Psychology Research's blog posts for 2014

Do we talk like Parrots?

Apr

08

Language alignment’ is the idea that in conversations, we copy much of what we say from each other, rather than working out what we say from scratch. Kane Steggles, a 6th former from the Angmering School Sixth Form, delved further during a summer placement in the ChaTLab, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.  Kane explains…

Dialogue is very important for humans as every day we navigate through conversation with remarkable ease, despite the many complex mental processes that are posed by dialogue, with half-finished sentences and thinking on the spot. These complexities endanger the success of a conversation yet humans seem to succeed. How is this achieved? A paper released in 2004 by Simon Garrod and Martin Pickering suggested that these problems are mitigated by a process known as Language Alignment which is the tendency for conversational partners to imitate each other’s  use of words, tone of voice and syntax as they converse.

Thanks to the funding of a Nuffield Research Placement  I was able to study the phenomenon of Language Alignment in more depth at the University of Sussex. In summer 2013 I studied the differences between the Language Alignment abilities of adults and children under the supervision of Dr. Nicola Yuill, who manages the lab and Zoe Hopkins from the ChaTLab who is doing her doctoral research into understanding alignment in autism. We looked at syntactic alignment -  the tendency for people to copy the language structures used by an experimenter during a conversation, and two different pairs of syntactic structures. The procedure used in this type of study involves the experimenter describing a picture with one of two different structures. We then see if the participant being tested uses the same or a different structure to describe  their own different  picture. If they do, then they are judged to have aligned their syntax. The pictures are deliberately rather unusual! So if I say ‘A prince is squashed by an elephant’, you might copy my syntax to describe your picture and say ‘The nurse is kicked by the cow’, rather than using the more common ‘The cow kicked the nurse’.  We predicted that children would align more than adults because children seem to be natural imitators and learn much of their language through copying what they hear.

We did not find any overall difference in how much adults and children copied structures. However, children did copy one of the structures more than adults  -  the ‘double object’ structure, such as  ‘A tiger gives a doctor a ball’. One possibility is that children have a less mature understanding of this structure, and may have been more ready to imitate it even if they did not fully grasp it, so gaining further understanding of this structure. But we can be assured that they understood more than a pet parrot does when it tells us what a Pretty Polly it is.

My research project won a place in the Finals of the National Science and Engineering competition where I presented my findings to judges and enthusiasts at the Big Bang Fair, held at the NEC in Birmingham on 13th-14th of March. It was extremely humbling to be in the presence of such fantastic projects including the winning project by Aneeta and Ameeta Kumar for their brilliant use of biological research into a seemingly promising way of isolating cancer treatment.

Congratulations to the winners of the National Science and Engineering competition and many thanks to the Nuffield Foundation, the University of Sussex and the ChaTLab for giving me the opportunity to embark upon this project. It was as challenging as it was fascinating but most importantly it has only further validated my wish to study psychology further.

 

Influences on the effectiveness of homework interactions: the child, the parent, and the dyad

Apr

02

Doctoral Researcher Georgia Leith discusses parental support during homework activities

What aspects of parents might affect how they help during homework? Is it to do with their personality, their ability to empathise, or their expectations for their child? Is it also affected by the child: their temperament, their attitudes towards schoolwork? Or alternatively, is it down to the quality of the parent-child relationship: the warmth between them, the consistency of parenting and discipline?

Homework plays a large part in a child’s education, and has the potential to make a very useful contribution. Parents are expected to help with homework in the early school years, as they are assumed to make homework time more effective by guiding their child through the challenges. However, parents vary in the ways in which they give support; this affects the usefulness of the homework process on their child’s learning. What’s unclear is what might cause this variation between parents. To address this, my doctoral research (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) explores a number of possible influencing factors.

Collaborating with Drs Nicola Yuill and Alison Pike, my three-year project aims to disentangle this web of potential influences by following a number of families through the first 6-12 months of formal schooling. Using a range of methods including puppet interviews, questionnaires and observations at home, I shall investigate which of these factors are the strongest influences on parental support during homework activities. In addition, I hope to uncover whether these influences remain just as strong over time.

Our conclusions will shed light on a relatively unknown part of every child’s education; the school work completed back at home. Policy-makers value homework, and teachers set it regularly; my research will add to their understanding by revealing the personal, and interpersonal, influences on the homework experience.

You can find out more about me and my research on the ChatLab website: www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab

Psychological change in the miners’ strike 1984-85

Mar

25

On the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike, Dr John Drury describes his research on psychological changes among participants.

 

 

My research is concerned with the way that collective action can transform participants’ identities. To investigate this, I carried out interviews with a family who had been involved in the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The interviews uncovered some powerful personal stories – of people falling out with their strike-breaking neighbours and never speaking to them again, of ‘housewives’ who became new people with independent interests and careers, and more. I supplemented these interviews with an analysis of secondary sources. The 30th anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike in March is a good time to share some of the findings. The types of psychological changes found in accounts of the experiences of those involved in the strike are divided here into three areas: conceptions of the police; relations with other social groups; and the experiences of the women involved.

 

Relations with the police

The most salient change among the strikers and their families was the reversal from seeing the police as protecting their rights to seeing them as an antagonistic outgroup. Among the experiences that seemed to account for this change, there was the shock amongst strikers at the sheer numerical presence of the police at the pickets, to allow working miners to get into the collieries. Secondly, there was the violence of the police towards the striking miners, which came to be expected and seemed to have no limits. Many of the striking miners reported that police used violence and provocation as a tactic to produce arrests. For example, a police cordon pushed a picket-line towards a hawthorn hedge, and when the miners tried to protect themselves by pushing back they were arrested. Many miners also felt they had been arrested without even doing anything.

The arrests themselves were not seen by the striking miners as isolated acts of coercion; rather they were understood as part of a general strategy of reducing picket-line numbers. Stringent bail conditions imposed on arrested miners served as evidence for this perception. Many striking interviewees felt that their civil liberties - the rights they expected to have to strike and picket - had been curtailed by the police action. The curtailment of rights extended beyond violence, intimidation, provocation and arrest to the police's physical control of whole districts. The fact that police were seen to intervene by moving and excluding people from places that were nowhere near the collieries reinforced the perception that their actions were arbitrary abuses of power.

Miners' new evaluations of the police took the form of seeing them as a political agency out to impose the government's will rather than enforce a neutral system of law and order; most saw strike-breaking as the police's central function during the dispute. Hence also many refer to a ‘police state’. Despite all this - or perhaps because of it - many interviewees also reported feeling greater determination to continue the strike.

 

Relations with other groups

There was a shift among strikers and their families towards a more positive conception of or identification with previously differentiated or despised social groups. In the first place, this kind of change seems to have operated through the support such groups gave to the miners. Meeting members of these groups in the context whereby each supports the other’s opposition to the government enabled the strikers to see ‘them’ for the first time as ‘like us’. Secondly, the unexpected antagonism of the police toward the strikers as a category enabled them to see themselves as like other categories in conflict with the police; where before these groups might have been seen as ‘troublemakers’ now it became easy to regard them instead as ‘persecuted’, like the miners.

 

Women's experiences

Women married to miners changed not only in relation to the police and other groups in the same way as the men; they also changed in relation to the men. The break with old ideas was often more dramatic than the break experienced by the miners themselves.

For many of the women it was their first involvement in a strike and in politics. They got involved on two levels: firstly in giving moral support to their striking husbands (in fact, many of them insisted that their husbands take part in the strike, and were important in resisting returns to work); and second in providing practical support, including raising funds and participating on picket lines and demonstrations. Their involvement was crucial to the strike, but it also enabled them to create an identity for themselves different from the one given to them by society.

The women's support groups entailed a shift from the privatized home to a new, collective sphere. The way the servicing of the men was made a public and joint enterprise provided the means for women to look with a fresh perspective at their own roles as housewives. The support groups - as women-only groups, independent of both the men and the NUM - gave the women confidence in themselves as women. And in becoming ‘politically active’ through the strike, the women also extended their conception of ‘the political’. Again the support of groups they would not otherwise have had contact with and the ruthlessness of the government and its agents seem to have played a role in this.

In many cases, women’s psychological transformation was one of greater confidence. The support groups, as the main source of the women's new-found confidence, were something the women found they wanted to keep in place after the strike. They also wanted to apply the groups to other matters, in effect changing the functions of the structures they had created. The new confidence meant that new choices became available for the women. Since the confidence was bound up with their identity as women, rather than as just their husbands' wives, the new choices reflected this identity, leading many to understand their actions in terms of feminism, whether or not they endorsed this perspective entirely.

These kind of changes in identity sometimes meant conflict or at least divergence in relation to their husbands. Examples of change among miners’ wives included refusing to shave their legs, changing their styles of clothes, taking up careers and further education, leaving a husband and becoming a lesbian. In other words, out of the long dispute, as it played itself out in the relations between the police and the strikers and their supporters, and within the groups of strikers and supporters themselves, new ways of understanding self and other were being forged, and new modes of expressing selfhood were being developed

 

Conclusions

The hypotheses developed from this analysis of accounts from the miners’ strike was the basis of an ethnographic study I carried out later on psychological change in participants in the anti-roads movement, which showed the role of social identity processes in such change.

 

Links

For my blog post on that research, go to: http://splash.sussex.ac.uk/blog/for/psychresearch/2013/01/14/the-social-psychology-of-antiroad-protests

 

For one of my published papers on that research go to: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/014466600164642/abstract

 

A longer version of this blog post with a full reference list of sources is available at: http://drury-sussex-the-crowd.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/psychological-change-in-uk-miners.html

 

 

Elephants can detect human foes by their voice and language

Mar

18

Prof. Karen McComb and Dr Graeme Shannon used playback of human voices to show that African elephants could determine ethnicity, gender and age from voice cues and focus their defensive reactions on humans that were genuinely threatening to them.

The paper published in PNAS last week, which is also the subject of a Commentary in PNAS, received very extensive media coverage worldwide, including interviews on Radio 4’s Today Programme and the BBC World Service, as well as appearances on BBC World TV News. The University’s press release on the story is appended below and the paper itself can be accessed at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/05/1321543111

 

 

Elephants are able to identify humans that pose a threat to them by distinguishing between the language and voices of different ethnic groups, according to new University of Sussex research published 10 March 2014.

 

The study, carried out in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, involved family groups of African elephants being played sound recordings of the voices of two different human ethnic groups known to them: the Maasai, who, periodically come into conflict with elephants over access to water and grazing for their cattle, and the Kamba, whose more agricultural lifestyle poses less of a threat to elephants.

 

The results showed that elephants were more likely to demonstrate defensive behaviour, such as bunching together and investigative smelling, in response to male Maasai voices than male Kamba voices. Furthermore, their behaviour was also less defensive in response to voices of Maasai women and boys than to Maasai men, indicating that they also specifically take account of the sex and age of the voice to pinpoint the most threatening situations.

 

The ability to discriminate real from apparent threat, particularly in the case of human predators that differ in relatively subtle cues, has important impacts on the fitness of individuals as it avoids repeated interruptions to feeding and prevents unnecessary physiological stress.

 

Mammal communication expert Professor Karen McComb, lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 10 2014),says: “Recognising predators and judging the level of threat they pose is a crucial skill for many wild animals.

“Human predators present a particularly interesting challenge, as different groups of humans can represent dramatically different levels of danger to animals living around them.”

Previous studies have shown that African elephant family groups exhibit greater fear to the scent of garments worn by Maasai men than Kamba men, and also show aggression when presented with the red clothes that the Maasai typically wear.

 

Co-author Dr Graeme Shannon points out that acoustic cues, from which a herd can determine the ethnicity, gender and age of a potential predator, have an additional advantage in serving as an effective early warning system – especially if the predator is out of sight.

He says: “The human language is rich in acoustic cues. The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages. This apparently quite sophisticated skill would have to be learned through development or through younger family members following the lead of the herd’s matriarch and other older females.”

 

Professor McComb adds that the specificity of the elephant responses was particularly interesting.  As well as attending to language cues, they were actually able to use fine-scaled voice differences to pinpoint whether the speaker was a Maasai man rather than a woman or boy who would be unlikely to cause harm. The study highlights the potential benefits of having these sorts of advanced skills for distinguishing between different subcategories within a single predator species.

 

 

‘Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender and age from acoustic cues in human voices’, by Karen Mc Comb, Graeme Shannon, Katito N Sayialel and Cynthia Moss, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Karen McComb and Dr Graeme Shannon are members of the  Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

University of Sussex Press Office: Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune.  Email: press@sussex.ac.uk Tel: 01273 678888

 

 

Genetics of Parenting: the Power of the Dark Side

Mar

13

Dr Bonamy Oliver highlights how unpicking parent-child relationships that are shaped by genetically-driven parent and child characteristics has the potential to help us better understand child development.

So…you have a baby.  And the storm of advice descends.  With good or bad will, with your or their own interests at heart and everything in between, who doesn’t want to tell you how to parent?  Friends, family, media - they all ‘know’ how to help you raise a balanced, well-adjusted and smart child.

But the effect of parent ‘on’ child over-simplifies a complex relationship.  Many years of research show that the effect of parent on child might just as easily be over-simplified as that of child ‘on’ parent; the relationship between parent and child is, after all, a reciprocal one.  

Parenting exists within the context of many things that are important for child outcomes (parental mental health, inter-parental relations, socio-demographic factors, social support…I could go on), but there is no denying that parents (I include all ‘primary caregivers’ under that term here) form the cornerstone for children’s early experience and socialisation.

It’s an important job. 

A parenting environment characterised by warmth and responsiveness, and consistent and sensitive discipline is associated with increased child behaviour regulation and social competence.  But children with experiences of parental negativity and criticism, and inconsistent and harsh discipline are at increased risk of conduct and other problems. Approximately 1 in 10 children in the UK have mental health problems that reach diagnostic criteria.  Of these, conduct problems are the most common, and they convey substantial long-term risk for diverse mental health problems in adulthood.

The pressure, it seems, is on.

For me, understanding the parent-child relationship and its association with child outcomes is critical and interesting.

One neat way to examine these questions is using behavioural genetic designs - classic quasi-experimental designs such adoption and twin studies - because they allow us to disentangle genetic and environmental influences on both individual differences in child outcomes, and child experience.  Thanks to such studies, we know that individual differences in ostensibly ‘environmental’ experiences in life, including parenting, are at least to some extent related to individual differences in genetic propensity.  When we think about that ‘genetic propensity’ as including how we select, create, and modify our own environment (so-called gene-environment correlation), it becomes easier to understand.

Many behavioural genetic parenting studies have focused on distinctions between parental ‘feelings’ (e.g., warmth or hostility) and parental ‘control’ (e.g., calm or harsh discipline), showing that genetically influenced child traits play a bigger role in eliciting parental feelings than control. Inspired by work indicating differential influences for negative and positive psychological constructs, I wanted to ask questions across feelings and control: Do individual differences in the ‘light’, positive side of parenting (warmth, consistency and sensitivity) reflect child-driven genetic influence to the same extent as the ‘dark’, negative side of parenting (hostility, yelling, smacking)?

From data collected as part a large UK-based twin study (TEDS: Twin’s Early Development Study) the answer seems to be no. The dark side of parenting seems to show substantially greater genetic influence than the light side, suggesting, in this child-based design, that parental hostility and harshness is more responsive to negative genetically influenced child characteristics than parental warmth and calmness is to positive child traits.

Unpicking how parent-child relationships are shaped by genetically-driven parent and child characteristics has the potential to help us better understand child development.  Moreover, teasing out genetic and environmental influences on negative and positive aspects of all relationships in the family, for example sibling and inter-parental relationships as well as those between parent and child, will tell us more about how characteristics of family members play into family processes and mental health.

Ultimately, I am interested in tying my research into contemporary prevention and intervention science, since negative child characteristics are increasingly thought to impact the effectiveness of parenting interventions.  Basic science and intervention are often seen as poor marriage partners.  In fact, while they may bring their own characteristics to the relationship, I believe there can be harmony.

FOOTNOTE:

The ‘dark’ side of parenting discussed here includes harsh aspects of parenting within the normal range, it does not encompass child maltreatment or abuse.  These childhood experiences sit apart – evidence suggests that children’s genetic influences are largely irrelevant for their vulnerability to physical maltreatment.

Oliver, B. R., Trzaskowski, M., & Plomin, R. (2013, December 23). Genetics of Parenting: The Power of the Dark Side. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0035388

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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