More from the Annual Conference

A round-up of reports from the July edition.

One duty of university educators is to prepare our students for life after university. Jens Binder, Thom Baguley and Fliss Miller (all Nottingham Trent University) evaluated the impact of student placements, often seen as a crucial way in which universities support employability. The study included over 15,000 students from across 186 degree courses at the university. In multilevel analysis, a placement was associated with an increased probability of gaining a higher final degree classification (2:1 or above) and a decreased probability of a lower classification (2:2 or below). Completing a placement appeared to enhance final degree mark by 3.4 marks on average. Overall the benefit was surprisingly stable, with the effect remaining even when controlling for gender, ethnicity and whether the placement was optional.

Fay Short outlined an innovative approach used at the University of Bangor to provide students with a very different form of real-world education, in a symposium convened by the Division of Academics, Researchers and Teachers in Psychology on teaching sensitive topics. Short reflected that historical atrocities, such as the Holocaust and other genocides, felt remote when taught in social psychology lectures to students who often had no personal connection to such events. To overcome the challenge of bringing the world to their students, they have begun taking their students to the world.

The first field trip organised was to Auschwitz, with the aim of enabling students to deepen their understanding through experiential learning. The visit was optional, and Short stressed the importance of providing students with opportunities to prepare for the experience in advance and reflect on it afterwards. There was a delicate balance between supporting and empowering students through an emotionally intense experience. Upon their return the students were able to share their experience with peers who had been unable to go, widening the impact of the trip. An unexpected benefit was the strength of peer relationships formed amongst the students, who have themselves organised a repeat visit.

- Alana James

What makes you happy? Happiness research is a growing and important field for psychologists, so it is timely to consider what exactly happiness is, and how we should measure it. Cordelia Sutton from the Open University argues that much research so far has sought out the meaning of happiness from a quantitative perspective, and that this might be too narrow for such a complex concept. Specifically, Sutton is concerned with adolescence, because prior research has tended to focus on adults, and her research was conducted to try to understand what meanings were attached to the notion of happiness in 13- to 15-year-olds using qualitative techniques. Participants were asked to draw a ‘happiness map’, with themselves at the centre. Then they were asked to draw things that were most important to their happiness near to the centre, and moving outwards to draw other less important things on the outer circles of the map.

To illustrate Sutton’s argument for the need to conduct qualitative research in this area, these maps, drawn by 40 participants, revealed 672 different items that were important for the participants’ happiness; and over a third were mentioned by just one person. The most common items were family, friends, music, pets and food. Interestingly, food was one of a number of items that made the participants unhappy as well as happy, for example if it was unhealthy, or if you ate too much of a favourite item. When reflecting on happiness, the participants also considered the flipside, showing how the status of happiness changes across time during adolescence. While this was a small study using a novel method, the sheer breadth of items discussed during the interviews shows the complexity of happiness, and how it is described by young people. Sutton plans to follow up these discussions with focus groups, and use her findings to contribute to better methods for happiness research.

- Emma Davies

The fashion industry and media tend to portray older women in either a negative or unrealistic light, with evidence suggesting that exposure to the media ideal of how a woman should look is associated with body dissatisfaction. Carolyn Mair and Soljana Cili of the London College of Fashion sought to explore the impact of these images and the views of women aged 40–89 on this important topic. Almost half of their survey participants reported being annoyed with how women their age were presented in advertisements, and nearly 40 per cent reported that this made them feel bad about their appearance. The researchers point to a need for marketers to step away from airbrushed models and represent a wider range of women, if they want to continue to attract consumers.

- Emma Davies

Academic doping Doping usually refers to substance use to enhance performance, but academic doping may instead be connected to hiding poor performance. Lambros Lazuras (Sheffield Hallam University) and colleagues conducted a social-cognitive study of use of neuroenhancement substances (NES) amongst 348 undergraduates. Use was predicted by positive attitudes and subjective norms towards NES, and by mastery avoidance goals. Rather than trying to achieve superior academic performance, students appear to use NES to overcome learning deficits.

- Alana James

Survivors of a traumatic event may in time experience psychological adjustment, a coping process where they readjust. There is debate as to whether survivors can also undergo post-traumatic growth, a transformative process of positive psychological change as a result of dealing with highly challenging circumstances. Laura Blackie, Stephen Joseph and Nicki Hitchcott (University of Nottingham) analysed testimonies of 22 survivors of the Rwandan genocide, written 10 to 17 years after the event. The themes of acceptance, hope and feeling a responsibility to live were considered to reflect psychological adjustment. Themes of wisdom and forgiveness, however, appeared linked to post-traumatic growth, as they involved going beyond managing one’s pain and distress.

Another study indicated that the impact of traumatic events can extend beyond those immediately affected. Menachem Ben-Ezra (Ariel University) conducted a nationally representative survey of 1982 French citizens four weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Nearly 12 per cent fitted symptoms of PTSD, compared with a historical prevalence of 4.9 per cent in France. Substantial proportions reported heightened mortality salience and lowered sense of personal safety, and that the attack had caused a shift in their political views.

The impact of indirect trauma exposure is also felt by professionals who support survivors. Sarbjit Johal and Zoe Mounsey (Massey University/GNS Science) interviewed 25 mental health professionals who supported citizens in Canterbury, New Zealand following the series of earthquakes between 2010 and 2012. Over the two-year period there were 57 earthquakes above 5.0 magnitude, meaning recurrent fear of injury or loss of life and protracted stress of repeated insurance valuations. Professionals faced a dual exposure: as residents, they were themselves personally affected by the same issues as their clients. Thematic analysis identified challenges including ongoing higher workload, and compassion fatigue and burnout. The shared experience could be positive for clients, but led to blurred boundaries and repeated rehashing of personal trauma for practitioners.

Johal also reflected upon researchers’ vicarious exposure to trauma, which can be prolonged and overlooked. Measures adopted in their study to reduce the negative impact included spacing interviews, increasing supervision, and planned withdrawal from the research. It is important that the impact of trauma on direct and indirect survivors is understood, and that the support needs of both mental health professionals and researchers are safeguarded.

- Alana James

What happens to our linguistic skills as we get older? Neurolinguist Professor Loraine Obler (CUNY Graduate Center), started her talk with one piece of good news: some abilities will be retained with age. Vocabulary in particular, she said, improves throughout life. However, the main crux of her humorous talk explored those things, linguistically speaking, we can all expect to struggle with in older age – some aspects of language even start to decline scarily early in life.

Naming ability, which doesn’t just include nouns but the whole lexicon, seems to begin its decline at around the age of just 50. In one of her studies Obler asked people to name actions or objects when presented with pictures. Although people are better at naming actions, naming of nouns and verbs seems to start to decline at the same time, and at about the same rate.

Obler has also assessed whether health can play any role in the decline of language with age. A group of 174 participants aged between 55 and 90, half of whom had hypertension, were tested on action and noun-naming. Hypertension is linked to mini-strokes, Obler pointed out, which can affect brain regions associated with naming. Indeed she saw this group were less accurate in their naming by about 1.3 per cent – a significant effect in action naming and near-significant in noun naming.

In another study participants were asked to repeat the final word of a sentence – some predictable, some not – with differing amounts of noise overlaid. Groups were controlled for their hearing using pure tone averages and speech discrimination scores. When the last word was predictable and noise levels were low those in their seventies performed as well as those in their thirties – but, Obler said, in every other condition you see a linear decline in performance with age.

In another complex sentence comprehension test, where participants indicate the truth of a sentence that may include double or triple negatives – for example ‘Because the ceiling light is not off the room is dark’ – there is a decline in accuracy that is also linked with age. Comprehension of complex syntax is worse under stressed conditions, including with overlaid noise or unpredictable content.

- Ella Rhodes

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