Darwin in the workplace; the Society’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship scheme

Darwin in the workplace

S. Craig Roberts and John E. Lycett introduce us to some of the graduates from the MSc in Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Liverpool

As described elsewhere in this issue, a Darwinian approach to psychology aims to understand human behaviour in light of evolutionary theory with its focus on past (and continuing) selection and adaptation. As a conceptual framework, it has proved extremely successful in describing patterns and variation in phenomena as wide-ranging as cooperation within groups, how we choose mates, how and why parents subtly treat their children differently, rules governing marriage and inheritance patterns, economic decision-making, religiosity and cultural change. Few would deny that evolutionary insight is at least a necessary component for a complete understanding of human behaviour, and perhaps unsurprisingly, evolutionary psychology now features in many undergraduate courses.

Understanding how evolution shapes human behaviour is an intriguing intellectual exercise, and furnishes excellent ice-breaking anecdotes at parties, but can these evolutionary insights also be put to good use in the real world? Can they bring a different viewpoint or solution that might otherwise be missed?

We asked Sarah Booth, a recent graduate from our MSc in Evolutionary Psychology, about her experiences beyond academia. Sarah is now a planner with McCann Erickson, a global advertising agency and part of the wider Interpublic Group, which is a major provider of advertising and marketing services.  

How did you come to study evolutionary psychology?
I didn’t initially set out to study evolutionary psychology. Growing up on a farm, my ambition was to study veterinary science. In the end, however, I elected to study zoology and evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool. During my degree, it was the evolutionary psychology elements of the course that most caught my attention, and I began to reconsider my plan to study veterinary medicine. On graduation, and still uncertain about what I wanted to do, I decided to do the MSc. It bought me some decision-making time, but also allowed me to pursue advanced study in the subject I’d found increasingly intriguing during my degree.  

What do you do now?
It’s not easy to explain what a planner in an advertising agency does, mainly because the role is quite diverse. At its simplest, we are the voice of the consumer within the agency. While creative teams develop the messages that consumers eventually see and hear, and management teams manage client relationships and oversee delivery of the project, planners consider the campaign’s effectiveness. We identify what the objectives of a project are, anticipate what success will look like and how it will be measured, and then advise our creative teams to help them develop compelling work that moves us towards those objectives.

So… quite a leap from academic evolutionary psychology?
Yes and no. In essence advertising is about driving attitudinal and behavioural change, whether it’s to increase supermarket sales or to encourage patients to recognise and respond appropriately to illness symptoms. What makes us good at our job is an ability to identify interesting insights that can be used to drive these changes. To do this well, you have to first understand the target audience – who they are, what their motivations are, what things are likely to influence their attitudes which, ultimately, are likely to strongly influence whether or not they do something. Then you need a good understanding of multiple factors that influence decisions consumers make. So my academic background is certainly helpful here – an evolutionary approach to understanding human behaviour brings a different perspective and reveals hidden motivations. This evolutionary viewpoint is not widely appreciated or considered in advertising.

Did your background help you get the job?
I think it did. When I applied for my first work placement position, I found myself competing against many other graduates with advertising degrees and a solid understanding of how the industry works. I hoped my training in evolutionary psychology would be a unique selling point, would make me stand out, and it seemed to work. At interview, I was asked to choose something unpopular and attempt to ‘sell it’ to the panel. I chose to ‘sell’ the controversial and emotive theory that the practice of infanticide could be, in some particularly difficult circumstances and environments, an understandable and rational strategy that some societies might follow. I’m not sure whether I convinced the panel about that specific issue, but I think I persuaded them that an evolutionary perspective might usefully shed a different light on behaviour.

On starting my work placement I was able to put this into practice. I worked on a pitch for a manufacturer of hair straighteners. My input was incorporated into what turned out to be a winning pitch for the company. Briefly, I was able to show that hair functions as a reliable indicator of phenotypic quality and is, therefore, important in mate choice. More than that, we were able to anchor the advertising campaign in the framework of sexual selection – that it isn’t simply about having beautiful hair, but having hair that is more beautiful than other women. On applying for my current post, I used this example to demonstrate that evolutionary psychology offers a fresh perspective when developing a brief, enabling a deeper understanding of what may need to be said or done to drive desirable behaviour within a consumer group.

How does it inform your current work?
We’ve been working on some big projects where evolutionary psychology has really helped shape our thinking. For example, with a local primary care trust, we’ve been working on ways to address the borough’s high rate of teenage pregnancy. Traditionally this issue has been tackled simply by facilitating access to contraception. Of course this is important. But evolutionary psychology research in many societies describes how earlier onset of reproduction is an adaptive strategy when, for example, resources are scarce, paternal assistance is transient or uncertain, and prospects for improvement are low. An informed and holistic approach thus requires us to look at how to improve self-esteem and efficacy alongside contraceptive options.  

What do your colleagues think of your approach?
Some of my colleagues do joke that I am a bit of a geek, but that’s OK because geeks are cool these days! I think the combination of my logical approach and the application of my slightly unfamiliar scientific background has helped me gain their respect. Although evolutionary psychology hasn’t always provided the ‘silver bullet’, it’s often helped me to think more innovatively about problems I tackle day-to-day. Geek or not, my colleagues value the input – at least, they appear to! t’s perhaps unsurprising that Sarah brings evolutionary psychology with her to work each day. After all, having studied it for four years and earned two degrees along the way, it would be disappointing if she didn’t. But is she alone in using her specialist knowledge to inform her non-academic work? We asked four other recent graduates, each in roles not normally associated with evolutionary psychology, to describe if, and how, they use it in their jobs.

Harry Sharman works for the Adelphi Group, who provide marketing insights to the healthcare sector, including market research and communications.
‘My current position asked for applicants with either a biology or psychology background’, he said. ‘They were delighted I could say I had a background in both. Most applicants have a biology background and understand how diseases and drugs work. My biological training meant I can pick up these concepts easily, but through the psychology element I can also draw usefully on theory about behaviour, why males and females might respond differently for example, and to get to grips with important individual differences.’
Part of Harry’s role involves devising materials for evaluating patient motivation and behaviour, such as when encouraging adherence to prescribed medication. His background recently enabled him to contribute to an innovative project aimed at improving understanding of schizophrenic patients, who, on average, have more limited vocabulary and attention span. Having focused on schizotypal traits for his MSc dissertation, Harry knew that evolutionary explanations for the paradoxically high prevalence of the disorder include benefits, such as non-verbal creativity, that might offset its costs. He was instrumental in developing new methodology for interviewing these patients which allowed them to express feelings non-verbally, maintained their engagement, and outperformed previously used questionnaires.

Lisa Train is a trainee clinical psychologist at Bangor University, employed by Betsi Cadwaldr University Health Board. She says ‘I have found myself particularly influenced by compassionate focused therapy, as this draws on evolutionary and attachment theory. I use elements of an evolutionary framework to supplement my understanding of problems such as anxiety, depression and shame. I feel that adding this element to discussions, formulation and psycho-education helps to provide a richer understanding of emotional experience.’ Lisa is also currently planning a research project in psychosis, in which, like Harry, she expects to draw  on evolutionary benefits that may be instrumental in maintaining variability in schizotypal traits.

Gideon Gluckman is a lead software tester with EMB, the UK’s largest independent non-life actuarial and business consultancy. Although his day-to-day work is far removed from academic evolutionary psychology, he profitably incorporates elements of his MSc training into his job. For example, his proposals for user-friendly interfaces and graphical designs are positively influenced by knowledge of research in psychological attention mechanisms and visual perception. In the future, he aims to develop ideas from his dissertation research using agent-based models of structured populations to generate biomimetic improvements in software computational efficiency.

Similarly, Kyrre Wathne, managing director of the Norwegian company Kalibera, believes that evolutionary psychology provides a useful scientific framework for thinking about internet-oriented software development, particularly social media projects. In his view, to successfully deliver these types of services one has to consider individual motivations and understand rules that govern social interactions, both of which are core concerns of evolutionary psychology. More technically, evolutionary algorithms are a tool with which Kyrre became familiar while modelling the evolution of mate-guarding tactics in his MSc dissertation. Underpinned as the algorithms are by the logic of natural selection, he currently uses them to solve complex computer science problems, such as optimising  a design when there are otherwise too many possibilities to choose between.

We are encouraged by the ease and success with which these graduates of the MSc (see have applied their training in a meaningful way outside academia: Darwin’s influence does indeed appear to be more pervasive, and tangible, than we may have imagined. We look forward with interest to see other ways in which evolutionary psychology can be put to good use in the workplace.

Featured job

Job Title: Health Psychology Fellow in Oncology (Full-time or Part-time)
Employer: University of Liverpool, and Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust

‘It’s good to get a chance to explain an unusual and fascinating job in more detail,’ said Peter Salmon, Professor in the Division of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool.
‘The basis of this is that Liverpool hosts one of three specialist units which treat cancers of the eye in the UK, drawing patients from all over the country. Patients can be diagnosed and, if they have cancer, treated and discharged home, all within a day or two.
‘Psychology’s well-established role in oncology has focused on the recovery period. This allows longer time scales and the chance for one-to-one working. At the Unit we have a very narrow time window, at exactly the moment when people’s lives are being turned upside down. First, we need to respond to their support needs at the time. But we also need to evaluate the risk of poor psychological adjustment later on, look at preventative techniques and see what support structures are in place at home. We can provide some telephone support but then we need to liaise with the patient’s local psychological  services.’
The genuinely dual nature of the role – involving both applied work with patients and research – is what makes it such an unusual mix. ‘There are few psychologist’s jobs based in such a high-pressure surgical environment, and the person must be able to cope with that environment, as well as have experience of working with patients as part of  a multidisciplinary team. Psychology is an accepted and valued discipline in the unit – the lead surgeon is intent on excellence and sees psychology as part of this.’
Peter says that the person ‘must have a compelling vision about what health psychology can offer here, and be able to communicate this to colleagues. The Unit has a great “can do” attitude but this sometimes leads to over-optimism about what psychology can achieve – so this person will need to be able to be positive and realistic at the same time.’
The person must have high-level research skills, as ‘research is part of the unit’s culture. At the moment we’re basing interventions on health psychological theory. But we need to find out more about what we can do in the short time window we have, how we can best identify the people who will have problems later on and how we can help them.’ Summing up, Peter says: ‘This is a role where practice and research genuinely go hand-in-hand – where what you do day-by-day in a surgical context influences what you’ll be researching, and where outcomes of your research will lead to new and more successful practical interventions.’

Diving into the thick of things

Louise Acker on her experiences of the Society’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship scheme

It is extremely rare, as an undergraduate student, to have the opportunity to get involved with the design, running and analysis of a psychological study; to feel part of a network of motivated and inspiring individuals, and to learn so much about a specific field. Thanks to the British Psychological Society studentship (see p.969), which allows supervisors who are actively engaged in research to appoint an undergraduate student as a research assistant for six to eight weeks, I not only discovered that the studies I’ve read about as part of my degree course had been run by real live people, but was able to dive into the thick of things myself.
I spent my summer placement at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford where Dr Emily Holmes is the Principal Investigator of the Experimental Psychopathology and Cognitive Therapy (EPACT) team. I was very excited when the studentship scheme became a possibility as it would provide an opportunity for me to become involved in a project of my own.
It was during my second year at Bath University that I started to get interested in cognition and neuroscience, and was particularly taken with the sort of questions raised in my cognitive psychology lectures: How do we think? How do we learn? I was fascinated as we started to look at the underlying mechanisms of memory and the implications these have in terms of processing and remembering information.
I started work with EPACT in the summer of 2008, and quickly discovered that the team is a flurry of buzzing, driven activity. My project was designed by Emily and Dr Catherine Deeprose: they worked through this with me and very quickly I was up-and-running, enthused by the interesting talks and opportunities that were now available to me. Thanks to such opportunities I have acquired some skills that wouldn’t have been possible solely within my degree course: for example, how to adapt to the role of a researcher in experimental psychopathology, to recruit participants through advertising campaigns and university fairs; to manage my time and take responsibility for my own project, and to work in a clinical environment with clinical psychologists, experimental psychologists and psychiatrists.  These are all tremendously useful skills that I hope will stand me in good stead for a future career in psychology.
My project used the well-established Trauma Film Paradigm (Holmes & Bourne, 2008) to investigate the effects of completing visuospatial cognitive tasks (a tapping box and counting task) half an hour after a traumatic film on the frequency of spontaneous, intrusive memories (intrusions). As predicted, we found that participants in the visuospatial condition reported significantly fewer intrusions over one week compared to the control group and verbal group. These data are in line with previous studies (e.g. Holmes et al., 2004) which had shown that undertaking visuospatial tasks during a traumatic film can reduce the frequency of subsequent intrusions. This was also an exciting replication of a recent study published by the EPACT team, using the computer game Tetris as a visuospatial task 30 minutes post-film (Holmes et al., 2009). Together, these studies are particularly interesting because they demonstrate that pathological, intrusive memories may be malleable at least up to 30 minutes post-traumatic event, using verbal and visuospatial cognitive tasks, which has clear clinical implications.
One of my particular highlights of the scholarship scheme was the chance to present a poster at the BPS Annual Conference, funded by EPACT. This was my first attendance at a national psychology conference, and I was extremely curious; I had butterflies in my stomach when I set out on the train to Brighton in April! I was keen to present my work and delighted when several of the delegates showed a real interest in my poster (Acker et al., 2009). Following our discussions, I was able to get in touch with several other researchers in various fields and find out more about their work, which was an invaluable opportunity to develop my knowledge about scientific research.
The benefits of this BPS studentship are not limited to the concrete opportunities that it affords or the skills that you develop: it provides an entirely new learning experience. I am now much more conscious of the options for further study, such as master’s degree programmes and how to embark on a clinically relevant PhD. Being around students as well as experienced postdoctoral researchers and professors has been eye-opening, and they have all been extremely generous with their time. Through discussions with those around me I have learned more about myself and the importance of finding out what you are best suited to as a unique individual.
On the basis of my experiences, I’d definitely recommend the scheme as a way of getting a real flavour of the working world of psychological research. It is invaluable not just for the opportunities it opens up, but also as motivation for further study and as a learning experience in itself. It also provides an occasion to collect real, useful data that could have a valuable impact in your chosen field. I’m so grateful for this scholarship as a stepping stone in my future career. I don’t know exactly where I will end up, but I am excited by the wealth of options presented by psychology, and I’m going to work hard to become an important part of it.
The supervisor view
Dr Emily Holmes says: ‘It’s been great having Louise in the team. She has taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to her. We hope the scheme has provided an insight into the world of academic clinical research. I believe the BPS scheme provides a really valuable opportunity to invest in the development of our researchers of tomorrow.’
Dr Catherine Deeprose comments: ‘The BPS scheme provides a fantastic opportunity to encourage and develop students interested in a career in research. We were delighted to receive this prestigious award and thank the BPS for their support and Louise for her enthusiasm and dedication.’

I    Further information on Dr Emily Holmes and the EPACT team, as well as many of the team’s publications, can be found at

Acker, L., Bossward, H., Deeprose, C.
& Holmes, E.A. (2009). Viewing distressing films which produce flashbacks: Can post-film cognitive tasks help? Poster presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference, Brighton, 1–3 April 2009.
Holmes, E.A. & Bourne, C. (2008). Inducing and modulating intrusive emotional memories: A review of the trauma film paradigm. Acta Psychologica, 127(3), 553–566.
Holmes, E.A., Brewin, C.R. & Hennessy, R.G. (2004). Trauma films, information processing, and intrusive memory development. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133(1), 3–22.
Holmes, E.A., James, E.L., Coode-Bate, T. & Deeprose, C. (2009). Can playing the computer game 'Tetris' reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? PLoS ONE, 4(1), e4153 doi:4110.1371/journal.pone.0004153.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber