‘You build in, rather than tack on, change’

Ian Florance meets Helen Keyes.

When Ian Florance interviewed Helen Keyes, a cognitive psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), the initial Covid lockdown measures were easing. The ‘new normal’ had surfaced a number of questions. Will car travel reduce? Will bike use continue to increase? How can we make cycling (and at times walking) safer? Helen is working on some of these issues and has views on how change can happen.

Helen Keyes has, she tells me, ‘always felt like a traffic psychologist at heart… my Dad and my brother are both civil engineers. I started to use the experimental methods I had developed in my face perception research to think about how I could make a difference in the wider community. I grew more interested in social issues and my work moved from purely studying how the brain works to the social implications of this.’

Helen started thinking about questions like: How can we make people better drivers? How can we alert people more effectively to what is going on around them when they are driving? How can we make cycling safer, and how can we allay fears that are preventing people from cycling? ‘Some of this comes down to ergonomics,’ she tells me. ‘I believe this is key in driving behaviour change on a societal level.’ Can you give me an example? ‘What’s the most effective way to give driving instructions on GPS? We have used experimental methods to find the best timing for providing instructions – right down to the millisecond – in order to help drivers to respond to the road environment quickly and accurately.’

‘On a more societal level, I am currently looking at whether cyclists make better drivers – this would be a really good reason to increase uptake of cycling with road safety benefits all around. Obviously, there are infrastructural barriers to people taking up cycling – a lack of dedicated cycle lanes separate from car lanes, for example – but we also need to better understand what the internal barriers are to more people taking it up.’

In other people’s shoes
But we’ve sped ahead here… let’s go back to the beginning of Helen’s journey. ‘As a teenager, I was always interested in gaining a better insight into human behaviour. I spent a lot of time reading novels, because I enjoyed putting myself in other people’s shoes and getting an understanding of their thought processes and behaviours. There was no option to study psychology at secondary school in Ireland, but I particularly loved science and maths, and my interest in these subjects would prove extremely useful in studying the mind and behaviour.’

Helen did a degree in psychology at University College Dublin, minoring in mathematical studies and politics, ‘which suited my interests’, followed by a PhD in Cognitive Psychology looking at how the brain processes familiar faces. She is now an Associate Professor in Psychology at ARU, where she enjoys teaching about visual perception as well as statistics. ‘My mother was a teacher, and she has had a strong influence on my own teaching style. Teaching statistics is one of the real joys of my job. It is a true pleasure to teach students who might initially be intimidated by maths, and see them develop to the point where they are excited to see how they can use statistics to help to make changes in their workplaces and in the wider world.’

Helen tells me that when she came to ARU a decade ago, it was immediately obvious she would like the culture. ‘It is centred around providing opportunities – both for students and staff. It was really important to me that the university encourages student participation from a wider group than might traditionally come to higher education. In my ten years here, I have seen so many students flourish.’

Practical projects
Helen’s research interests have changed in this environment. ‘I started thinking about issues like how we can encourage cycling in the population. This led to looking at some barriers to cycling, as well as ways to improve cyclist safety and increase the uptake of cycling. For example, consider driver aggression towards cyclists – there can be tension between road users when drivers and cyclists have different understandings of road safety rules. So, we are carrying out research looking at whether drivers have a good understanding of where cyclists should correctly position themselves on the road (e.g. ‘taking the lane’ in some situations), as well as closely examining situations that have lead to driver aggression towards cyclists. We then hope to tackle this in a targeted way, focusing on driver education interventions.’

Helen is working with two local authorities on very practical issues. ‘For Cambridgeshire, we’ve looked at how to make drivers more aware of motorcyclists, and in Essex, we’re looking at how cycling proficiency training in schools can affect cycling uptake for children and their families. In this community-driven project, we are asking parents what would make them more likely to encourage their children to cycle to school.’

Let’s talk about science
Helen is very committed to publicising and applying her ideas. ‘It’s our job to step up and be excellent science communicators. There is no point in complaining about poor media reporting and public understanding if we don’t do that. That is why I’m involved with the Naked Neuroscientist podcast. Each month we take a neuroscience paper and discuss it in a – hopefully – entertaining way. And I am also a founding member and Chair of the British Psychological Society’s East of England branch. We are really passionate about making science exciting, so we run Psychology in the Pub sessions and Psyfilm – where we discuss a film from a psychological viewpoint. Last Christmas we discussed It’s a Wonderful Life from a positive psychology perspective. The communication is two-way; we learn a lot from the very different questions people ask.’

Helen’s recent work has led her to think about the best ways to effect change within her own institution. She is Deputy Head of the School of Psychology and Sport Science as well as founder of the Ambitious Women’s Group in Psychology at ARU. ‘If you want to bring about change you have to do it through small everyday events. In institutions, tacked-on changes won’t work. It is similar to how buying a gym membership might not lead to better fitness – because you might not go – but designing your daily commute around walking or cycling will. Within higher education, this means embedding change within the curriculum. You build in, rather than tack on, change.’

She gives me the example of employability. ‘In all of our psychology modules, assignments have a reflection on how that work has made the student more employable. This has a big effect on students’ self-esteem, how they see themselves and how they talk about themselves. We can begin to do that with other areas like well-being. Small changes – when embedded properly – can have a real and positive impact within HE and within the wider community.’

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