, 2005). As psychotherapy researchers, the
phenomenological perception of truth helps us view psychotherapy as real
however it is the individual’ consciousness that determines its reality. IPA
exploration of psychotherapy brings research back to the clients, to their
experience of change, from which we can acquire significant insight on how and
why psychotherapy works. We go back to the individual case and understand the
psychotherapy processes from their perspective. Thus, the findings are closely
linked to practice. Inventories and questionnaires may capture a small proportion
of this variability in psychotherapy change procedures, but they are restricted
to overt behaviours and symptoms whilst the questions might not be applicable
to the person’s issues. The use of qualitative research methods in
psychotherapy effectiveness and outcome research adds to our efforts to
comprehend when and how psychotherapy works in an explorative and descriptive
psychotherapy research allows for the client’s voice to be heard. Their
perceptions and interpretations of psychotherapy process and change may guide
research conclusions, theory advancements and policies. Hence, psychotherapy is
adjusted to the clients and the service users, and not the other way around. In
recent literature, a more pluralistic method of inquiry is now considered in an
effort to address the diversity of psychotherapy processes, encouraging
researchers’ reflexivity on the aspect of psychotherapy they choose to explore (Rieken
& Gelo, 2015). Various methodologies and epistemologies are now employed in
the search for an answer to why psychotherapy works. Qualitative methodologies,
and especially IPA, places the client in–context considering psychological,
physical and social aspects of their experience of psychotherapy. Like
clinicians who tailor their use of techniques to the specific client in the
specific therapeutic relationship, researchers should consider individual needs,
culture and social context, tailoring research methods to specific aspects of
psychotherapy process and change.
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Dragioti, E., Karathanos, V.,
Gerdle, B., & Evangelou, E. (2017). Does psychotherapy work? An umbrella
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Stanton, C. E., Carpenter, J. K., Sanford, B. T., Curtiss, J. E., &
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Research, 30(3), 297–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2019.1630781
Kirmayer, L. J.,
Gomez-Carrillo, A., & Veissière, S. (2017). Culture and depression in
global mental health: An ecosocial approach to the phenomenology of psychiatric
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long-term outcomes in eating disorders with childhood trauma: An explorative
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This blog post provides a reflective account of my own experiences participating in Dry January – an alcohol abstinence challenge initiated by Alcohol Change UK that encourages people to reduce their levels of alcohol consumption. As an experimental social psychologist, my research investigates the influences of contextual and social factors on alcohol consumption and related behaviours. Working alongside collaborators at Edge Hill and Aston University, our work to date has suggested that frequent alcohol consumption is associated with our motivations and expected outcomes of drinking, as well as heightened attention towards alcohol-related cues. It was never my intention to blog about my experiences of Dry January; it was simply a personal endeavour that I aimed to complete. However, as the days went on, I noticed a lot of parallels with my own research, as well as becoming more cognisant about wider issues embedded in the UK’s drinking culture. I hope that my reflections below will speak to other people’s experiences associated with taking part, as well as highlighting cultural issues with our relationship with alcohol, and how we might best support those who wish to reduce their consumption.
What is Dry January?
“Dry January” is a 1-month challenge where people give up alcohol for the month of January. Typically completed with the aid of a phone app, the overarching goal is to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages for 31-days, with badges rewarded for day streaks, drinking in moderation, reducing alcohol intake, and total dry days. At the end of each day, the participant completes an online calendar, responding whether they’ve stayed ‘Dry’, ‘drank’, or ‘drank as planned’. Given the nascent stage of this particular challenge (2013), there has been little research conducted on the benefits and potential drawbacks of Dry January. However, research has suggested that Dry January can have a range of positive health-related and psychological benefits, ranging from improved sleep, weight loss, and enhanced self-control (see De Visser et al., 2016). Further, whilst some have proposed that Dry January may lead to a ‘rebound effect’ (i.e., binge February), the majority of available research suggests that a period of abstinence can encourage longer term reductions in drinking (Bray et al., 2010; De Visser et al., 2016). This is because, after a person has made a commitment to engage in behaviour change, they are more likely to maintain these changes in the future (de Visser et al., 2017).
Reflections on Dry January
Learning about the reasons I drink
According to the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), I am categorised as a ‘low risk drinker’ with an overall score of 7 out of 40 (anything above 8 is seen as higher risk). Personally, I would classify myself as an ‘occasional social drinker’, who rarely binge drinks but instead has ‘one or two every now and again’. Over the Christmas period, I found myself overindulging in unhealthy foods and drinking more alcohol and I therefore decided to take part in Dry January to regulate my behaviour and explore the benefits. Early in the New Year, I found it relatively easy to abstain from alcohol, simply because I felt I’d had my fill over the festive period (my AUDIT score would have been temporarily higher!). As the days turned into weeks, however, I found myself thinking about reaching for an alcoholic drink a lot more. I then stopped to think about when and why I wanted an alcoholic drink, and realised that I tend to drink to alleviate stress or to relax in social situations. In the alcohol literature, these reasons are known as ‘drinking motives’ (see Kuntsche et al., 2006), which are the valued outcomes that people associate with drinking alcohol. The examples I provide are known as ‘coping’ (i.e., to deal with negative emotions) and ‘social’ motives (i.e., to enhance interactions), but there are also enhancement (i.e., to heighten mood) and conformity motives (i.e., to avoid social pressure or a need to fit in). Interestingly, research has shown that these drinking motives are a unique predictor of alcohol consumption and related behaviours (Kuntsche et al., 2014; Merrill & Read, 2010).
Another insight I had was that my tendency to drink alcohol in low-quantity, but rather frequently, may influence me to underestimate my true alcohol consumption. The limitations of self-report measures of alcohol consumption could be discussed at length, but the main point here is that such behaviour may be easily forgotten and unreliability reported. In addition, it may mask viewing consumption as a ‘problem’ and be an obstacle to behaviour change. Partaking in Dry January made me realise how I might reach for a drink without really counting it or thinking that I need to cut down.
Alcohol cues are everywhere
Seeing an advertisement for alcohol in a drinking establishment (i.e., pubs and bars) comes as no surprise, particularly in UK culture. However, abstaining from alcohol made me evaluate the quantity of alcohol advertisements we see in our everyday lives and the appropriateness of their placement. During a conference visit in January, I stayed at a well-known hotel chain and found promotional offers for alcohol in the reception lobby, as well as included in leaflets in my room. Throughout Dry January I became more and more aware of the number of alcohol adverts that were aired on television and decorative signs in shops that glamorised drinking. I found my heightened awareness of this very interesting and this led me to think more about something we, as researchers, call ‘cue reactivity’. Here, research shows that alcohol-related cues capture and hold the attention of those who drink alcohol and appear to increase subjective cravings for alcohol (see Field et al., 2009). Moreover, such attentional processing seems to be heightened in heavy drinkers and even abstinent alcoholics (Field et al., 2013). Such advertisements challenged my self-control to not drink by heightening my craving for alcohol, which led me to think about the implications that such advertising has for those with problematic alcohol use, or alcohol-related disorders. In the UK, alcohol-related adverts are regulated so that they do not condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking. Unlike cigarette advertising which is banned on television and heavily regulated in supermarkets (e.g., cigarettes hidden behind a screen), however, alcohol advertising appears to be much more relaxed. Let’s compare a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of alcohol, for example; the packaging of cigarettes includes large health warnings on 65% of the front and back, a brand name in standard font, and drab colours. The packaging of alcohol, on the other hand, includes limited (or no) health warnings, bright colours and attractive images, and beverages themselves come in many different colours and flavours. It therefore seems that more work needs to be done to regulate the branding and advertisement of alcohol to make them less attractive and ‘wanted’. Health warnings and nutritional labels would raise awareness of the health implications of consumption, and help people to make informed decisions with regards to drinking.
Challenging conversations around drinking
a few occasions during Dry January where my choice not to drink during social
occasions was questioned by others, and people tried to influence this decision.
Statements such as “just have one and then don’t drink tomorrow”, or “have a
beer now and then a glass of water” were voiced, perhaps with the aim to test
my self-control. This made me think about the wider conversations we have about
drinking and the societal norms associated with alcohol; we wouldn’t ask
someone why they are drinking, so why is it okay to ask someone why they’re
not? I found that the most effective way of dealing with this was to have open
conservations about the benefits of Dry January and to engage in discussion
with people about wider problems regarding the UK’s binge drinking culture (see
Pincock, 2003). It was interesting to
outline the many different reasons why people may choose to moderate their
alcohol consumption, or not to drink, spanning choice (e.g., not feeling
compelled to drink in social circles), finance (deciding to drive to a venue
rather than drinking to save money), and health (weight loss, better sleep, concentration,
and addiction). In relation to this, another challenging experience of taking
part in Dry January concerned situations in which others expected me to pay for
a round of drinks, or split the bill, when they had been drinking alcohol and I
hadn’t. In some establishments, the cost of an alcoholic beverage is up to
four-times the cost of a soft drink, so the bill might be quite surprising! Again,
this may have been overcome with a simple conversation, but the stronger
message here is that we need to be more aware of how we treat people who are
not drinking and think more carefully about how we can support them.
So how did I get on?
Out of the
31 days in January, I managed 26 days dry; 1 of these was a ‘drinking as planned’
day, whilst the other 4 were days in which I drank in moderation. Using the
phone app was extremely helpful for monitoring and managing my behaviour; over
the course of my alcohol-free days, my best streak was 14 days, and I saved substantial
money and calories. Some people have
said “so you didn’t complete Dry Jan?!”, and again I think this rhetoric is
problematic. Although I didn’t complete 31 whole days, the challenge allowed me
to regulate my consumption and cut down significantly. It also helped me to
think about helpful strategies to moderate my drinking, such as adding on an
extra “dry” day to my calendar after an unplanned drinking session, and to not
give up on the challenge if I had drank. The most positive experience of Dry
January for me, however, has been reflecting on the conversations we have about
alcohol, and thinking about ways in which we can support people who chose to
reduce their intake or abstain all together. It has also opened my eyes to
cultural and societal factors that influence alcohol consumption (e.g., alcohol
advertising), which may act as an obstacle to reducing intake. For me, Dry
January has been a fundamentally interesting reflective experience, both as a
participant and an alcohol researcher, and has aided my awareness of the
benefits and barriers that people face when making the choice to cut down or
abstain from drinking, and how we might best support them.
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Psychology, like all disciplines, has a history. Like all histories, it is a contested one, and it often unravels within a dominant narrative that might surprise you. For instance, the birth of the psychological laboratory in Leibzig, Germany in 1879, its founder Wilhelm Wundt, and the American behaviourist B.F. Skinner are considered far more influential to the development of contemporary psychological science than the psychoanalytic insights of Carl Jung or Melanie Klein. My teaching experience suggests that, in their vast majority, psychology undergraduates are left a little dissatisfied at the end of their degrees insofar as their understanding of human behaviour is concerned. Psychological knowledge in the last 40 years has developed largely in silos and final year courses offer quite specialised explorations of processes (social, developmental, biological, or cognitive) that underpin human psychic life. Thus, rare opportunities are afforded for some sort of synthesis of perspectives that can form an even partially satisfactory answer to the question: ‘so, why do I do the things I do?’. As academics, we face enormous pressure to profess expertise in specialised topics, publish our work in journals that mainly speak to other academics, and create our brand by accentuating the unique contribution(s) we have made to the discipline. ‘I teach why people do the things they do’ sounds just as silly as it is impossible. But shouldn’t studying psychology help us understand ourselves and others around us?
Cognitivism is a term that has been used to describe the influence of cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes such as attention, memory, and problem solving) on mainstream psychological theory as well as popular perceptions of human subjectivity. Experimental social psychology for instance talks of social cognition, namely what our brains do when we are in groups. Many theories suggest that the social world ‘enters’ individuals via biosensory pathways and cognitive mechanisms, which can be schematically represented as diagrams (and who doesn’t love a good, self-evident diagram?) and subjected to empirical testing. The brain (or ‘mind’) is widely hailed as the seat of selfhood, and I bet that if you asked people which organ represents them best, most people would pick their brains. That is, despite emerging evidence from medicine that implicates the digestive system (gut) in interesting psychophysiological processes, few people would name their intestines as the bit of tissue they would want preserved in a jar, and I am probably not one of them. Psychoanalytically speaking, there’s nothing surprising in the finding that the gut is a significant locus of psychological activity; after all emotions have to be symbolically digested somewhere. ‘One brain per person’ is how it works, and psychology loves some good old-fashioned dualisms. And so it has come to pass that psychology will leave the study of societies to sociology and social anthropology and cast its expert light on the unit of analysis that no mortal shall divide: the individual.
Cognitivism seeps into all other branches of psychology; thus, a unitary subject that is knowable, predictable, and bound by reason emerges undisputed. How I hear you ask? Let’s rewind. Cognitive psychology arose as a direct challenge to Watsonian ‘black box’ psychology, a necessary critique of the idea that humans are shaped solely by environmental contingencies and schedules of reinforcement. It blossomed in parallel with the computer revolution and adopted much of the language of computer science (input, network, information processing, mechanism etc). Some 70 years later, this language is not confined to the study of largely involuntary brain processes such as space perception or executive function. Quite the contrary, it has implied, assumed, and naturalised the reality underpinning most of human behaviour. It’s not cognitive psychology’s claims that solidify cognitivism, in fact cutting-edge research in this area has probably moved beyond it. This is how discourse (a devilishly slippery concept) works: an ideology such as the one we are dealing with can only become entrenched if it is propped up by a myriad of supporting beams. Cognitivism engulfs reality with every university psychology department that uses imagery such as an electrode-wired person to promote itself to prospective applicants (and funders). It lurks in the most innocuous of everyday utterances: ‘it’s all in your head’. And it goes unchallenged because no self-respecting psychologist would ever explicitly defend the position: ‘we are just our thoughts’.
several problems for contemporary psychology, if one takes that to mean the
study of ‘why we do the things we do’. It is less of a problem if one is
concerned with ‘how we do what we do’, but the critique still applies I
believe. Humans are not like computers in that we possess a tricky little thing
called consciousness and an equally tricky if not more tangible thing
called thebody. Let’s pretend that there’s no such tricky little
thing as soul or spirit, otherwise this brief commentary will get derailed. How
consciousness manifests, is embodied, and interacts with other conscious beings
is, really, what psychologists are studying. We need access to more than just
cognition to understand why people fall in love, why they fight, why they
suddenly act in unpredictable ways, and what happens when many people co-exist
for prolonged periods of time. Family dynamics, ambivalent friendships, and
toxic couples won’t make much sense by illuminating the intricacies of individuals’
cognitive apparatus. Why we feel what we feel is, invariably, more interesting
to the undergraduate student than why the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon
occurs. Affective cognition is cognitive psychology’s answer to the former. So
what about relationships? Cue crickets.
There are good reasons why cognitivism has prevailed, not least because it squares with scientific methods, Western biomedicine, and reasonable expectations for publicly funded psychological research to have utility and applied value. Measuring things and discovering variables that affect human behaviour often translates into practical solutions for many a modern malady. In consequence, mainstream psychology enjoys widespread applications in health, occupational, and even recreational settings. At the same time, we should not ignore the more sinister reasons. As it squares, it concurrently dovetails with an ideology of the human subject as a predictable, fixable machine that can be controlled and programmed. It delights advertisers who are in search of the ideal font, image, or message to feed consumerism. It makes sense to politicians who, through no fault of their own, are also entangled in its discursive net and therefore look to psychology to fix symptoms (or hide them) rather than transform conditions to prevent the problems in the first place. It makes people feel cleverer as it follows a rational methodology and can be delightfully illuminating to the mind that has been trained all its life to excel and produce without ever pausing to reflect on the unbearable question: ‘what and who am I producing for?’.
A little context on the writer so that the reader can more fully appreciate the vested interests in this article (free tip: all discourse carries vested interests and (dis)locations of power). I studied for a 4-year experimental psychology degree, which I enjoyed, and my first job was as a statistics instructor for the university I graduated from. After a brief detour that involved meeting Avril Lavigne and dining with Patti Smith, I trained as a counselling psychologist. Whilst in training I took issue with several other assumptions counselling psychology made (the allure of cognitivism is perhaps less felt in this particular corner of applied psychology) but I finally found a home so to speak in another sub-discipline: community psychology. After struggling for many years, I can finally combine my passion for community psychology with my expertise as a counselling psychologist and proudly co-organise the Community Psychology Festival, an annual event borne out of hope and glitter. Even though I write from this intersection, I am informed and shaped by theories and experiences that are not immediately apparent in my professional identities.
It might therefore not surprise the reader to know that I take issue not with the very existence of cognitivism, but with its obliterating influence on all other ways of conceptualising human beings. I don’t for a second believe that we are rational and unitary; our internal worlds consist of affectively laden ‘bits’ that can be pre-verbal and unconscious (this is a Kleinian view), and I have started wondering whether producing a coherent self is more of a hassle than it is to surrender to the possibility of multiple selves, even if some of them are conflictually aligned against others. ‘Make happy thoughts’ is just about the worst advice you can give someone experiencing depression or anxiety. I have a problem with cognitivism’s unintended consequence of eradicating the social dimension of what it means to live and act in this world. I try hard to instil in my students a scepticism of mechanistic claims that do not recognise just how deliciously neoliberal their implications for the human condition are (see previous blog entry on ‘resilience’ by Dr Miles Thompson). Speaking of ‘resilience’, this research paradigm is only just beginning to acknowledge that metals should be resilient, humans not so much. Imagine a person who suffers a messy breakdown at work when they are working on a temporary contract and their partner is diagnosed with a terminal illness, at a time when healthcare has been privatised. A breakdown is the healthy response here; that is what should happen in the name of ‘normality’. Quite what form that breakdown may take is a different matter; I do not wish to absolve our fictional friend from personal responsibility. I am not comfortable with ‘victim culture’ and people who are unwilling to locate their own complicity in their suffering; that is if social-material conditions allow for such agency. But to condone any notion that said fictional (yet easily recognisable) person will be described as ‘resilient’ if they continue to work with a stoic half-smile and be in rational control of their emotions is where I draw a line.
No account can ever be ‘objective’, or definitive for that matter, and I do not wish to naively scapegoat cognitivism; rather I seek to reiterate that complex institutional and social conditions have allowed it to enjoy unprecedented platforms (hello inane ‘wellbeing’ apps) and unchallenged status in the Western world. This point has been made before. Several times. It is articulated every time sacred wisdom such as the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is usurped, diluted, decontextualized, and packaged in a cognitivised version, easily available for mass consumption. Distinguished cognitive scholars have grappled with some of the issues described here, and some have actually protested the dominance of the machine as the ultimate metaphor to symbolise psychological activity (cf. Jerome Bruner’s work). How many psychotherapists must speak up to protest the irrational (the irony!) program of mass mental hygiene that IAPT has become? How many psychologists must swallow their ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ (50% at the last count) in mental health settings before we all agree: “The psychologists and their cognitive errors (‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘This is hopeless’) are not the problem here!” Clinical and counselling psychologists know that cognitive interventions have a place in working with distress, but it is certainly not the place they currently occupy. So you might ask, if this has been said many times before, and it is not a hugely incomprehensible point to get hold of, why is there need to still write about it? Hmmm…Let’s call it ‘selective attention’, shall we?
Desai, M. & Hadjiosif, M. (2020). The
evolution of the community psychology festival. In C. Walker, S. Zlotowitz,
& A. Zoli (Eds.), New ideas for new times: A handbook of innovative
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Henriques, J., Hollway, W., Urwin, C.,
Venn, C., & Walkerdine, V. (1998). Changing the subject: Psychology, Social
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If you read the higher education press, you will be aware of the concerns of many British academics and universities following the 2016 referendum and the vote in favour of leaving Europe. How the UK leaves the European Union could have many important consequences for British universities. It may become impossible for British researchers to access European research funds, which in the past have been a major source of funding. Access to staff and student mobility schemes may cease, making it harder for people to travel abroad to study and collaborate. Academic staff from Europe may no longer find the UK an attractive place to come and work, and vice versa.
As an academic that has had strong links with our nearest
European neighbour for some time, the referendum decision has been personally
painful, and the ensuing months and years since torturous. However, I am
determined to do my bit in maintaining close working relationships with our
continental colleagues, however the Brexit project turns out. So I thought I
would use my PSRG blog entry to tell you a bit about French psychology, and the
rewards of international collaboration.
This story really started for me in the winter of 2013, when I decided it might be useful to travel abroad to find out how other institutions were delivering online learning in post-graduate psychology. Having set up a distance-based MSc in the early 2000s, and by 2013 being the programme lead for the doctorate in counselling psychology at UWE, I was keen to see how professional courses could be delivered online. I duly wrote and submitted a travel grant application to the Higher Education Academy (HEA), with a view to visiting the Fielding Institute in California and Paris 8 University in France, both of which run distance courses in clinical psychology (if you are an undergraduate psychology student that speaks good French you might consider the Paris 8 Masters – though using this to get HCPC registered might be less straight forward after Brexit!). Unfortunately, the HEA hit a period of financial turbulence, and the travel grants were axed. As a result, the USA part of the plan had to go, but Paris 8 was possible with some university funding.
So in 2014 I spent a week at Paris 8 University, talking to
staff and students, and finding out how their online MSc in clinical psychology
was run. In France currently, access to the profession of clinical psychology
is via a two year MSc, as it used to be in the UK (before Plymouth University
pioneered professional doctorates in the 1990s, and everyone else followed suit).
I soon discovered that an interesting aspect of clinical psychology at Paris 8
is that it quite closely resembles our counselling psychology course at UWE, in
that students study both humanistic and psychodynamic foundations of therapy,
as well as the ubiquitous cognitive behaviour therapy.
Paris 8 University is well known in France as the experimental university which was founded after the student led riots of 1968. Well known academics have included Foucault and Deleuze. Amongst the current psychology staff is Professor Arnaud Plagnol, who like me has interests in the application of cognitive science to understanding and working with client issues in therapy. Following my 2014 visit, Arnaud and I have collaborated on a number of projects. The picture shown here is a poster we did on neuroscience and depression, at the DCoP conference in Harrogate in 2015. More recently we have written a book together called Cognitive Psychodynamics, which illustrates how psychodynamic insights into phenomena such as the unconscious and transference can be understood and further developed in therapy through a cognitive framework.
Since 2014 I have done a small amount of teaching on the Paris 8 MSc. To help me communicate better with my French colleagues and students, I have attended a number of the annual conferences of the French Psychological Society. This year’s was in Poitiers, and the picture shown here is of the Hotel Fumé, which as the name suggests was built as a hotel by the Fumé family in the 15th century. It became part of the University of Poitiers’ Faculty of Human Sciences in 1922. The University of Poitiers is one of the oldest in France, often seen as the number 2 after Paris (so the French equivalent of Oxford ;). I was pleased to be able to present at the conference the excellent research carried out by one of my professional doctorate students, Sara Dowsett, on the utility of schema theory in understanding mental health issues in higher education students. The great thing about attending this conference is also the opportunity to catch up on some of the research being done by our colleagues in the Francophone world. For example, I listened to an extremely interesting paper by Geoffrey Gauvin, who along with colleagues in Montreal has been looking at the utility of self-help groups for clients with depression. It struck me that the holistic perspective being used with clients in these groups is something we might well benefit from here in the UK.
One of the highlights, as you would expect for a conference in
France, was the conference dinner. I felt privileged to be seated opposite the
president of the French Society, Rene Clarisse. In talking to Rene, one of the
interesting things I learned was psychologists in France are pushing the
government to extend psychology training courses by an extra year, which may
well give rise to the development of professional doctorates in France. Ironically, the similarities between British
and French psychology may well therefore increase even further after Brexit,
just as the possibility of professional mobility may well get harder.
I hope my blog entry encourages you all to reach out to our
continental psychology colleagues and overcome the linguistic barriers, whatever
language your rusty GCSE happens to be in.
I received my undergraduate degree in Psychology from University of Crete in Greece. I then moved to London where I completed my Master of Science in Counselling Psychology as well as my Professional Doctorate (PsyD) in Counselling Psychology at City University of London. Prior to joining UWE, I worked as an Assistant Professor and Director of the Psychology Division at Hellenic American University (Athens, Greece) for three years.
I am a qualitative researcher and my projects have been based on constructionist methodologies like Grounded Theory and Narrative Analysis, but recently I have engaged more into phenomenological paradigms and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis in particular. My scholarly interests initially involved the exploration of psychotherapy termination, trainees’ professional development, mental health practice and the impact of financial crisis on people and services. Over the last years, my research focuses on the investigation of psychotherapy process, change and outcome, developing longitudinal, mixed method and qualitative study designs. I have collaborated with academics and researchers from Greece, UK, Netherlands, and USA, and I have published academic articles and peer-reviewed chapters based on my research activities. Given my expertise in qualitative methodologies, I have been invited to facilitate seminars and also consult on projects by a number of institutions. Moreover, I have been the organizer of five qualitative research panels in national and international conferences and I have been invited to participate in numerous discussions as a presenter. Recently, I was invited to be the keynote speaker in an international conference of the American Counseling Association.
I am a trained psychotherapist, adhering primarily to the psychodynamic and psychoanalytic model of formulation and practice but I have also been trained in Cognitive Behavioural approach. I have worked on short and long term therapeutic basis with a variety of clinical cases (depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, psychosis etc.) and ages (adults, adolescents, children and families). I have collaborated with social workers, play therapists, psychiatrists, teachers and other professionals in the fields of mental health and education. I adhere to the scientist – practitioner model based on my academic and clinical training and practice. As a researcher and a psychotherapist I believe the two domains interact and inform each other. I try to encourage this model to my students and trainees.
In April, I was fortunate to attend the annual and prestigious British Neuroscience Association (BNA) Festival of Neuroscience. The conference provided a unique opportunity to engage with contemporary interdisciplinary neuroscience research across the UK and internationally. Spread over four days the event hosted workshops, symposiums, keynote lectures and poster presentations. Covering 11 neuroscience themes, as an experimental psychologist, I was particularly interested in themes relating to attention, motivation and behaviour, sensory and motor systems, and neuroendocrinology and autonomic systems.
Not only was this a chance to embrace cutting-edge interdisciplinary neuroscience research, this was a chance to develop skills enabling me to become a meticulous researcher. It was clear that an overall goal of the conference was to encourage high standards of scientific rigour by embracing the open science movement.
“Fast science… too much rubbish out there we have to sift through.”
The open science movement encompasses a range of practices that promote transparency and accessibility of knowledge, including data sharing and open access publishing. The Open Science Framework is one tool that enables users to create research projects and encourages sharing hypotheses, data, and publications. These practices encourage openness, integrity, and reproducibility in research, something particularly important in the field of psychology.
A especially striking claim was noted by Ioannidis (2005): “most published research findings are false.” Ioannidis argued that there is a methodological crisis in science, particularly apparent in psychology, but also cognitive neuroscience, clinical medicine, and many other fields (Cooper, 2018). If an effect is real, any researcher should be able to obtain it using the same procedures with adequate statistical power. However, many scientific studies are difficult to replicate. Open science practices have been suggested to help enable accurate replications and facilitate the dissection of scientific knowledge, improving scientific quality and integrity.
The BNA has a clear positive stance on open science practices, and I was lucky enough to be a part of this. Professor Uta Frith, a world-renowned developmental neuropsychologist, gave a plenary lecture about the three R’s: reproducibility, replicability, and reliability, which was arguably one of the most important and influential lectures over the course of the conference.
Professor Frith summed up the scientific crisis in two words, “Fast Science.” Essentially, science is progressing too fast, leading to lower quality research. Could this be due to an increase in people, labs, and journals? Speeded communication via social media? Pressure and career incentives for increased output? Sheer volume of pre-prints available to download? Professor Frith argued that there is “too much rubbish one has to sift through.”
A potential solution to this is a ‘Slow Science’ movement. The notion of “resisting quantity and choosing quality.” Professor Frith argued the need for the system to change. Often we here about the pitfalls of the peer review process, yet Professor Frith provided us with some novel ideas. She argued for a limited number of publications per year. This would encourage researchers to spend quality time on one piece of research, improving scientific rigour. Excess work would be appropriate for other outlets. Only one grant at a time should be allowed. She also discussed the need for continuous training programmes.
A lack of statistical expertise in the research community?
Professor Firth argued that there is a clear lack of statistical knowledge. With increasing computational advancements, it is becoming easier and easier to plug data into a function and accept the outcome. Yet, we must understand how these algorithms work so we can spot errors and notice illogical results.
This is something that spoke out to me. I love working with EEG data. Analysing time-series data allows us to capture cognitive processes during dynamic and fast changing situations. However, working with such rich and temporally complex data is technically challenging. The EEG signal is so small at the surface of the scalp, and the signal to noise ratio is poor. Artefacts, non-physiological (e.g. computer hum) and physiological (e.g. eye movements), contaminate the recording, meaning that not only does the EEG pick up neural activity, but it also records other electrical signals we are not interested in. Therefore, we apply mathematical algorithms to help with cleaning the data, to improve the signal to noise ratio. Once the data are cleaned, we also apply algorithms to transform the data from the time series domain (for which it is recorded in) to the frequency domain. The number of techniques of EEG analysis has risen hugely, partly thanks to computational power, and therefore there are now a whole host of computational techniques, including machine-learning, that can be applied to EEG data.
Each time algorithms are applied to the EEG data, the EEG data change. How can an EEG researcher trust the output? How can an EEG researcher sensibly interpret the data, and make informed conclusions? Having an underlying understanding of what the mathematical algorithms are doing to the data is no doubt paramount.
Professor Frith is right, there is a need for continuous training as data analysis is moving at an exhaustingly fast pace.
Pre-registration posters – an opportunity to get feedback on your method and planned statistical analyses
I also managed to contribute to the open science movement during the conference. On the second-to-last day, I presented a poster on my research looking at the temporal neural dynamics of switching between a visual perceptual and visuomotor task. This was not an ordinary poster presentation; this was a pre-registration poster presentation. I presented planned work to be carried out, with a clear introduction, hypotheses and method. I also included a plan of the statistical analyses. There were no data, graphs, or conclusions.
The poster session was an excellent opportunity for feedback from the neuroscience community on my method and statistical analyses. This is arguably the most useful time for feedback – before the research is carried out. This was particularly beneficial for me coming from a very small EEG community, and seeking particular expertise is vital. A post-doctoral researcher, who had looked at something similar during her PhD, provided me with honest and informative feedback on my experimental design. In addition, I uploaded my poster to the Open Science Framework, and the abstract was published in the open access journal Brain and Neurosciences Advances. I also received a preregistered badge for my work. These badges work as an incentive to encourage researchers to engage with open science practices. Check out cos.io/badges for more information.
So, what next?
Practical tools and significant support are coming together to allow open science to blossom. It is now our responsibility to be part of this. I’ve created an Open Science Framework account and plan to start there, detailing my aims, methods and data, to improve transparency in research. I’m making the most of my last year of my PhD to attend data analysis workshops. I would like to pre-register my research in the near future. How do I contribute to the slow science movement? I can start by slowing down (perhaps saying no to additional projects?!), improving my statistical knowledge, and embracing open science practices.
Not only was the conference an incredible insight into multidisciplinary neuroscience research (I did not realise you could put a mouse in an MRI scanner, anaesthetised of course, as it would never keep its head still!), it was an influential and motivating atmosphere. Thank you, British Neuroscience Association. Now, who else wants to join me in advocating open science, becoming a rigorous researcher, and improving scientific practices?!
Cooper, M. M. (2018). The Replication Crisis and Chemistry Education Research. Journal of Chemical Education, 95, 1– 2.
Ioannidis, J. P. (2005). Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Medicine, 2(8), e124.
Exceptional physical features, together with high commitment and motivation, are important attributes of high-performance athletes. However, when faced with frustrating setbacks, the same qualities of commitment and motivation that have elevated athletes above the pressures of competition can be their own worst enemies. It is not uncommon for elite athletes, especially young athletes to push themselves too far, to overreach and experience extreme tiredness on a regular basis and never reach their full potential because of excessive training load and insufficient recovery.
Unexplained underperformance and persistent fatigue – Exploring overtraining syndrome
Overtraining syndrome has been described as persistent fatigue and underperformance, which occurs following hard training and competition. The symptoms do not improve following two weeks rest and there is no other identifiable cause. It can be a devastating condition, as highly motivated athletes have to cope with the frustration of reduced performance and taking extended periods off training and competition to recover. Monitoring and treating a persistently fatigued athlete can be challenging, as the root cause of the fatigue is often not recognised until months of poor performance have passed. Accurate diagnosis is difficult as there are often numerous other medical and psychological conditions that present with similar symptoms.
There is much debate in the sport science literature regarding the aetiology of overtraining syndrome. Various physiological mechanisms have been proposed to influence an athlete’s vulnerability to the overtraining state. These include low muscle glycogen, decreased glutamine, central fatigue, oxidative stress, an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, hypothalamic dysfunction and elevated cytokine levels. However, no single marker can be taken as an indicator of impending overtraining syndrome. Until a definitive diagnostic tool for overtraining syndrome is developed, regular monitoring of a combination of performance, physiological, biochemical, immunological and psychological variables seem to be the best strategy to help identify athletes who are failing to recover properly.
Making the familiar unfamiliar – Using visual methods in applied psychological research
My passion for conducting research in the area of overtraining syndrome was inspired by my personal experience of the condition when I was competing as a national level lightweight rower. I understood first-hand what a debilitating condition it can be and the devastating impact it can have on an athletes’ career. I desperately wanted to help further our understanding of the condition so that sport science and medical practitioners could better support athletes like myself. There is a wealth of research that has examined the pathology of the overtraining syndrome, but no comprehensive understanding of the subjective experiences.
When I started my research, I was excited to conduct my first interview with a triathlete who had suffered with the condition for the last five years. I thought long and hard about the questions I was going to ask, and I was eager to hear his responses. But at the end of the interview I felt bitterly disappointed that the answers I received told me nothing I didn’t already know. I could not understand why. Perhaps he had difficulty accessing and communicating his experiences, maybe he was offering a rehearsed narrative, or was it that I was asking the wrong questions?
I attended a seminar organised by my colleagues Victoria Clarke, Nicola Holt and Elizabeth Jenkinson from the psychology department at the University of the West of England, in collaboration with Cathy Randle Phillips and Catherine Butler. The seminar focused on exploring the potential for creative and arts-based methods for applied psychological research. Whilst feeling demotivated and dejected about my research it was following this seminar that I experienced what can only be described as an epiphany. I realised that the problem was that I was asking questions I already knew the answers to; overtraining syndrome had become too familiar – I needed to make it unfamiliar.
The Dormouse – Recollections of a lightweight rower with overtraining syndrome
In my role as a practitioner I have been humbled and privileged to hear the stories of athletes I work with. I have shared in their joy and their sorrow, I have played a part in their journey of self-exploration – my role has been so much more than enhancing athletic performance. Yet in my research, to date, I have not allowed my participants to tell their stories. So, like all mad scientists I conducted a little experiment on myself! I got my camera out and started taking photographs of what overtraining syndrome meant to me. These are the images that represented my experience of living with the condition and some extracts from the story they inspired, told as part of The British Journal of Sports Medicine’s Patient Voices series this month.
Making weight was a challenge for me and my crew, the extreme and frankly ridiculous weight loss strategies we employed in the days leading up to the National Championships in 2000 seem incomprehensible now. I was not at race weight the night before the finals, so I severely restricted my food and drink intake, to the point of dehydration. I remember feeling so thirsty it was uncomfortable to swallow. The blissful sensation of sucking the moisture out of my toothbrush – I savoured that moment when the cool, minty water slid down my throat, it could have been champagne! It was July and I had set the central heating in the house to full blast, I had put on as many layers of clothing as I could, and I slept motionless, restrained from the weight of the blankets pinning me down. Despite subjecting my housemates to a night in a sauna, the next morning I was still 500g over race weight. In a last ditch attempt to be able to compete, I fashioned a t-shirt out of a bin liner, layered all my cold weather kit on top and ran a few laps round the housing estate. I remember darting behind a dustbin when I saw my coach drive past, I did not want him to know the shameful extent of my weight loss strategies. But to me it was normal, it was just part of being a lightweight rower, we all did it, I think our coach did know but he chose to ignore it.
These strategies proved effective as I won a bronze medal at the Nationals, and later a coveted place on the England lightweight women’s rowing squad for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.Everything was going to plan, when one morning at 5.30am as I reached over to turn my alarm off, I felt my head begin to spin, my heart was pounding, and I felt violently sick. I threw up to ease the nausea, sipped some water, put on my kit and drove to the rowing club. I managed to complete the training session, but my legs felt like lead and my heart was racing. This was the start of a progressive decline in performance.
One of the most debilitating symptoms I experienced was the need to sleep. I became affectionally known as “The Dormouse” because I slept over 10 hours a night and during the day. When I stood up my heart rate would go through the roof and my blood pressure would drop, I felt constantly dizzy and sick. I caught cold after cold and I felt like I had a pair of golf balls permanently lodged in my throat. Despite these debilitating physiological symptoms, I was more motivated than ever to represent my country.
It took me two years until I was well enough to do a full training session on the water with the rest of the squad. I had various relapses along the way, but none as severe as the first one. By the time I was fit enough to trial for the national team again I was completely burnt out. The sport that I loved more than anything else in the world, became something I despised and not long afterwards I quit (Woodford, 2019).
My current research has embraced some of the methods offered by the creative arts and has empowered my participants to shape its direction. I am excited about how this new approach can further our understanding of this debilitating condition and help us develop strategies to support those athletes with overtraining syndrome.
There’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to psychological research; as much as we often characterise scientific research as being objective and neutral, like many researchers, our own personal experiences often guide us and inform us through our exploration of research areas. I am an immigrant raising my daughter in a different country than her grandparents. I was thrust into a new lifestyle of motherhood 3 years ago and had to re-evaluate my identity, my purpose and how I fit into society. As my maternity leave ended and I came back to the world of academic life, I became involved with Acorns ‘n’ Oaks Playgroups, a new organisation which was organising playgroups in care homes across the Bristol area, as a parent participant, a group leader and the research coordinator. I could immediately see the benefits of activities such as these playgroups to not just the older people and the children, but the parents, grandparents, caregivers, student volunteers and staff as well.
We are currently experiencing a crisis of providing mental health support and reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness in our society, whether it’s for older adults, new mothers, or university students, three groups vulnerable to these issues as they experience life transitions. Intergenerational activities have been proposed as a way to prevent and alleviate some of these issues, providing the connections and relationships that allow for improvements in mental and physical health, changes in ageist attitudes, learning opportunities, and stronger communities.
Why is Research Important?
Key to any programme or intervention is the research; activities should be evidence-based and evaluated. For decades, researchers have been investigating the effects of intergenerational contact on its participants, particularly the physical and mental wellbeing of the older participants and the attitudes and social development of the younger participants, finding overall positive consequences from intergenerational experiences. Constructing a coherent picture of intergenerational benefits has been tricky, however. The nature of evaluating programmes that have not been set up as controlled experimental studies means that research often suffers from issues such as small sample size, lack of control groups or control activities, and variation of participants and structure both within and across studies.
Research on intergenerational contact, however, has also been useful to identify what qualities can make a programme more or less successful. Focussing on programmes that aim to reduce negative attitudes toward ageing and stereotypes of older adults, publications such as a recent report for Age UK by Drury et al. (2018) and a review article by Christian et al. (2014) give a thorough review of intergenerational programmes and research findings to highlight, backed by social psychology theory, recommendations for planning and structuring successful intergenerational activities.
Intergenerational Contact and Research: The Next Steps
Research can be greatly beneficial to any organisation interested in setting up and evaluating an intergenerational activity. Although it’s positive that so many nurseries, care homes, community organisations and councils are interested in developing intergenerational activities, the fact that so many of these projects are initiated from the ‘bottom-up’ means they aren’t able to benefit from a top-down structure or organisation that can provide the evidence for planning, the evaluation tools, the practical guidelines such as risk assessments and data protection and funding opportunities. There are, however, some excellent resources, for example the United for All Ages’ webpage which includes tips for planning parent and toddler groups in care homes, St Monica’s Trust’s guide for intergenerational activity, and the Together Young and Old Programme, which provides a number of resources and training opportunities, a toolkit for training people in intergenerational activities and an online course. The more a network of those interested and working in intergenerational activities and research can be developed, the stronger this area will become. Currently I am part of an interdisciplinary intergenerational research group that has recently been awarded funding from the NIHR to do a systematic review on intergenerational programmes and research. This research group grew out of last year’s Innovation in Care: Stories of Intergenerational Action conference, which was a very informative gathering of those working in the area ranging from one-off and pilot projects to regular activities to co-located facilities.
I am currently working with Acorns ‘n’ Oaks to evaluate their playgroup experiences, looking at some of the motivations and perceived effects of participating in the playgroups from the perspectives of the older adults, those that bring children to the group and the staff involved. Psychology students researching this area for their final year undergraduate dissertation have been key in this data collection. Findings will be presented later this year at the 11thInternational Social Innovation Research Conference in Glasgow. I have also been working with BS3 Community in South Bristol, who have run a number of successful intergenerational programmes, including linking their nursery with a local care home, Tech and Talk and their current pilot Grandparent-Toddler playgroup, which will feature as a case study in Children’s Centre Leader magazine later this year. We also have a fantastic opportunity now with the new ExtraCare Stoke Gifford Retirement Village situated next to UWE Frenchay Campus for intergenerational connections to be made with university students, as well as special projects with the local community. Psychology students have been instrumental in working with the new village to develop and run an intergenerational playgroup, funded by a UWE Community Fund and Quartet, and we’re working with ExtraCare to help keep their intergenerational programmes sustainable with a general plan for intergenerational activities across their facilities.
I’m very interested to grow a local Bristol/Southwest network of those involved in intergenerational activities and help provide resources and workshops to those interested in starting and evaluating programmes. If you’d like more information, please contact me at email@example.com.