Psychology Research's blog posts

Do we talk like Parrots?



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



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:

Psychological change in the miners’ strike 1984-85



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



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.



For my blog post on that research, go to:


For one of my published papers on that research go to:


A longer version of this blog post with a full reference list of sources is available at:



Elephants can detect human foes by their voice and language



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:



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: Tel: 01273 678888



Genetics of Parenting: the Power of the Dark Side



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.


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








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.



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