Psychology Research's blog posts for 2013

Why do crowds of vigilantes kill innocent people?



My answer is power.

Dr John Drury explains why ‘mob mentality’ occurs.

I was recently asked by journalists to explain why ‘mob mentality’ occurs. They were referring to the recent tragic killing of an innocent man by neighbours who accused him of being a paedophile . Though I don't know all the details of the case, I was able to comment on a parallel example I had investigated, the ‘anti-paedophile’ crowd events that took place in Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, in the Summer of 2000. What I found in that case was a series of contrasts in terms of psychological process between the dominant representation of the behaviour of the crowd and what actually happened. The dominant representation was one of mindlessness, stupidity and irrational brutality brought about simply by people being part of a crowd. The only alternative to this in the mainstream media was a version which attributed the brutality to the (working class) culture of the individuals making up the crowd – they were already uncivilized barbarians.
As part of the evidence for the supposed stupidity of the crowd, the media cited the fact that the local residents in Paulsgrove ignored information from police telling them that the people they were persecuting were not actually paedophiles. In actual fact, however, these locals ignored this police information not out of stupidity or mindlessness at all but because they simply didn't trust the police. They believed, on the basis of past experiences, that the police sided with paedophiles and others and against ‘the local community’. Where there was trust was within ‘the local community’. So when one local resident seen as prototypical, or standing for ‘the community’, said she had a list of ‘known paedophiles’ they trusted her account over that of the police.
But then, I was asked, why would people go to such extremes? Driving people out of their homes, even killing them – that isn't something perhaps that these individuals would not have done alone. What is it about crowds?
My answer is power. While the lone individual may have a set of beliefs according to which paedophiles are at large in ‘the community’, are dangerous and need to be banished or killed, it is often only in the crowd that they can put these beliefs into practice. When people are with those they trust – others who feel the same way as them and who they believe will back them up when they act – then they can instantiate their values. Shared identity empowers.
Finally I was asked about the beliefs themselves. Aren’t these unreasonable, even wicked? Well, I agree. The ideas that paedophilia is widespread, is primarily located in the ‘other’, is particularly associated with those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ in some way, the denial of the family’s role in child abuse, and the use of summary justice without hearing the accused’s defence – these are all deeply ideological. But that ideology is not a matter of crowd psychology and is not specific to collectives. It is a set of beliefs also held by many lone individuals. And in 2000, it was a very prominent individual, not a crowd, who promoted and legitimized these attacks on supposed paedophiles through a concerted media campaign. That prominent individual was the then editor of the News of the World, Rebecca Brooks, who is on trial today for phone-hacking.

What can deer tell us about the evolutionary origins of our voice?



We all know that, overall, men’s voices are lower-pitched than women’s, and most of the time we are able to recognise someone’s gender simply from listening to them, for example over the telephone. But why?

Dr David Reby, Senior Lecturer in Psychology explains the evolution of the human voice through his study of deer.

In order to understand the basis of this difference, it is necessary to look at how the human voice is produced. According to the source-filter theory of voice production, we generate our voice in two stages. The first stage takes place inside the larynx (our “voice box”), where the vibrations of the vocal folds creates a sound wave characterised by its “fundamental frequency”. Men have lower pitched voices because they have much longer vocal folds that vibrate at a lower frequency.

Then, in the second stage, this source soundwave is filtered in the speaker’s vocal tract, whose resonance properties affect the timbre of the voice. In fact, changing the shape of our vocal tract to modulate its resonances enables us to produce different vowels when we articulate the sounds of speech.

But here too, because men have longer vocal tracts than women, their voice is characterised by lower resonances, giving them a more “baritone”, “deeper” quality, which is a key dimension of the gender of men’s voices.

Interestingly, men’s vocal tracts are on average 20% longer than women’s, giving them deeper voices than expected from the relatively small differences in body size between the two sexes. This suggests that over evolutionary time these differences may have been accentuated as a result of sexual selection. How can we investigate this hypothesis?

This is where deer can help us. Indeed, because their sexual calls are extraordinarily diverse, ranging from almost infrasonic low-pitched groans to extremely high-pitched bugles, deer provide an ideal model for understanding the evolution of mammal vocal signals.

For example, like human males, Scottish red deer stags have a longer vocal tract than females, and are even capable of extending it further when they roar (the arrows on the illustration point at the stag’s larynx or Adam’s apple). 

Deer larynx

deer 2

This enables them to produce extremely low resonances, making them sound much bigger than they actually are. Experimental research suggests that sexual selection may have favoured males that were capable of extending their vocal tract to sound more attractive to females and more threatening to rival males.

These observations are interesting because they may provide an explanation for why human males have a longer vocal tract, and therefore deeper voices than women. And indeed, recent work has shown that in humans men tend to rate deeper male voices as more physically and socially dominant. This suggests that in our species too, size exaggeration in the context of male competition may be at the origin of voice differences between males and females.

Finally, this size exaggeration hypothesis may also help in understanding why, unlike most mammals, deer and humans have a descended larynx, an adaptation that may ultimately have facilitated the evolution of human speech in our species. 

Find out more about David Reby’s work

David will talk about red roaring deer on the BBC’s The One Show on 29th October

Watch The One Show:

'Easy for the eye’: Why we have favourite colours



People like some colours more than others. This can influence our behaviour in important ways in guiding how we dress, shop and decorate. We don’t yet fully understand why some colours are more or less preferred, but it appears that preference can be influenced by the way colour is processed by the brain.

Lewis Forder, a current PhD student and winner of this year’s PhD poster competition, clearly explains why have colour preferences.

Colour spectrum

Colour is important. Indeed, which colours people like and why has been investigated for decades. People’s preference for certain colours has been stated to be stable in that they don’t change over time and that there exist predictable patterns of preference across the colour spectrum. On average, blues and greens emerge as favourites whilst darker yellows and desaturated violets are less preferred. The question is why.

The frequency with which particular colours are encountered varies across the world. It’s been suggested that preference is consequently driven by one’s environment and culture. Another idea is that colour preference comes down to how much we like or dislike objects that are associated with that colour. For example, on the one hand sky-blue and forest-green are highly preferred whilst on the other sick-yellow is not. 

In our investigations, we found that the fluency of processing a colour can play a role in our preference for that colour. By using a simple detection task to probe how long people take to see different colours, we then measured how much people liked the colours afterwards. For those seen quicker than average, people’s preference was elevated relative to the other colours.

It seems preference for some colours can be malleable rather than stable: People like a colour more when it can be processed more easily. It’s well known within cognitive science that people tend to show greater preference for things that are easier to process. What we show here is that the ‘cognitive fluency’ hypothesis is also applicable in determining how much we like particular colours. What’s the implication of this? When a colour is easy for the eye, you’ll tend to like it.

When integration can be a two-edged sword for children



A longitudinal study into acculturation reveals that minority group children who have an ‘integrationist’ approach to acculturation show the greatest increases in peer acceptance and self-esteem, yet may still experience some mild negative emotional outcomes as well.

Professor Rupert Brown, an expert in intergroup relations, provides an overview of his research and recent paper on the subject of acculturation.

According to UN figures, over 200 million people now live in a country other than the country that they were born in. Here in the UK, around 8% of the population (4.6 million people) consider themselves to belong to an ethnic minority group, according to Office for National Statistics data. A key question for social psychologists is to understand how people manage to live, if not in harmony, at least without conflict, in countries like the UK that consist of many different ethnic groups. It is obvious that some mutual accommodation between groups is required, and this is referred to in social psychology as ‘acculturation’.

A dominant acculturation perspective is that of Canadian psychologist John Berry. He suggests that there are two important acculturation challenges facing members of both minority groups: how far do they wish to (or are permitted to) retain aspects of their heritage culture? This is known technically as the desire for Culture Maintenance (CM). The other challenge is how much contact and engagement do they wish to (or are allowed to) have with the dominant majority culture? This is called desire for intergroup Contact (DC). It is possible for people to score high or low on each of these dimensions independently and, consequently, individuals can fall into one of four categories:


High CM

Low CM

High DC



Low DC



Berry suggested that individuals in the ‘integration’ group – ‘integrationists’ – who are high on both CM and DC will generally have the highest levels of well-being, although this may also depend on the attitude of the majority culture. Forty years of research have produced findings largely consistent with this, but there are several contrary findings in the literature as well. Another gap has been that most acculturation research has been cross-sectional in nature, usually a single snap-shot of associations between acculturation preferences and well-being. Such research makes it difficult to draw conclusions about what is causing what. To understand that better, one needs to do longitudinal research in one tracks the outcomes of people with particular acculturation preferences over time.

In this study, we addressed some of these deficiencies. We interviewed 215 South Asian children in Britain (aged between 5 and 11 years) at three time points over a year. Using specially designed child-friendly measures, we ascertained their acculturation preferences and also took various well-being measures like peer acceptance and social self-esteem. In addition, we asked teachers to rate each child for how much they displayed negative emotional symptoms (e.g., “many fears”, “easily scared”).

The key results were these:

  1. A clear majority (77%) of all children had an ‘integration’ attitude, but this was especially true for older children (8 – 11 years; 86%). A ‘separation’ attitude was endorsed by only a minority of children (11%), and was a bit more likely among younger children (5 – 7 years). The ‘integrationist’ attitude became stronger over time.
  2. Children who started out with an ‘integrationist’ attitude showed the greatest increases in peer acceptance and self-esteem over time. By the end of the study, they were clearly outscoring all other children on these two measures, showing the clear benefits of an ‘integrationist’ outlook. This was evidence in support of Berry’s supposition.
  3. However, an ‘integrationist’ approach did not wholly protect children against negative outcomes. We found that those children with an integration strategy at the first time point had more emotional symptoms at a later time point. This might have been because children adopting an integration strategy would have been more likely to seek out majority peers to play with, and hence potentially exposed themselves to more situations in which name calling and social rejection could occur.

In conclusion, the majority of the ethnic minority children in our study favoured an ‘integrationist’ orientation, suggesting that they felt comfortable engaging with the majority culture whilst simultaneously maintaining their own cultural heritage. The psychosocial effects of doing so are both positive and negative. Thus, the challenge for parents, teachers and community leaders alike will be to find ways of promoting the former outcomes and overcoming the latter.

This work has just been published online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:

Brown, R., Baysu, G., Cameron, L.,  Nigbur, D., Rutland, A., Watters, C., Hossain,R.,      LeTouze, D. & Landau, A. (2013) Acculturation Attitudes and Social Adjustment in British South Asian Children: A Longitudinal Study. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi:10.1177/0146167213500149 (

For a broader discussion of acculturation research, see:

Brown, R. & Zagefka, H. (2011) The dynamics of acculturation: an intergroup perspective. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 129-184.



Communication is the key to managing incidents that involve mass decontamination.



Research into public behaviour during incidents that involve mass decontamination provides long-overdue evidence that consideration of psychosocial factors is essential for the successful management of such incidents. Failure to consider such factors could delay the decontamination process, which could cost lives.

Doctoral student Holly Carter discusses the research that she is conducting for her PhD, supervised by Dr John Drury who is an expert in crowd behaviour.

My research aims to understand how members of the public are likely to behave during incidents involving decontamination, and how social psychological theories can aid this understanding. Decontamination is an intervention used by the emergency services in the event of a CBRN incident (one involving the release of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agent). It involves anyone who has potentially been contaminated being asked to remove their clothes and undergo a shower, to remove any potential contaminant from their skin.

As part of the research project, I conducted a review of small-scale incidents involving decontamination. This revealed that communication from emergency responders to members of the public was essential for the smooth-running of the decontamination process; failure to communicate effectively resulted in public non-compliance and anxiety. Non-compliance during an incident involving mass decontamination could have extremely serious consequences; it may result in increased spread of any contaminant (Edwards et al., 2006), and therefore increased numbers of dead and injured.

Yet, decontamination guidance documents for responders do not contain any guidance on communicating with members of the public! Furthermore, emergency responders do not receive any training on how to communicate with members of the public. Instead, a ‘control’ management strategy is often emphasised, based on the idea that members of the public will necessarily ‘panic’, and behave in a ‘disorderly’ way. Many policy makers and emergency responders share the view that: “Scenes of mass contamination are often scenes of collective hysteria, with hundreds of thousands of victims in a state of panic. Therefore, mass decontamination may require police, security, or rescue supervision to help control panic and keep order.” (Wikipedia, 2013).

I applied the social identity approach to develop recommendations for the management of mass decontamination. This approach  highlights that crowd events are typically intergroup encounters, in which the actions of one group can impact on the experiences and behaviour of another group.

My recommendations are the result of a variety of studies including: large scale mass decontamination field exercises; a visualisation experiment; and a mass decontamination field experiment. During the mass decontamination field experiment participants went through the decontamination process, as they would during a real incident.. During the experiment, participants received one of three responder communication strategies: “good” (health-focused information about decontamination, updates about actions responders were taking, sufficient practical information); “standard practice” (no health-focused information, no updates about actions responders were taking, sufficient practical information); and “poor” (no health-focused information, no updates about actions responders were taking, very basic practical information). The decontamination process progressed most efficiently in the good communication condition, and non-compliance and confusion were observed least often in this condition.

The field exercise, visualisation experiment, and field experiment showed that effective communication by emergency response personnel increased public compliance and cooperative behaviour, and that the relationship between effective communication and public compliance and cooperative behaviour could be explained by relevant social identity variables (e.g. perceptions of responder legitimacy, identification with both emergency responders and other members of the public, and collective agency).

Overall, this programme of research provides evidence that a consideration of psychosocial factors is essential for the successful management of incidents involving mass decontamination; failure to consider such factors could delay the decontamination process, which could cost lives.

We suggest four specific recommendations for managing incidents involving decontamination:

1) emergency responders should communicate openly with members of the public about actions they are taking;

2) emergency responders should communicate in a health-focused way about decontamination;

3) emergency responders should provide members of the public with sufficient practical information; and

4) emergency responders should respect public concerns about privacy.

Our findings underline the importance of training for emergency responders on ‘soft skills’ (such as communication, and the need to respect public needs for privacy); this has been neglected until now in favour of technical solutions, and hence technical preparation and training.



Carbon Foodprint



Most people are now familiar with the need to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but what about their carbon foodprint? With one third of all food produced for human consumption lost or wasted - that’s about one billion tonnes every year - food waste is steadily gathering political momentum. The theme of this year’s United Nations World Environment Day (5th June) is dedicated to food waste, with a new campaign, called “Think. Eat. Save - Reduce your foodprint”, at its centre.

Ella Graham-Rowe sheds light on household food waste from a social psychological perspective. 

So what’s all the fuss about? Food waste is not just a waste of food and money; it is also a waste of energy, water, land and labour. When food is disposed of into landfill sites it creates chemicals and gases - most notably methane - which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Also given that millions of people around the world go undernourished while others throw food away, food waste also raises moral issues. And, as the world’s population continues to increase, natural resources diminish and the global temperatures rise, it seems clear that the problem of food waste needs to be addressed now.

But how? In medium and high income countries the biggest single contributor to food waste is the consumer, in other words you and me. Indeed in the UK more than half of the 7.2 tonnes of food that we throw away from our homes every year could have been consumed. We buy more food than we need and we cook more food than we need, but why?

Whilst working on a very different environmental research project at Sussex, I became aware of the fact that there was very little systematic food waste research that made use of the existing social psychology literature, in particular the behaviour change literature. I wanted to help bridge this gap, and I am now in my third year of a PhD (supervised by Donna Jessop and Paul Sparks) researching household food waste from a social psychological perspective.

An important initial first step to my research was to identify the main underlying factors that influenced people’s food waste behaviour. Therefore, I conducted an interview-based study with household food purchasers and providers asking them to discuss their household food behaviour. Findings revealed that people have a number of motivations or goals that could either impact negatively or positively on household food waste, and that these have the potential to conflict with each other. 

For example, the wish to avoid wasting money or good food may well be a strong motivation for most people much of the time, but this may be overshadowed by a desire to minimise inconvenience due to people’s often busy lives or the desire to be a ‘good provider’. Over-purchasing as a consequence of a desire to provide a variety of healthy foods for their family appeared to be especially relevant for parents. Behaviours that may reduce the chances of food going to waste (such as cooking in bulk) are viewed by some people as time consuming, whereas buying food in bulk can be seen as a way to save time in the future as it avoids extra trips to the shops. Also, throwing away food prematurely can be seen as a way to avoid the potential inconvenience of ill health. Most importantly the wish to avoid experiencing negative emotions (such as guilt, frustration, annoyance or regret) was found to underpin not only the motivations to minimise food waste but also the motivations to over-purchase food.

Having conducted this initial exploratory research I was keen to use some of the leading social psychological models to further explore this area and to systematically look at the inter-relationships between different beliefs, motivations and actual behaviour.

For my first theory based study I choose to utilise the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1991).This model has been widely used by psychologist to investigate many behaviours, but until now had not been applied to food waste. This theory details the determinants of an individual’s decision to behave in a certain way. The model states that intention to perform a specific behaviour is the most important predictor of behaviour.

The findings from my research supported the validity of this model as applied to food waste reduction behaviour. However, critically, what this model also revealed was that many people intended to reduce their household food waste behaviour but actually failed to do so. This is not that surprising, given the many conflicting motivations and goals people might have, which influence their household food waste behaviour.

The second major issue uncovered by my preliminary interview research was that of denial. Analysis of my qualitative study showed different types of denial of responsibility. Some people suggested that food waste was not a problem for the environment (as food breaks down) and therefore it was not worth reducing food waste. Others argued that food waste is not their fault, but rather the fault of the food industry and supermarkets, and therefore it is not their responsibility to change. And finally some people suggested that they were not prepared to reduce their food waste as they were already being environmentally friendly in other ways (e.g. recycling regularly), and so were therefore vindicated of any responsibility.

So why is it that some people waste food but deny responsibility, and how can food waste reduction campaigns overcome this barrier? This is the issue that I am addressing in my current research and I am now applying specific social psychological techniques that are thought to enable people to be more open to information detailing the negative consequences of certain behaviours. This is in an attempt to see if it is possible to overcome defensive responses - such as denial - in relation to household food waste behaviour. Preliminary findings are positive, but this research is still ongoing and I will update you in a follow-up blog.

Overall it seems clear that household food waste is a complex issue, with many potential psychological barriers to break down. In the meantime, for those people who are already motivated to reduce their food waste but need help or encouragement then campaigns, such as the “Think. Eat. Save - Reduce your foodprint”, are invaluable resources that offer facts, tips, ideas and techniques to encourage and inspire everyone to take action.

For more information, see Think, Eat, Save



Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–211.

Consumer Culture, Children & Well-Being: Research, Implications, and Practice



Megan Hurst reports back on the 'Consumer Culture and Children’s Well-being' event.

On Friday 3rd May, 2013, the University of Sussex hosted a research dissemination event relating to the research of the Leverhulme funded project on ‘Consumer Culture and Children’s Well-being’, led by Dr Helga Dittmar and Professor Robin Banerjee. The event allowed the research team to share their exciting findings with interested professionals, and also identified ways of bridging the gap between academic research and applied areas of practice and policy.

The Children’s Consumer Culture Project has been gathering data for the past three years on the links between children’s engagement with and endorsement of consumer culture and their well-being, with measures incorporating physical health, subjective well-being, depression and body esteem. The conference aimed to share the research beyond the traditional academic community, and although we had numerous high profile academics, such as Tim Kasser, Agnes Nairn, and Greg Maio in attendance, we also had representatives from local schools, educational psychology services, clinical psychologists, and other service providers and policymakers .

The event was opened by an inspiring and vibrant speech from Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion), who set the research project in a broader socio-political context.  She focused on three key points of policy, relating to:  a) advertising aimed at primary school-aged children; b) objectification of women in the media and the need for improved whole-school strategies concerning gender and relationships; and c) environmental impacts of consumption. Her thoughtful address provided the perfect introduction to the event, resonating with many of the issues that emerged as key parts of our discussion over the course of the day.

Dr Dittmar warmed up the floor for the project team, giving our attendees a taste of consumer culture with some particularly striking adverts (for Littlewoods & Dove (below)), before explaining the research background to the project. Although the negative link between materialism and well-being has been frequently documented amongst adults, very few studies have considered this link in children, and even fewer have followed the same participants over a period of time to better understand the direction of this relationship.

Dr Mark Wright and Dr Matt Easterbrook then walked us through some of the initial work for the project, detailing the extensive qualitative interviews with 60 children and our early scale development work. In this interview work, children overwhelmingly reported ‘social motives’ for wanting the coolest new gadgets or perfect looks. Popularity, fitting in, and improved social status were clearly significant drivers for children’s engagement with consumer culture.  Details of the scales we developed as part of the project and initial relationships between them were also presented.  The preliminary evidence showed that the kinds of social motives detailed above – and not more intrinsic motives concerning helping others and improving health – were significantly associated with depression and life dissatisfaction among children.

Professor Banerjee and Megan Hurst went on to share with the conference delegates some early work on the longitudinal study, the centrepiece of the project, which involved over 1000 children, over three school years. It was particularly nice to have teachers in the audience from many of the schools that had assisted in the data collection. Professor Banerjee wove a heartbreaking story from the sociometric data, with children rejected by their peers at the beginning of the study more strongly endorsing social motives for consumer culture and appearance over time. These children appeared to believe that having more ‘stuff’ and achieving the right looks would secure them social status, but in fact our longitudinal research showed that this belief/value system predicted their peer status decreasing over time; the children became more rather than less rejected by their peers.  In the second part of this presentation, Megan Hurst described the bi-directional links between two elements of well-being (depression and body esteem) and children’s orientation towards consumer culture, again detailing a vicious cycle: children experiencing low well-being at the beginning of the research increasingly endorsed consumer culture values, which in turn resulted in a further decrease in their well-being.

After lunch, the conference split into three ‘breakout sessions’ for discussion: Materialism, Consumption Pathologies and Sustainable Consumption; Appearance, Eating and Body Ideals; and Education, Schools and Families. Each group was tasked with suggesting possible interventions or policies that might emerge from the research, and fed back to the project team before the final session of the afternoon. These groups were filled with exciting discussions regarding a wide range of policy implications, from ways of supporting children at risk of eating disorders, to strategies for working with families and school, and the possibility of restricting advertising targeted at children.  The different perspectives coming from the varied fields represented among the delegates appeared to come together to form a common consensus, summed up excellently by Prof Agnes Nairn (EM-Lyon Business School) in the final plenary session.

The findings of the project tell us that children can sometimes experience ill-being, and so turn to consumer culture to remedy this. Yet, we are getting clear indications that this is a poor coping strategy and in fact leads to further decreases in well-being.  In our plenary discussion, we considered two possibilities for intervention, which are not mutually exclusive.  First, we may be able to increase children’s resilience, so that they develop more adaptive coping strategies.  Second, we can also take major strides forward – informed by policy decisions in other countries – in shielding children from consumer culture, by blocking advertising to children, and engaging in awareness raising interventions where consumer culture is discussed with children in schools.

Dr Dittmar inspirationally closed the day by emphasising the fact that although we appear to be up against a strong adversary in the form of consumer culture, opening up the dialogue and working together at events such as these is an important step towards mobilising efforts to improve children’s well-being.

The project has recently been extended by the Leverhulme Trust for an additional three months, until August 2013, and will be focusing on further in-depth analysis of the longitudinal data and on additional dissemination events and activities.

Further details can be found at the project website. Videos and presentations from the event will be uploaded shortly.

Making sense of alcohol consumption guidelines



A series of studies coordinated by Dr Richard de Visser is examining how governments, health professionals, and individual make sense of and use alcohol consumption guidelines. Such research is important because the Government is currently reviewing its drinking guidelines for the first time in 15 years.

pouring a glass of wine Agreed international guidelines would make it easier for people living in a globalised world to develop and use transferable skills for monitoring and regulating their alcohol consumption. However, a comparison of drinking guidelines around the world conducted as part of Nina Furtwængler’s DPhil research under Dr de Visser’s supervision was published in February 2013 in Drug and Alcohol Review. The study examined government alcohol consumption guidelines in 57 countries, including all 27 European Member States, and found a remarkable lack of agreement about what constitutes harmful or excessive alcohol consumption on a daily basis or weekly basis. Key findings were:

  • Many countries do not have readily accessible guidelines (including 8 of the 27 EU member States).
  • Some countries do not define standard drinks, but offer general guidance encouraging moderate alcohol consumption and/or abstinence in certain circumstances
  • The alcohol content of a “unit” or “standard drink” ranges from 8g in the UK  to 14g in Slovakia and the USA.
  • There is no consensus as to whether drinkers should have alcohol-free days every week
  • There is no consensus as to whether it is safe for women to drink as much as men

It is important to have specific guidelines, because these are likely to be more useful for individuals and health professionals than vague advice to “drink moderately”.

However, an earlier study conducted by Dr de Visser revealed that knowledge of unit-based guidelines may not be enough to motivate people to drink moderately. Other as-yet unpublished data from Ms Furtwængler’s DPhil research indicate that people tend not to use unit-based guidelines to monitor their alcohol consumption.

Despite these caveats, it is important for people who do want to adhere to recommendations to drink responsibly that there are internationally agreed standard definitions of alcohol units and consumption guidelines. Dr de Visser’s planned future research will determine whether giving people personalised feedback on their actual alcohol intake will help them calibrate their intake with government guidelines and motivate them to drink moderately.

Celebrating Sussex successes



Two researchers from Sussex will present their work at the British Psychology Society’s (BPS) Annual Conference this April. Their levels of experience and research interests are very different, but they are both engaged in interdisciplinary research.

Florence MowlemFlorence Mowlem, presenting her work on ‘genetic variation and the effect of medicines on thinking    processes’, is a final year student, set to complete her undergraduate degree this summer.

With a bursary from the Doctoral School’s competitive Junior Research Associate scheme, Florence worked under the supervision of Dr Ayana Gibbs, a forensic psychiatrist with the BSMS (Brighton and Sussex Medical School). Through the research project, Florence gained invaluable experience in an interdisciplinary research context, for which Sussex is renown.

Their project explores whether the effects of the noradrenergic drug reboxetine on episodic memory performance are mediated by interactions between COMT genotype, personality, and emotional valence of stimuli.  Findings suggest that affective side effects of reboxetine may be linked to COMT genotype and personality.

At Sussex, undergraduate students have the opportunity to be highly involved in research. For example, through the final year project and schemes such as the Junior Research Associate programme which supports the best undergraduates during the summer vacation as they work alongside Sussex’s top research faculty on real-life research projects.

Presenting at the BPS Annual Conference is an exciting opportunity for Florence, which will provide further insight into the world of research and academia!

Data collection by Dr Coultas for Stories, learning and memory: The advantage of hearing a story from more than one personDr Julie Coultas, is a well-established psychologist, currently Visiting Research Fellow at Sussex since 2010. Dr Coultas will present two papers on the theme of nature and diversity of social cohesion and attachment, looking at how culture is transmitted through story telling. Both papers are co-authored by a Swedish Professor of Mathematics at Stockholm University, Professor Eriksson.

Whilst Professor Eriksson has a fine-tuned understanding of theoretical models, Dr Coultas produces creative ways to test these models, often through Myths, Morphs and Memes, a collaboration between psychologists (Dr Coultas and Dr Yuill) and artists (Rachel Cohen and Patrician Thornton) to move outside the psychology laboratories to collect data through social events where people could choose to take part in experiments.

“The BPS Annual Conference plugs you into the bloodstream”[1], and with three presentations from collaborative researchers at Sussex, our interdisciplinary approach is acting like haemoglobin!

[1] BPS website, accessed 22nd March 2013



Why do we worry?



Dr Fran Meeten discusses current research into the factors that contribute to excessive worry.

We all worry, but some of us experience very high levels of anxiety, and in these cases people find themselves worrying about something for far longer than is functionally useful, which can prevent them from getting on with daily life.

It is this point that is at the heart of some of the research we have been doing as part of the Mood and Anxiety Research in Sussex (MARS) group. In Professor Davey’s lab, we have been looking at the factors that contribute to excessive worry. This aspect of our research has led us to ask “what information are people drawing on when they decide to continue with (or stop) an open-ended process such as worrying?".

One theory that we have been examining as an explanation of excessive worry is the ‘mood-as-input’ theory [1]. In this case the clue is in the name! Mood-as-input theory examines how our current mood influences our decisions about when we stop worrying. Worrying is often described as a “what if?” thought process about future events. We know from research done in our lab that when we ask people to create “what if?” responses to a worry scenario, the number of responses they create depends upon the mood they are in and the type of goal they use when they are worrying. People who experience excessive worry, and generate lots of responses in our “what if?” interviews, report being in a negative mood when they begin to worry and report having strict goals in relation to their worrying. The goals that worriers bring to their worrying are often performance focused, meaning that they believe it is important to consider all possible outcomes to their worry scenario, or continue to worry until they feel that they have done as much as they can to solve the problem. Mood-as-input theory suggests that people use their current mood to assess whether they have achieved their task goals. In the case of worrying, the negative mood signals that they have not progressed toward their performance focused worry goal – so they continue to worry.

Once we know which factors drive excessive worry, we can begin to think about how we can modify these to reduce worry.  There are a number of reasons why worriers may adopt performance focused goals.  We now know that worriers often report worrying to be a useful process, so they hold positive beliefs about the utility of worry. Furthermore, many people who worry excessively often struggle to tolerate feelings of uncertainty and so try to reduce their uncertainty by setting out to consider all possible outcomes to the worry scenario, which results in excessive worrying. We know from lab work that when people are in a negative mood, their worry bout is longer when using a performance focused goal than an alternative goal. One of our recent research projects (in collaboration with Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust) has been to look at the performance focused goals that people use when they are worrying and examine whether people can change these goals. However, our recent pilot work [2] indicated that just teaching people about the interaction between negative mood and their worry goals reduced worry in self-reported high worriers. Given these promising results we plan to build on this research to develop a freely accessible, online worry intervention for those experiencing high levels of worry. 

To find out more about mood and anxiety research in Sussex please visit the MARS website.  


  1. Meeten, F.  & Davey, G. C. L.  (2011). Mood-as-input hypothesis and perseverative psychopathologies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1259-1275.
  2. Dash, S. R., Meeten, F., Jones, F. Davey, G. C. L. (2013). Socialisation to the mood-as-input model as a method for reducing worry. Manuscript in preparation.

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