Road Trip to Exeter!

Today, a group of us went to the British Psychological Society Undergraduate Conference up in Exeter uni. It was a brilliant day, and some of the best fun I’ve had  in an academic setting. Here’s a look at what we got up to, and the talks we saw.

We began our road trip in Bristol at 6:30, and arrived in Exeter at about 8:30am (after a detour for coffee, and  getting distracted by doodling a shark fight on the designated drivers face).

Our first reaction was some mild university envy at the design and looks of the campus buildings:  The main building containing their student services was equally impressive- however, it was slightly disappointing that we didn’t get to see the library, as I can imagine wanting to spend hours in there if I saw inside.

The main body of the day was made up of student presentations, where courageous third-year students presented their dissertation research and findings to us. Out of nine blocks of presentations, we all had time to attend three. Here’s the list containing the presentations I watched:

Block 1:                                   
A) Exploring the therapist’s experience of working with female university students with anorexia nervosa: A qualitative study
B) Associations between observed parental intrusiveness and warmth and adolescent and parental anxiety
C) Carrots over crisps: Does inhibition training change children’s eating choices?
D) An Exploration of Police Interview Techniques and Anxiety

Block 2:
A) Contextual control of cue-reactivity in substance dependence: A biconditional discrimination task
B) The effects of individual differences and depression history on
potential therapeutic success
C) Effects of Product Labelling a Novel Food Product as ‘Diet’ or ‘Highly Satiating’ on Satiation and Satiety

Block 3:
A) “Happiness depends upon ourselves”: The relationship between three self-assessed traits and subjective wellbeing
B) The Influence of Hue on Avoidance Motivation in Adults and Children
C) Who find it hardest to resist? The influence of impulsivity on an
individual’s ability to stay faithful in a committed relationship

The highlights of the student talks for me were:
Talk 1B- parental and child anxiety. This was a very professional and polished talk, done in a confident way by a student who very clearly knew their data and methods like the back of their hands. Despite a complicated methodology (a cross-sectional observation study with parent-child pairs, which was analysed using both descriptive behaviour-coding and quantitative rating scales, meaning twice the amount of work as a normal study), it was clearly analysed, giving a modest but relatively unambiguous result. 

Talk 2C- food labelling. While the actual presentation wasn’t quite as good as 1B, the sheer effort and attention to detail that went into making this study made it  impressive. (This seemed to be the consensus, as this talk won the award for Best Presentation). The work involved in designing an entirely new food product just for use in the study, as well as other additions like making the product packaging, and outfitting the testing room with hidden monitoring equipment, hidden scales and secret cameras, showed no detail was spared in trying to capture as much information as possible. It also covered an area that’s implicated in both psychological research, health research and media research- for a dissertation project to do something that impressive, it raises the bar for what academia could potentially do in researching this topic.

Between lecture blocks, we spent most of our time in the hub room, which was where everyone’s posters were displayed during the day. It was also where we were given post-lecture refreshments, aka free coffee and biscuits- the organisers know their audience well!. 

Two of our group, Beth (below left) and Emily (below right), were presenters- Beth’s poster was about working with users of a hospital Pain Management centre, while Emily’s was about women’s views on how women are shown in the meme “The Lad Bible”. While both studies used the same qualitative research method- thematic analysis- they were on very different subject areas, so covered entirely different groups of people. 

This was a common theme I found while looking at the posters, and the talks- no two theses were the same. Even when two people used the same tools, it was for very different purposes. Seeing the range of studies included was useful for reminding ourselves just how varied and broad-ranging psychology is, something I think is quite easy to forget when you spend third-year doing a fairly narrow range of modules that all interconnect quite closely. 

Even though neither of the two were the lucky winner of the “Best Poster” certificate, both studies were still really interesting.

Another poster that caught my eye was this one to the right, based around playing Call of Duty: seeing a genuine academic reference for such a mainstream game was unexpected, and the actual study looked well-designed and researched (It was focused on the Zeigarnik effect, the influence of tasks left unfinished). Unfortunately, despite seemingly carrying out the study effectively, the results of the CoD experiment were not significant. 

Non-significant results was a recurring theme throughout the talks I went to- out of nine presentations, five had no significant support for their hypothesis, and three had partial support for some of their hypotheses. This is disappointing in a way, both because it’s always good to see a significant finding, and in many cases I wanted the result to be significant purely because the person presenting had obviously put in so much work and research that it almost seemed cruel for them to not find anything for it. 

However, it was reassuring to see that even when the students didn’t find the results they were looking for, they were still able to explain and defend their research in an incredibly professional way. Considering the news of practices like publication bias and the “file-drawer effect” that often prevents research with non-supporting or non-significant findings from being publicised, I think its important that students learn about the best way to deal with experimental non-significance and how to say that their research had not found what is expected. The conference seemed to act just as I hoped an academic conference would- a place run on ideas and free thought, focused on the methods and process of science rather than just the results. 

On a more practical note, finding so many non-significant results was also useful for the members of our group who haven’t finished analysing our dissertation data, as today showed that’s its not the end of the world if we don’t get a significant result because a robust thesis can still be made. 

The keynote talk was by Mark Levine, a Social Psychologist based in Exeter University. His research focuses on antisocial behaviour, and what’s known as the Bystander Effect. The bystander effect is often explained as people’s unwillingness to help others when in groups, but his research demonstrates that people’s group behaviour, and bystander behaviour, is not as simplistic as textbooks can make it out to be.

Social psychology isn’t usually my area of focus, but I found it really interesting, probably because of how engaging he was when presenting. Also, any lecture that mentions virtual reality experiments is guaranteed to get my attention. The research Levine discussed is a perfect use for VR, as it allows detailed study on an area that’s unethical to perfrom in real life (observing violence), but is realistic enough that people will behave very similarly to how they would in real life, meaning useful information can be found out.

The “ReaCTor” software used looked very accomplished; and their experiments didn’t have the flaws affecting UWE’s Second Life experiment; our chatbots were often quite glitchy and could only communicate through text, whereas theirs acted more human and used full speech. It would have been interesting to see how our experiment would have progressed in their software, especially in the counselling experiment most affected by the lack of realism.

The virtual reality experiment was probably my favourite topic of the day, but I was incredibly impressed by the student presentations- it’s a very weird thought that people my age with the same resources had produced such a high standard of research and in many cases innovative ideas.

P.S. During the day, we also went exploring the beautiful university grounds, taking advantage of the sunshine while it lasted. I’m not entirely sure what area of the university these photos are of, as I found it while getting lost looking for a fountain we saw on the way in. We joked that it was “Exeter Narnia”- the top photo especially looks more like a forest than a university.


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