Conference Roundup: BPS Social, Developmental and Cognitive Conferences

Dennis Nigbur opens the BPS Social Psychology Conference 2014 here at Christ Church
Dennis Nigbur opens the BPS Social Psychology Conference 2014

Dennis Nigbur helped organise the British Psychological Society Social Psychology Conference here at Christ Church.

We brought the conference to Christ Church this year! Delegates enjoyed three days of presentations, posters, and very nice food. The conference theme, “The personal and the political in social psychology”, played to our school’s strengths, including interdisciplinary talks about migration and political engagement. Drs Nicola Abbott, Mark Bennister, Lorena Arocha, Laura Cashman, John FitzGibbon and Anke Franz represented our School with their contributions, and our graduate Patrick Readshaw presented some of his doctoral research in Media and Communication. Our undergraduates also did a brilliant job as stewards! Robert McCrea, CEO of Migrant Help, gave a well-received keynote speech, mentioning the collaboration between his organisation and our university. #spsconf

Nicola Abbott speaks on her bullying research
Nicola Abbott speaks about her bullying research
Amanda Carr talks about her research on toddlers' use of technology
Amanda Carr talks about her research on toddlers’ use of technology

Nicola Abbott attended the BPS Social Psychology Conference as well as the BPS Developmental Conference in Amsterdam

In addition to the fantastic location, this conference attracted delegates from across the globe, providing a diversity of expertise in Developmental Psychology. Among which, I and Dr. Amanda Carr represented Psychology here at Canterbury Christ Church University. I presented a paper evaluating an anti-bullying programme that used role-play to empower students to help victims of bullying. Amanda’s paper examined the effects of screen time (e.g. iPads) on children’s focused attention. The conference covered a wide range of issues in Developmental Psychology, however, a number of clear ‘hot’ topics emerged including: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Gender, Bullying and Technology use (including a fascinating keynotes from Professor Francesca Happe, Professor Carol Martin, Dr Yusuke Muriguchi and Professor Patti Valkenberg). All credit to Patrick Leman – we enjoyed the Psychology, and ourselves! Interestingly, next year the Developmental Psychology Section will be joining with the Social Psychology Section for a combined Annual Conference in Manchester! We look forward to the Developmental and Social bonding at #devsocconf.

Dr Andrew Dunn introduces Professor Emeritus Graham Hitch, who spoke about a decade of research on the episodic buffer
Andrew Dunn introduces Graham Hitch

Ian Hocking attended the BPS Cognitive Section Conference in Nottingham

This year’s conference had a variety of themes: face processing in the forensic context, attention capacity, learning and memory in visual search, thinking and reasoning, and emotion and cognition. I was there to present the findings of a study that examined the role of training techniques in creative problem finding, which David Vernon and myself recently carried out. As expected, I received plenty of useful feedback and met colleagues with similar interests. The conference itself ran like clockwork under the watchful eyes of Dr Andrew Dunn and Dr Duncan Guest. Highlights included innovative use of eye-movement tracking (in show jumping!) and a keynote by Dr Richard Harris, Professor Andy Young and Professor Tim Andrews on continuous vs. categorical face processing. #cogsec2014

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Official Opening of the New Psychology Labs

After a year of planning, architectural meetings, and a long ride on the logistical roller-coaster, we can finally celebrate our new labs! These are state-of-the-art in design and equipment terms. We’re looking forward to the expansion in our research and teaching capacity.

A big thanks to Faculties and Estates (particularly Rob Thrower), as well as Computing Services (especially Jan Hope), for doing all the hard work.

Onwards, upwards and (speaking psychology) inwards!

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Golden Apples in Psychology

Here at CCCU we started the week off with a bang by hosting our Learning and Teaching conference #CCCLT14. Staff from across the University gathered to discuss and recognise good practice. The day consisted of presentations and workshops on a diverse range of topics, from employability to “I can see clearly now, the feedback has come!” …and even pottery! But across all talks and workshops, the overall message was clear: the Higher Education Curriculum should not be viewed as static. Instead it should evolve to include students as partners in the exploring and developing Learning and Teaching.

One way that CCCU is already doing this is by holding the Golden Apple Awards–a scheme run by the Students’ Union to enable students to reward staff who exhibit exceptional teaching and/or support, or are particularly inspiring within their field. Students from across the University are welcome to nominate any member of staff or support department who have influenced their development.

Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences, with a staggering 50 members of staff nominated. Not only that, but 10 of those nominations were for staff within the School of Psychology, which included the winner, Britta Osthaus!

An example of one student nomination was read out, which clearly highlighted the exceptional teaching and support that Britta provides, and her tremendous enthusiasm for teaching. We are thrilled to have a Golden Apple in our Team–congratulations Britta!

Golden Apple Award winner Britta Osthaus at the CCCU Learning and Teaching Conference 2014
Golden Apple Award winner Britta Osthaus at the CCCU Learning and Teaching Conference 2014
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The Ethics of Manipulating Facebook Users

Facebook has been going for so long that, when it started out, the term ‘social networking’ referred to meeting people, shaking their hands, and exchanging business cards. Now it’s all online; we poke, post and like–some of us even vine, tweet and instagram. Facebook began as a Harvard-based contacts directory. Today, it’s a global juggernaut of realtime, mostly accurate data from about one billion users. This is Big Data.

Kramer et al.

In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America or PNAS, there is Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks (Kramer, Guillory & Hancock, 2014).

Each Facebook user sees a ‘News Feed’ that contains a series of text-based updates on what has been happening in the lives of their friends. Kramer and colleagues manipulated the content of this stream such that (i) positive text expressions were reduced and (ii) negative expressions were reduced. (There was also a control condition in which a similar proportion of posts were reduced, but randomly.)

The main finding of the study is straightforward to describe. When a Facebook user is presented with a greater proportion of positive statements, they are more likely (compared to a randomised control) to use positive language in their own status updates. The reverse is true for a greater proportion of negative statements.

For social psychologists, the effect is interesting; but it is modest. The ‘size’ of the effect is unusually small (the authors report Cohen’s d statistics between 0.02 and 0.001; even sizes an order of magnitude larger than 0.02 are considered small, see Cohen, 1988).

Ethics in Psychological Research

The underlying issue with the study comes down to those words ‘experimental’ and ‘massive’. Participants were not merely observed; their experience of the friends’ updates was altered. This happened for many people: 689,003 Facebook users.

Over the years, academic psychology has matured to the extent that, no matter how interesting a study or experiment might be, we take a strong position on protecting the rights of our participants. We will not, for instance, subject them to any personal risk above what they would experience in their everyday lives on the grounds that our experiment interests us scientifically. And participants must be asked for their informed consent. What is informed consent? This is the agreement of an individual to have something done to them; and the agreement is made with as much information about the outcome as humanly possible.

In their article, the authors write:

As such, [the experiment] was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research. (p. 8789)

Who is informed, and when?

Informed consent is a keystone of ethical research. Given the Facebook data use policy, which is several thousand words long, there’s no doubt I’ve consented to all kinds of things–all of them forgotten, since I, personally, had to click ‘OK’ on scores of legal boilerplates in order to use a product or service, from Microsoft Word to installing OS X.

Over at, Katy Waldman writes:

Facebook’s methodology raises serious ethical questions. The team may have bent research standards too far, possibly overstepping criteria enshrined in federal law and human rights declarations. “If you are exposing people to something that causes changes in psychological status, that’s experimentation,” says James Grimmelmann, a professor of technology and the law at the University of Maryland. “This is the kind of thing that would require informed consent.”

If I’m going to invite a participant to take part in an EEG experiment, I’m not going to give that person a long document with a short passage on consent somewhere near the middle, and then pat myself on the back when the participant signs the last page. It might fulfil the letter of the ethics code, but it’s hardly in the spirit.

There’s a long list of things a psychologist can do if saying to someone ‘Hey, I’m about to test you! Brace yourself!’ will render the data from a study unusable. We can give someone a general notion of what’s about to happen and then fully debrief them afterwards, and offer an opportunity to withdraw their data. We can ask people from the same group as the participants–e.g. other Facebook users–what they think a person’s reaction to being manipulated might be.

But is ‘manipulation’ even the correct term? Tal Yarkoni:

…The suggestion that Facebook “manipulated users’ emotions” is quite misleading. Framing it that way tacitly implies that Facebook must have done something specifically designed to induce a different emotional experience in its users. In reality, for users assigned to the experimental condition, Facebook simply removed a variable proportion of status messages that were automatically detected as containing positive or negative emotional words.

Applying ethical principles is hard in one sense, but easy in others. The Internet has made personal data easily available, and our sense of privacy is changing. It’s been said on more than one occasion that young people today have a different notion of privacy prevalent with old codgers like me (I’m 37 and still remember the monstrous inconvenience of rotary telephones). Do I consider my Facebook posts private? Funnily enough, I do. But perhaps they aren’t. I certainly don’t think of my Twitter posts as private. Would I object to Twitter manipulating my feed in such a way? I’m not sure.

On Medium, Zeynep Tufekci writes:

I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as “the world we live in”.

Reader, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post.


Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (second ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (24), 8788-8790.

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It's not rocket science. It is psychology.