Postgraduate Research Degrees in Psychology

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AUTHORS: Libby Orme (Deputy Head of Psychology), Michael Smith (Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange), Crystal Haskell-Ramsay (Postgraduate Research LEAD)

In the psychology department, we have around 30 students studying for postgraduate research (PGR) degrees. The majority of these are working towards a PhD in Psychology

We are currently recruiting for some new funded PhD opportunities, and so have published this blog to give prospective PhD students an idea of what a PhD in the Psychology Department at Northumbria involves. At the end of the post, you’ll find links to more information about each funded opportunity currently advertised, and some details of other opportunities for postgraduate research

What is a PhD in Psychology?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme allow students to undertake an individual programme of original research in psychology, under the supervision of two or more academic staff. You can read about PGR courses at Northumbria in detail here

Each PhD is totally unique, but full-time a PhD lasts about three years and part-time it is typically five years. In this time, a typical doctorate normally involves

  • Carrying out a literature review
  • Conducting a series of original research projects
  • Producing a thesis that presents your conclusions
  • Defending your thesis in an oral viva voce exam

PhDs in Psychology typically start in October, and you would normally start the process by having initial meetings with your supervision team and starting to create a plan for your PhD. Within the first four months, you would then submit your plan, which would include your training needs, ethical considerations, funding and costs associates with your research and a detailed timeline showing the feasibility of your PhD plan.

Students then typically progress to carrying out their research projects, with the goal of producing different outputs throughout the course of the PhD. This might include journal articles, literature reviews and conference presentations. The goal is to make an original contribution to knowledge in your field.

Throughout the process, your supervisory team would keep track of your progress and give you regular guidance and advice. Each year, you will also have a formal panel, who will review your progress and confirm that you are still on track, review your training needs and revisit the timeline for your project completion.

At the end of the process, once your written thesis is ready and submitted, you will defend it through a formal oral discussion called a viva voce. This will include one or more experts in your field from another institution, along with an expert within Northumbria.

Training for PhD Students

The Graduate School at Northumbria provides a structured training programme with sessions on statistical analysis, bibliographic software, academic writing skills and ethics in research. Themed workshops are offered on things like ‘doctorate essentials’, ‘managing your research degree’, ‘giving your research impact’, and ‘life after your doctorate’. 

Taught research training modules within our Masters in Research programme are also available to PhD students, such as training in quantitative and qualitative methods, academic skills training (including sessions on dissemination of research, and grant application writing), training in specialist equipment (e.g. polysomnography), statistical analysis using R software and engagement with open science practices.

Part of the training for PhD students involves learning about all aspects of an academic role, including teaching and administration. We’ve previously published a blog about how academics learn to teach, this also forms part of the learning journey of a PhD student in the psychology department. We offer our PhD students the opportunity to develop their teaching experience by working as a Demonstrator, and support PhD students working as demonstrators to work towards Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

Being a PGR Student in the Northumbria Psychology Department

PGR students in psychology work in one of our dedicated PGR or reseach centres within the Department on our City Campus. As a consequence of a strong and supportive framework for PGR supervision and training, we perform well in the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (85% overall PGR satisfaction in 2019 versus a sector average of 82% for the discipline).

PGR students attend departmental research seminars and give presentations within their particular research groups. They are also encouraged to present at international and national conferences (with travel funds awarded on a competitive basis).

The success of our PGR programmes is evidenced by students who win national prizes, including those presented by the BPS Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group  and BPS PG thesis award.

Advice from our current PGRs

If you love research, and are considering a PhD, its important to take some time and think about whether a PhD is right for you. We asked our current PGRs to tell us a bit about their experience, and for some advise for people considering undertaking a PhD

Studying for a PhD within Psychology at Northumbria is great. There is loads of support available throughout the department, and plenty of opportunities to socialise, but there’s also the freedom to escape into your thoughts if you’re more of a lone-wolf worker (like me!).

The thing I enjoy most about studying for a PhD is having the opportunity to explore my own research ideas and to see them develop into detailed studies.  I chose to pursue a PhD because I wanted to invest time in an activity which required a lot of thought, which seems a rarity in life today.  

For people considering a PhD, I would recommend asking yourself two questions: 1) Does the prospect of spending 3 years of your life in research excite you? and 2) Is there an overall research topic that you feel you could happily sink your teeth into for 3 years? If you answer ‘no’ to either question, don’t do a PhD.

Richard Brown

I really enjoy being able to solely research a topic that I am extremely interested in. It not only provides me with the opportunity to explore a topic of such importance, childhood obesity, but in doing so allows me to meet and network with some many other people in the field. It is exciting to know that the research you are doing could have such a profound impact on health practices moving forward.

I chose to study a PhD, because I had experience of being a research assistant at NU and really enjoyed it and wanted to continue along the research path. Since starting my undergraduate degree at Northumbria, I have always been interested in eating disorders and body image research, so when the opportunity came up to be involved in developing an intervention for childhood obesity, I took it.

If you are considering a PhD, I would say do it! Be prepared that it is going to be hard work and there will be challenging days, but when you’re researching a topic that you are passionate about, it really helps. It will all be worth it in the end.

The PhD community at NU are very supportive, and everyone is always there for each other for both research and emotional support. The staff have a great level of expertise in their field of research, and there is always someone who can help.

Beth Ridley

Applying for a PhD Position in Psychology

PGR students are a central part of our research culture and the University provides a Research Development Fund offering fully funded studentships. This includes funding for the tuition plus a stipend to support your living costs. These are opportunities designed by a member of staff (or a team of staff), which have been reviewed within the department and selected through a competitive process. We then advertise these projects to prospective students, and then the candidate and the project are put forward to the university who make the final decision about whether the project will be funded.

In addition, staff often receive funding from other sources to support PhD programmes and these are then advertised via the university’s research degree opportunity pages.

Students are also able to self-fund research degrees, or contact relevant staff members to discuss applications for funding if you have particular ideas. We’d always recommend discussing it with a member of staff first, but details of how to apply for self-funded PhDs can be found here.

Read more about our current opportunities here

In the department of psychology, we currently have six funded PhD opportunities advertised with a deadline of 18th February 2022. We’ve created a blog for each one below. You can find more information about the application process here

Developing a Framework of Community Well-being in Universities (Supervised by Dr Alyson Dodd)

Misogyny Online: Why does it happen and how can we stop it? (Supervised by Dr Genavee Brown)

Understanding the nature of sleep disturbances in caregivers for people with dementia with Lewy bodies (Supervised by Dr Greg Elder)

Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission (Supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien)

Coordination in Context (Supervised by Dr Merryn Constable)

Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students (Supervised by Dr Angela Rodrigues)

Funded PhD Opportunity: Developing a framework of community well-being in universities

AUTHORS: Dr Alyson Dodd, Dr Libby Orme and Dr Lisa Thomas

In this post, you’ll be able to read a bit about the PhD programe we have advertised. We’ve included a brief video to introduce the project and the supervision team too

Several leading organisations in the UK Higher Education sector (Hughes & Spanner, 2019Thorley, 2017; Universities UK, 2020) advocate a ‘whole university approach’ that promotes student and staff mental health and well-being via facilitating healthy settings, learning approaches, and support provision.

The problem of the whole university approach 

Existing research has not captured well-being from a whole-university perspective. For example, our own research discusses how student well-being is typically measured by self-report questionnaires asking about subjective or psychological well-being completed by individuals. There is relatively scant research on the well-being of university staff (particularly in non-academic roles) compared to students, but a similar individual approach to conceptualising and measuring well-being is used in research on university staff well-being. 

Research has looked at student and staff well-being separately, often focusing on specific roles and factors underpinning well-being linked to these. While this is important, the sector also needs to develop an understanding of what ‘being well together’ means in universities. In addition, the notion of what community means in universities is not well-understood. For example, the National Student Survey asks students if they ‘feel part of a community of staff and students’, but this is not clearly defined. 

Understanding what community is to students and staff in universities can help shape an understanding of how to facilitate well-being in a university community.   

What is community well-being?

Community well-being is not the same as the sum of individual subjective or psychological well-being in a given community. In a conceptual review, What Works Well-being used the following working definition of community well-being as “the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential.”  

In order for universities to facilitate a sense of community well-being, first we have to understand what community means to students and staff in Higher Education. Then we can develop a framework for conceptualising and defining universitycommunity well-being, that will inform how we measure whole-university well-being from a whole-university perspective, and evaluate initiatives developed to improve this. 

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

In line with the What Works Well-being guidance for developing a framework of community well-being, this project aims to 

  1. develop a model of university community well-being, and
  2. develop an initial measure of university community well-being.  

We hope to do this through a combination of methods, such as qualitative interviews, Delphi surveys, psychometric research and online surveys

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about well-being in universities, and is keen to further our understanding.

You should possess a sound grounding in quantitative and qualitative research methods but have ambition to extend your skills into other research design methods

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Alyson is an Associate Professor in the psychology department and is on the leadership team of the UKRI-funded network SMaRteN, which focuses on student mental health and well-being.  Alyson has led a published scoping review (see further reading), UK-wide stakeholder consultation, and a forthcoming SMaRteN report on measuring well-being in a student population. She chairs a Special Interest Group on this topic. Alyson is also a partner on the Office for Students Challenge Competition project Brighter, which is evaluating student well-being interventions. 

Libby is an Associate Professor of learning and teaching and the deputy head of the psychology department at Northumbria. She has a strong interest in student community and well-being, the transition to university, the use of technology in Higher Education and academic staff development. Libby works across disciplines on projects related to student well-being, what community means, and how these feed into university strategy.

Lisa is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department, Associate Director of the Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Research Group, chair of the Psychology Department’s Athena Swan team, and Fellow of the HEA. Prior to her lectureship appointment, she was a Senior Researcher for three successive multidisciplinary EPSRC projects- one in particular, ReelLives, explored the ways in which individuals could take ownership of their digital identity. Her research interests lie within Psychology and Human Computer Interaction (HCI)- the role of technologies in life transitions, student community and well-being, self-presentation online and authenticity.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Alyson Dodd (Alyson.dodd@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Atkinson, S., Bagnall, A., Corcoran, R., & South, J. (2017). What is community well-being? Conceptual review.  

Dodd, A. L. (2021). Student mental health research: moving forwards with clear definitions. Journal of Mental Health, 30(3),273-275. 

Dodd, A. L., Priestley, M., Tyrrell, K., Cygan, S., Newell, C., & Byrom, N. C. (2021). University student well-being in the United Kingdom: a scoping review of its conceptualisation and measurement. Journal of Mental Health, 1-13.

The Big 5 Episode 6: Barbora Duskova “You get to know yourself, what you like, and what you want to do as your career.”

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Today is National Philanthropy Day, a time to reflect on how we can volunteer our time and money to help others. On this episode of the podcast, Northumbria Psychology student, Barbora Duskova tells us about her experience volunteering for the European Federation of Psychology Students Association and working in Dr. Katri Cornelisson’s lab as a research assistant. At the end of the episode, you’ll also hear about three psychology related volunteering opportunities. Details for these are in the show notes below.

Show notes:

Wanna join the European Federation of Psychology Students Association? Find out more here.

If you’d like to become a Nightline volunteer. Check out this student union page.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for other psychology students, please check out this page.

If you’d like to take part in the Volunteer Research Assistant scheme, you can contact michael2.craig@northumbria.ac.uk and look out for information about the scheme on your program level Blackboard site. (Please note that this scheme is only for current Northumbria students.)

A transcript of the podcast can be found here.

Sleeping longer than 6.5 hours a night associated with cognitive decline according to research – what’s really going on here?

Does too much sleep really increase your risk of cognitive decline? Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Dr Greg Elder, Northumbria University

A good night’s sleep is important for many reasons. It helps our body repair itself and function as it should, and is linked to better mental health and lower risk of many health conditions – including heart disease and diabetes. It’s also been shown that not getting enough sleep is linked to cognitive decline and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

But more isn’t always better, as one recent study found. Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine have published a paper that indicates that just like getting too little sleep, sleeping too much may also be linked with cognitive decline.

The research team wanted to know how much sleep was linked to cognitive impairment over time. To do this, they looked at 100 older adults in their mid-to-late-70s on average, and tracked them for between four and five years. At the time of their study, 88 people did not show any signs of dementia, while 12 showed signs of cognitive impairment (one with mild dementia and 11 with the pre-dementia stage of mild cognitive impairment).

Throughout the study, participants were asked to complete a range of commonplace cognitive and neuropsychological tests to look for signs of cognitive decline or dementia. Their scores from these tests were then combined into a single score, called the Preclinical Alzheimer Cognitive Composite (PACC) score. The higher the score, the better their cognition was over time.

Sleep was measured using a single-electrode encephalography (EEG) device, which participants wore on their forehead while sleeping, for a total of between four to six nights. This was done once, three years after people first completed their annual cognitive tests. This EEG allowed the researchers to accurately measure brain activity, which would tell them whether or not someone was asleep (and for how long), and how restful that sleep was.

Two examples of EEG devices on mannequin heads.
Participants would have worn a device similar to this to track their sleep. wideonet/ Shutterstock

Although sleep was only measured at one period during the study, this still gave the research team a good indication of participants’ normal sleep habits. While using an EEG to measure brain activity may be somewhat disruptive to sleep on the first night, as people get used to the equipment, sleep tends to return to normal the following night. This means that when sleep is tracked from the second night onwards it’s a good representation of a person’s normal sleep habits.

The researchers also took into account other factors that can affect cognitive decline – including age, genetics and whether a person had signs of the proteins beta-amyloid or tau, which are both linked to dementia.

Overall, the researchers found that sleeping less than 4.5 hours and more than 6.5 hours a night – alongside poor quality sleep – was associated with cognitive decline over time. Interestingly, the impact of sleep duration on cognitive function was similar to the effect of age, which is the greatest risk factor for developing cognitive decline.

A good night’s sleep

We know from previous research that lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. For example, one study showed that people who reported sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness, have a greater risk of developing dementia compared to people who don’t. Other research has shown that people who have short sleeping times have higher levels of beta-amyloid in their brain – which is commonly found in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers don’t know for certain why lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. One theory is that sleep helps our brain flush out harmful proteins that build up during the day. Some of these proteins – like beta-amyloid and tau – are thought to cause dementia. So interfering with sleep might interfere with our brain’s ability to get rid of these. Experimental evidence even supports this – showing that even just one night of sleep deprivation temporarily increases beta-amyloid levels in the brain of healthy people.

But it’s less clear why long sleep is linked with cognitive decline. Previous studies have also found a link between over-sleep and cognitive performance, but most relied upon participants self-reporting how long they sleep nightly – which means the data is less accurate than using an EEG to measure brain activity. This new study therefore adds weight to such findings.

What’s surprising about this study’s findings is that the optimal sleep duration is much shorter than that which previous studies have suggested are problematic. The study showed that sleeping longer than 6.5 hours was associated with cognitive decline over time – this is low when we consider that older adults are recommended to get between seven and eight hours of sleep every night.

It could be the case that it isn’t necessarily the length of the sleep that matters, but the quality of that sleep when it comes to risk of developing dementia. For instance, this study also showed that having less “slow-wave” sleep – restorative sleep – particularly affected cognitive impairment.

What we also cannot tell from this study is if long sleep durations can independently predict cognitive decline. Essentially, we can’t rule out that participants who slept longer than 6.5 hours every night might not have already had pre-existing cognitive problems of brain changes suggestive of dementia that weren’t picked up on the tests. And although the researchers were careful to adjust for dementia-related factors, longer sleepers may also have had other pre-existing conditions that might have contributed to their cognitive decline which weren’t taken into account. For example, this could include poor health, socioeconomic status or physical activity levels. All of these factors together may explain why longer sleep was linked to cognitive decline.

There are many factors which can impact on both our sleep quality, and whether we experience cognitive decline. While some factors aren’t preventable (such as genetic predisposition), there are many things we can do alongside getting a good night’s sleep to help reduce our likelihood of developing dementia – such as exercising and eating a healthy diet. But while the researchers of this study seem to suggest there’s an optimal sleep duration – between 4.5 and 6.5 hours every night – the occasional weekend lie-in is unlikely to do your brain any harm.

About the author

Greg Elder is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Northumrbia, Associate Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, and a member of the Cognition and Neuroscience Group. You can read more posts by the group over in our Cognition and Neuroscience Blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Big 5: Episode 4 Jen Merritt “I just kind of want to continue doing research in my career.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This week on The Big 5 Northumbria Psychology Department alumni, Jen Merritt, gives us some tips and tricks for succeeding at a Level 6 dissertation project and also talks about how to get a job with the NHS.

You can get in touch with Jen on her LinkedIn account.

You can get in touch with me, the host, on Twitter @BrownGenavee or genavee.brown@northumbria.ac.uk.

Interested in getting a job with the NHS like Jen? Here’s a link to their jobs website: https://www.jobs.nhs.uk/

A link to the transcript of this podcast can be found here.

The Big 5 episode 3: Dr. Nick Neave on Digital Hoarding “We keep possessions and form attachment to possessions. That’s what humans do.”

Photo of digital files on a computer screen.

On #CleanYourVirtualDesktopDay, Dr. Nick Neave tells us about his research on Digital Hoarding. We learn more about how humans anthropomorphise their possessions and why we have such a hard time throwing things away.

Show notes:

You can find the transcript of this episode here: Episode 3 Nick Neave transcript.docx

For more information on Nick’s research, visit his page here.

To find out more about types of digital hoarders, you can read this paper.

For more on the anthropomorphism questionnaire, you can read this paper.

Understanding Menopause

The 18th October is World Menopause Day. Researchers in the psychology department are working to futher our understanding of menopause, how it impacts women and how we can alleviate some of the negative symptoms of menopause. In this post, Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay explains the basics of menopause and tell us about her teams current research projects, from research in to sleep disturbances, dietary changes and menopause in the workplace.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com
author: Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay, department of psychology, northumbria university

Menopause – The Basics

Menopause is a normal, natural life event experienced by most women, and some men. Menopause results in lower levels of oestrogen and other hormones and is defined as the permanent loss of menstrual periods, usually confirmed when a period is missed for 12 consecutive months. This typically occurs between ages 40 and 58, with the average age being 51.

Perimenopause is the stage from the beginning of menopausal symptoms to the postmenopause and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. During the perimenopause, hormone levels change and the ovaries start to produce fewer eggs. Although over half of the world will experience menopause and the potential for debilitating symptoms associated with it, this important life event receives very little attention and is often not discussed.

Hot, sweaty and sweary

There are a number of common physical symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause, including:

  • Changes to your menstrual cycle
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Incontinence and bladder problems
  • Weight gain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulty sleeping

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Problems with memory and concentration – “brain fog”
  • Loss of interest in sex

However, experience of the menopause is different for everyone and a lack of awareness of the full array of symptoms both from the point of view of the individual and often within the medical profession can lead to menopause not being diagnosed. Psychological symptoms are particularly likely to be missed and often anti-depressants are prescribed without identification of menopause as the underlying cause.

Managing menopause symptoms through diet

Alternatives to anti-depressants include dietary supplements and herbal extracts and there are a range of these supplements that are marketed with claims to improve symptoms related to menopause. Unfortunately, research examining the effects of these supplements is limited and there is a lack of good evidence to support the claims made. However, research has indicated that a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes is associated with delayed onset of natural menopause whereas refined pasta and rice was associated with earlier menopause. A higher intake of vitamin B6 and zinc was also associated with later age at menopause.

A limited number of studies have also assessed the role of diet in reducing or exacerbating menopausal symptoms. A recent systematic review indicated that lower intensity of symptoms was associated with a diet comprising of more vegetables, whole grain and unprocessed food. However, the majority of studies in this area have focused on specific aspects of menopause symptoms or on specific aspects of the diet, with a lack of studies conducted in the UK.

Overall, evidence on the relationship between dietary intake and menopausal symptoms is inconsistent and inconclusive. Within the Psychology department at Northumbria we are currently conducting research exploring the relationship between menopause symptoms, mental wellbeing, and diet in a UK population.

Menopausal sleep disturbance

Sleep disturbances are extremely common during menopause, where specific problems include difficulties with falling asleep, frequent awakenings, awakening too early, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Therefore, interventions which improve or prevent menopause-related sleep disturbances are extremely important and are likely to aid physical and psychological health. To date, there are no systematic reviews of nutritional interventions to treat menopause-related sleep disturbances. Researchers within the department are currently completing a systematic review of the literature exploring nutritional interventions for menopause-related sleep disturbances.

The findings from both of the current projects relating to diet will inform the development of subsequent nutritional intervention trials examining the impact on menopausal symptoms and specifically on sleep disturbances in menopause.

Menopause in the workplace

As menopause is rarely discussed this can lead to a lack of support and issues in the workplace. Almost one million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms. As the issue mainly affects those in their late 40s and early 50s, this leads to women eligible for senior management roles leaving work at the peak of their career. This also leads to knock-on effects to workplace productivity, the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.

In July it was announced that an inquiry was being launched by the Commons cross-party women and equalities committee examining “An invisible cohort: why are workplaces failing women going through the menopause?”. This inquiry will scrutinise existing legislation and workplace practices and will draw up recommendations with a view to shaping policies to address gender equality. As stated by the Chair of this committee:

“Three in every five women are negatively affected at work as a result of the menopause. The repercussions of that are not merely individual. Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society and our place on the world stage.”

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP

Whilst this issue is gaining some attention there is still a lack of awareness of individual’s experiences of menopause in the workplace and particularly the types of support that may lead to improvements in psychological symptoms of the perimenopause/menopause.

About the author and research team

Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay is a professor of Biological Psychology in the psychology department. She is also Director of Postgraduate Research and a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group

The projects described above are all being conducted in collaboration with paid student interns or placement students (Abi Glancey, Maddy Lane, Dominik Polasek) as well as staff members in Psychology: Greg ElderVicki Elsey, Nayantara Santhi and Michael Smith.

If you are interested in learning more about this research, please contact crystal.haskell-ramsay@northumbria.ac.uk

Understanding the harms of hate crime

Author: Dr Jenny Paterson, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University; Prof MArk Walters, School of law, plitics and sociology, university of sussex

After the England men’s football team reached their first major final in 55 years, the national headlines should have been celebrating their exceptional achievement. Instead, the focus quickly turned to the vile racist abuse targeted at three Black players: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho. These young men were subjected to widespread racist hatred and threats on social media platforms. The magnitude and ferocity of such incidents of hate is, regrettably, just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of hate crimes are reported across England and Wales every week, with the total number of cases officially recorded by the police doubling over the past ten years to over 100,000 incidents per year

A mural honouring the work of Marcus Rashford was defaced with racist abuse soon after the Euro 2020 Final (BBC).

Hate: a special category of crime

In England and Wales, hate crimes, such as those directed at the football players, are defined as any crime (e.g., threats of violence, harassment, vandalism, assault) that is perceived to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards five legally protected characteristics: an individual’s (i) race, (ii) religion, (iii) sexual orientation, (iv) transgender identity, or (v) disability. Importantly, when a crime is shown to demonstrate or be motivated by these prejudices, the courts ‘must’ apply a ‘sentence uplift’, meaning perpetrators receive an increased punishment for their crime. Thus, the distinction of hate crime has real, tangible effects for perpetrators. But why are hate crimes considered to be a ‘special’ category of offending?

The impacts of hate 

Critics of hate crime legislation have argued that such laws are prosecuting thoughts rather than actions, and that crimes, regardless of their underlying motivations, should be prosecuted in the same way. However, not only does this argument misinterpret the true nature and dynamics of hate crime, but it also fails to recognise that criminal responsibility must reflect both an offender’s level of culpability for committing an offence and the level of harm it is likely to cause. There is now considerable research that shows hate crimes are unique because the motivations underpinning such offences have additional traumatic effects both on individual victims and entire communities of people 

On the individual level, research shows that hate crime victims report feeling more anxious, fearful, and vulnerable than victims of comparable non-hate crimes. Hate crime victims are also more likely to suffer more violent attacks, resulting in substantial physical injuries and in turn extensive psychological trauma. Furthermore, as hate crimes specifically target individual’s core identities and beliefs, victims are more likely to feel ostracised and marginalised, forcing them to question their place and worth in society.

The impacts do not stop there. Hate crimes act as messages of intolerance to entire communities. By targeting one member, these crimes reverberate throughout communities who share the victim’s identity characteristic causing ‘waves of harm’, in which all members are shown (or reminded) that they are vulnerable to targeted violence because of who they are.

In our research which involved 20 separate studies with over 7000 individuals in England and Wales, we have consistently found that hate crimes have a significant impact on targeted community members’ perceptions of threat (against their physical safety and rights as equal citizens), which in turn has significant negative effects on their emotional wellbeing, and their behaviours. For example, when LGBT+ participants personally knew of, or read about, other LGBT+ individuals’ experiences of hate crimes, they reported feeling vulnerable, anxious, angry, and even ashamed. While many community members sought solace with fellow LGBT+ people and were more determined to fight injustice, many also chose to avert potential prejudice-based abuse by avoiding certain locations and people, restricting public displays of affections to their partners and were less likely to reveal their sexual orientation to others.   

These ‘social harms’ have significant implications for society in general, making it less open, less equal, and less diverse. In other words, hate crimes don’t just hurt those groups who are targeted, they hurt everyone who wants to live in a diverse and open society. In this sense, hate crime laws reflect the greater seriousness of such offences, not only acknowledging the enhanced harms they cause to those targeted, but they also recognise that they are a direct attack against liberal democracy’s commitment to fundamental principles including freedom and equality. Here we are reminded of the indelible words of Martin Luther King Jr who stated, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

Informing policy and practice

A central aim of our interdisciplinary research is to help combat and address the impacts of hate crimes. In doing so, we have worked with thousands of victims, multiple criminal justice agencies, and numerous charities, including Stonewall, Galop, Tell MAMA, and the Muslim Council of Britain, to ensure the research can be used to raise awareness of hate crimes and provide support to those who are affected.

Yet it is clear that much still needs to be done to prevent hate crimes and address the harms they cause. To this end, hate crime law reform consultations have been taking place across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, Judge Desmond Marrinan recently published an extensive review in hate crime legislation, while the Law Commission for England and Wales have published a 516 page consultation paper on hate crime laws and will publish their final report  later this year. Both reviews are examining the use of restorative justice as an alternative intervention to address the rise in hate crime.

In its simplest terms, restorative justice helps victims and perpetrators to communicate with one another about the causes and harms of hate incidents in an effort to repair these harms and to prevent further offences. Central to the process is that those who are harmed are given a role in resolving their case, which can involve them explaining directly to the perpetrator how they have been affected and what needs to be done to assist their recover. Those who have harmed are asked to take responsibility by undertaking some form of reparation (such as financial compensation, written apologies, community or charitable work).

Although there has been initial policy resistance to its use for hate crime, our contributions to both reviews showed that restorative justice can be highly effective at reducing the emotional traumas caused by hate crime, while simultaneously preventing incidents from recurring. Perhaps almost as important is our newest research which showed that the use of restorative justice for hate crimes is supported by targeted communities and, thus, may not be seen as the “soft touch” commonly assumed by policy makers. The Northern Ireland review has in turn recommended the development of a new statutory scheme for adult restorative justice for hate crime. We hope that both Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK lead the way in instituting restorative justice practices as a means of addressing hate crime.

Another important proposal by both the Northern Ireland review and the Law Commission consultation is to broaden the scope of the current laws to include other protected characteristics, including gender and sex – a topic that has been receiving increasing support and media attention following the recent murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, pre-empting the work of the Commission and its final report the Prime Minister has stated that misogyny should not be made a hate crime. This is despite a wealth of research showing its existence as a social problem and its impact on women. It is clear that further research and, importantly, engagement with policymakers is needed to emphasise how hate-motivated attacks target individuals, threaten vast groups of people and, ultimately, undermine society. It is only by engaging with policymakers and practitioners that our research can truly help all those affected by these crimes.

Hate Crime Awareness Week

This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and impact of hate crimes, and to provide support for all those who are affected. Please click on the following links if you would like to know more about hate crime, how to report it, and how to get support if you or someone you know has been a victim.  

If you are interested in conducting research on hate crimes, please contact jenny.paterson@northumbria.ac.uk.

About the authors

Dr Jenny Paterson is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, within the Social Research group in the Department of Psychology, Northumbria University. Prof. Mark Walters is a Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. Both have worked extensively with Prof. Rupert Brown at the University of Sussex on the Sussex Hate Crime Project.

Northumbria researchers win Prolific Grant Competition

Richard Brown and Dr Gillian Pepper’s research proposal was crowned the overall winner of  Prolific’s Grant Competition. This will provide valuable funding for Richard’s next PhD study, supervised by Gillian, which aims to investigate perceptions of control over risk.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Over 2000 users of the recruitment platform Prolific voted to select the top 5 proposals out of more than 100 entries from universities and research institutions from around the word. Prolific’s internal review panel then selected the Northumbria Psychology Department’s research duo as the overall winner. The proposal requested £4,700 to pay for future research costs and the winners were awarded this amount in full.

Their winning proposal was entitled “Die young, live fast? Does the feeling that you’ll die young, no matter what you do, encourage unhealthy behaviour and worsen health inequalities?” The study will aim to investigate what causes of death are widely believed to be uncontrollable and what information people use to assess personal risk. This looks to build on previous research conducted by Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University into the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis (1, 2).

The Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis

This suggests that people who believe they are likely to die due to factors beyond their control take less care of their health because they are less likely to live to see the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle. This is of particular relevance to social class differences in health behaviours. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are typically exposed to greater levels of uncontrollable risk. This may cause them to be less motivated to engage in preventative health behaviours, thus worsening existing health inequalities. To encapsulate the point, the proposal asks, “If you believed you were likely to be a victim of a stabbing before the age of 30, would eating your 5 a day seem very important?”

Little is known about what causes of death are thought to be beyond individual control, or why. By investigating perceptions of control over death, and identifying the informational sources of these perceptions, this study hopes to provide valuable insights for public health interventions. These insights may inform structural interventions aimed at reducing specific types of environmental risk, or help to produce targeted health messaging to influence perceived levels of control. Ultimately, the aim is to produce findings that help to understand health behaviours and how to reduce avoidable deaths.

Richard and Gillian are thrilled with the outcome of the competition and would like to thank everyone that helped and voted for their proposal. Time to get to work!

References

1.         Pepper GV, Nettle D. Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ. 2014;2:e459.

2.         Nettle D. Why are there social gradients in preventative health behavior? A perspective from behavioral ecology. PLoS One. 2010;5(10):e13371.

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Treatments for Mental Health Problems 

To mark World Mental Health Day, I’m writing a blog that covers two separate, but related, things. Both things relate to a question a patient asked me back in about 2014 and which I have thought a lot about since then

“Why aren’t researchers churning out new treatments for mental health problems the way new treatments for cancer get churned out?” 

Author: Dr David Smailes

The first thing I wanted to write about is something that I think is implicit in that patient’s question, but doesn’t exactly answer it. It’s about how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to other types of health problems.

How effective are treatments for mental health problems?

A relatively widely held belief is that interventions for mental health problems aren’t very effective. However, at least some of the data we have suggests that treatments in psychiatry (such as medications for things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and panic disorder) work, on average, about as well as treatments for other types of health problems (such as medications for heart failure, asthma, and COPD). 

A number of caveats need to be added here, as the authors of the study – Leucht and colleagues – noted. For example, it is difficult to compare how well treatments for different illnesses or health problems work because the outcomes researchers in different fields look at are so different. That is, if a psychological/psychiatric treatment doubles the likelihood that a patient recovers from depression, is that treatment as effective as one which halves the risk of someone dying from a heart attack? That’s a hard judgement to make. We also need to take into account things like the side effects of treatments, too. All of this means, in short, that it’s very difficult to say how well treatments for mental health problems work in comparison to treatments for other types of health problems. But looking at the data from Leucht and colleagues’ analysis, treatments for mental health problems seem reasonably effective. 

That being said, I think no one would disagree with the claim that we need to develop novel, more effective treatments for mental health problems. Disappointingly, over the past few decades, few – if any – novel, more effective interventions for mental health problems have been developed. There are many possible explanations for the lack of novel, more effective treatments – low levels of funding in mental health research in comparison to things like cancer researchmental health problems simply being more difficult to understand and develop interventions forresearchers focussing on the wrong kinds of questions. But the possible explanation I’m focussing on here is that too much of the research done into the causes of mental health problems can’t be replicated. 

The problem of replication

When research can’t be replicated, this means that when other researchers try to repeat a study someone else has performed, they fail to find the same results. The results of the original study, therefore, may be untrustworthy. Over the past decade, many scientific fields have re-examined what proportion of the findings they generate are replicable, and in several areas of psychology it has been estimated that only 30-50% of findings are replicable. Mental health researchers have, however, not really examined how replicable (or trustworthy) findings in our field are. But I see no reason to expect that our field will be different to other areas of psychology. This means that it is quite likely that much of the evidence we have about what factors might cause mental health problems will be wrong. And this is important because our understanding of what causes mental health problems tends to shape the treatments we develop to treat mental health problems. So, if we aren’t doing replicable research into what causes mental health problems, then we have little chance of developing novel, more effective treatments for those mental health problems. 

Happily, there are many reasonably straightforward solutions to these problems. We know, for example, that running studies that (a) use larger samples than we have typically achieved in the past, that (b) pay more attention to how well variables are being measured, and that (c) involve fully open reporting of how the study will be run and how its data will be analysed generates findings that are more replicable and trustworthy.

How is the Psychology Department at Northumbria addressing this issue?

Here in the Department of Psychology, we have been conducting studies in line with these solutions, to try to improve the replicability and trustworthiness of mental health research. These studies have tested how replicable some findings in hallucinations research are when large sample sizes are used and have shown how we can examine whether variables in research have been measured effectively. More broadly, Northumbria University has joined the UK Reproducibility Network, an organisation that aims to improve the replicability and reproducibility of all areas of research in the UK. This is a really important step and shows that the university is committed to generating really robust, trustworthy research. 

As I said earlier, some the solutions to the problem of research findings that can’t be replicated and so seem untrustworthy are quite straightforward, but they are often time-consuming and costly. This has meant that the take-up of these solutions has been quite slow. But, at least to me, it does feel like mental health research is beginning to move in the right direction. And the quicker that can happen, the sooner we should be able to start developing novel, more effective treatments to help people struggling with their mental health. 

Interested in hearing about our research in to mental health?

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