Tackle loneliness with a little help from your friends

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AUTHOR: Alexandra Thompson, PGR Student, Department of Psychology

This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.

The problem of loneliness

This increased focus is not without good reason. Experiencing loneliness, also referred to as perceived social isolation, can potentially lead to increased risk of developing health problems. Such issues include cardiovascular disease and stroke (1), dementia and cognitive decline (2), depression and anxiety (3) and chronic health conditions such as diabetes (4). Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation carries the same level of health risk as obesity and smoking (5).

Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.

This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.

As you might expect, romantic social connections, such as being in a relationship or being married, offer some protection against loneliness (7). But what about other types of social links? One social connection which appears to be particularly important to older adults are friendships. Friendships seem to be more beneficial in preventing loneliness than family relationships (8). This may not be that surprising as family relationships have the potential to be based more on obligation than friendships and also at times can be fraught with conflict. It has been shown that (9) increasing the number of friends you have generally reduces loneliness (9). However, recent evidence from our department has shown that simply making more friends might not be the answer (10).

What is the magic number?

We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).

About the Author

Alexandra Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology, working within the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group and supervised by Professor Thomas Pollet. You can read more about the work of the research group over in this section of the blog

References

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
  2. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
  3. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
  4. Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
  5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
  6. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
  7. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
  8. Lee, G. R., & Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1987). Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Emotional Well-Being among the Elderly. Research on Aging, 9(4), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027587094001
  9. Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
  10. Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
  11. 11. Dunbar, R. I. M., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Human Nature, 6(3), 273–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02734142
  12. Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of Loneliness in U.S. Adults Over Age Sixty-Five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 23(5), 387–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2008.11.00

The Big 5 Episode 18: Dr. Faye Horsley “Why do some people engage adaptively with fire while others go on to misuse it?”

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On this smoking hot episode, Dr. Faye Horsley tells us about her work on the human fire relationship. She talks about why people use fire and how we can prevent its misuse. She also tells us about her new book: New Perspectives on Arson and Firesetting: The Human-Fire Relationship.

Show notes:

If you want a copy of Faye’s book, you can buy a print or e-book version here.

If you’d like to know more about Faye’s work, you can follow her on Linked In or check out her Northumbria Staff page.

We’ll be going on summer break after a very successful Season 1 of The Big 5 NU Psych Podcast, but we’ll be back in September with all new students and researchers to tell us about their experience studying psychology at Northumbria University. Please do follow me @BrownGenavee on Twitter to stay updated on Season 2!

Transcript for this episode.

The Big 5 Ep 17 Kristans Nemkovics “I embarked on this journey to find the pillars that are important to succeed in your studies.”

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In this episode, Kristians Nemkovics tells us about studying during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kristians went on a journey to develop new health sleep, study and eating habits. Kristians gives students advice on how to succeed at university.

Show notes:

For more information on developing good study habits check out this advice from the Amercian Psychological Association.

For some tips on improving your sleep hygiene check out this website. If you’re interested in studying sleep we have many excellent sleep researchers in the department. You can read a blog about their work here and find out why you sometimes feel like you’re falling when you go to sleep.

For some tips on how to start an exercise regimen, check out this advice on the Mayo Clinic’s website and here are some free excercise videos from the NHS.

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 16: Dr. Micheal Smith “I sometimes feel stressed in my day to day life. What can I do about it?”

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On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Micheal Smith tells us about a simple way to reduce stress: writing about a positive event in our lives. This episode is our second installment in honor of Stress Awareness Month.

Show notes:

Want to read more about Micheal’s research? You can find more about him on his staff page.

Here is another articles on expressive writing where Dr. Smith is featured:

https://hbr.org/2021/07/writing-can-help-us-heal-from-trauma

You can find the show transcript here.

A plant-enriched diet for a healthy mind (and a longer life!)

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AUTHOR: Dr Philippa Jackson

A study published last month revealed that adopting a diet high in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and fish and low in red and processed meat and sugary beverages could lead to an increased lifespan [1]. The authors revealed that the greatest gains in life expectancy could be possible by changing to an optimal diet in your 20’s (10 years), but even changes later in life at the age of 80 might extend life by almost three-and-a-half-years.

When considering ‘optimal ageing’, thoughts may immediately turn to a long life free of chronic illness, especially non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and this study suggests that plant-based nutrient-dense foods are fundamental to ageing successfully. Of course, ensuring optimal mental health and brain function across the lifespan is equally important and here nutrition also has an important role to play. Indeed, a recent review found that dietary patterns containing the exact same beneficial food groups identified in the study above had a protective effect with regards to improving measures of cognitive impairment and/or reducing risk of cognitive impairment or dementia [2].

However, you don’t need to wait until older adulthood to feel the benefits of following a healthy diet; data from our lab at Nothumbria University collected over the last two decades has revealed beneficial effects of a wide variety of nutrients (e.g. vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids), herbal extracts (e.g. ginkgo biloba, ginseng, lemon balm) and plant compounds found in everyday products (tea, chocolate, berry fruits) on cognitive function and mood in healthy adults that are observable after the course of anything from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the item. In this blog, I’ve talked about some of our more recent findings.

There’s more than just caffeine to your morning coffee ‘hit’

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The alerting effects of coffee are often ascribed to the beverage’s caffeine content. Although not untrue, caffeine is not the only ‘active’ ingredient in coffee; in fact, the coffee bean itself contains a plethora of different compounds that have the potential to either directly affect brain function or work together with caffeine to produce effects. The major group of compounds of interest in coffee are called chlorogenic acids (CGA) and are particularly enriched in the flesh of the coffee fruit itself (coffee berry) and green unroasted beans.

Although roasting the beans diminishes the amount of CGA found in your average cup of coffee they are still present, with one study reporting CGA espresso content in several European countries in the range of 6–188 mg per cup [3]. Two recent studies from our lab investigated the effects of coffee berry extract on mood and cognitive performance and found a consistent pattern of alerting effects that was evident across the entire six-hour testing period, which cannot be attributed to the relatively small amount of caffeine found in the extract (22 mg vs 75 mg in an average cup of coffee) [4, 5].

These results support some of our previous findings, which demonstrated alerting effects of decaffeinated coffee in both younger and older adults [6]. Collectively, these data point to an alerting effect of the non-caffeine components of coffee. As it is these compounds that are also likely to underpin coffee’s beneficial effects on physical health [7], individuals choosing decaffeinated options are still getting a healthful ‘hit’ in the morning too.

The world’s most valuable spice: An unlikely mood enhancer

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Saffron is known throughout the world for its distinctive colour and taste and has been used in culinary dishes across Europe and Asia for millennia. Saffron stigmas are naturally rich in several bioactive compounds and its pain-relieving and sedative properties are recognised by traditional Asian medicine where it is used to treat a range of physical ailments including menstrual disorder, inflammation and depression [8, 9].

The anti-depressant activity of this herb has recently been explored in controlled trials; a meta-analysis of these data revealed that 30 g/d saffron extract for six weeks significantly improved symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder compared to placebo, but also had similar antidepressant efficacy when compared with mainstream antidepressant medications [10].

Our lab investigated whether these mood effects could be seen in otherwise healthy adults who reported subclinical feelings of low mood and anxiety and/or stress, who would not meet a formal diagnosis of depression. Compared to placebo, we found that eight weeks’ supplementation with 30 g/d saffron extract improved depressive symptoms, although no effects were observed for stress or anxiety [11]. Findings such as this are important as they highlight the potential for non-pharmacological plant extracts in supporting mental health. 

A humble herb with an ancient medicinal past

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Few would naturally think of their herb garden as a source of the next generation of dementia preventing products but the aromatic herbs belonging to the mint family such as peppermint, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm and sage are a rich source of phytochemicals with established psychoactive properties relevant to cognitive decline. Of all these culinary herbs, sage has the widest documented use in traditional medicine dating back to the ancient Greeks and is reputed to have cognitive or memory enhancing effects by several medicinal systems [12].

These effects were investigated by our lab using controlled trials and we have demonstrated consistent improvements in cognitive function in healthy adults following single doses of two different species of sage, Salvia officinalis (garden sage) and Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage)[13, 14]. Concurrent beneficial effects on mood such as increased calmness and alertness [15] and reduced mental fatigue [16] have also been observed.

Our lab also recently demonstrated beneficial effects on working, or short term, memory performance after four weeks’ daily consumption of a treatment combining both these sage species [17], opening up the exciting possibility of exploiting the individual chemical profiles of both species for maximum benefit.

So what should we be eating?

These are just a few examples of some of the interesting effects of different dietary items, some of which are consumed every day. The plants we ingest, in whatever form, are packed with compounds that interact with the chemistry of our bodies and brains that have the potential to help us live healthier, happier, and ultimately longer lives. The best way to achieve this is to incorporate as wide a variety of plants into your diet as you can.

About the Author

Dr Philippa Jackson is an associate professor in the psychology department at northumbria university and associate director of our Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre. The centre sits within our Health and Wellbeing Research Group.

References

  1. Fadnes, L.T., et al., Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: A modeling study. PLOS Medicine, 2022. 19(2): p. e1003889.
  2. Boushey, C., et al., USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Reviews, in Dietary Patterns and Neurocognitive Health: A Systematic Review. 2020, USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review: Alexandria (VA).
  3. Ludwig, I.A., et al., Variations in caffeine and chlorogenic acid contents of coffees: what are we drinking? Food Funct, 2014. 5(8): p. 1718-26.
  4. Jackson, P.A., et al., A Randomized, Crossover Study of the Acute Cognitive and Cerebral Blood Flow Effects of Phenolic, Nitrate and Botanical Beverages in Young, Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2020. 12(8): p. 2254.
  5. Jackson, P.A., et al., Acute cognitive performance and mood effects of coffee berry and apple extracts: A randomised, double blind, placebo controlled crossover study in healthy humans. Nutr Neurosci, 2021: p. 1-9.
  6. Haskell-Ramsay, C.F., et al., The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients, 2018. 10: p. 1386.
  7. Tajik, N., et al., The potential effects of chlorogenic acid, the main phenolic components in coffee, on health: a comprehensive review of the literature. Eur J Nutr, 2017. 56(7): p. 2215-2244.
  8. Rios, J.L., et al., An update review of saffron and its active constituents. Phytotherapy Research, 1996. 10(3): p. 189-193.
  9. Akhondzadeh, S., et al., Crocus sativus L. in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytother Res, 2005. 19(2): p. 148-51.
  10. Hausenblas, H.A., et al., Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Integr Med, 2013. 11(6): p. 377-83.
  11. Jackson, P. A., Forster, J., Khan, J., Pouchieu, C., Dubreuil, S., Gaudout, D., … & Kennedy, D. O. (2021). Effects of saffron extract supplementation on mood, well-being, and response to a psychosocial stressor in healthy adults: A randomized, double-blind, parallel group, clinical trial. Frontiers in nutrition, 365.
  12. Kennedy, D.O. and A.B. Scholey, The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties. Curr Pharm Des, 2006. 12(35): p. 4613-23.
  13. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Monoterpenoid extract of sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) with cholinesterase inhibiting properties improves cognitive performance and mood in healthy adults. J Psychopharmacol, 2011. 25(8): p. 1088-100.
  14. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Effects of cholinesterase inhibiting sage (Salvia officinalis) on mood, anxiety and performance on a psychological stressor battery. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2006. 31(4): p. 845-852.
  15. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage) enhances memory in healthy young volunteers. Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 2003. 75(3): p. 669-74.
  16. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers. Physiol Behav, 2005. 83(5): p. 699-709.
  17. Wightman, E.L., et al., The Acute and Chronic Cognitive Effects of a Sage Extract: A Randomized, Placebo Controlled Study in Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2021. 13(1): p. 218.

ASMR is linked to anxiety and neuroticism, our new research finds

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AUTHOR: Dr Joanna Greer, Department of Psychology

The autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is described as an intensely pleasant tingling sensation originating in the scalp and neck, and spreading down the body. ASMR is elicited by a range of video and auditory triggers, such as watching someone pretend to perform relaxing actions like massaging or hair brushing, or listening to soft sounds such as whispers or tapping. There are countless ASMR videos on forums such as YouTube attracting thousands, or in some instances millions, of subscribers and hits.

The triggers vary from person to person. But for millions of people worldwide, ASMR is a go-to for relaxation, sleep and to reduce stress.

While research interest in the phenomenon is growing, there’s a lot we still don’t know about ASMR. For example, why do some people experience tingles and others don’t? Could understanding the personality traits associated with ASMR guide us when thinking about ASMR as a potential therapeutic intervention?

Emerging literature suggests that people who are capable of experiencing ASMR exhibit greater levels of neuroticism. Neuroticism is a personality trait typically defined as a tendency towards depression, self-doubt and other negative feelings.

Neuroticism is also associated with a tendency to experience negative emotional states such as anxiety. And we know that people who watch ASMR regularly may do so to relax or reduce stress, potentially indicating elevated levels of anxiety.

Currently, there is very little research linking neuroticism with anxiety in people who experience ASMR, or into the effect of watching ASMR videos on anxiety. Our new study aimed to add to the evidence in these areas.

What we did

We recruited 36 people who experience ASMR and 28 people who don’t. All participants watched a five-minute ASMR video that was a compilation of multiple common ASMR triggers.

Before watching the video, the participants completed questionnaires assessing their levels of neuroticism, trait anxiety (a predisposition to experience ongoing anxiety), and state anxiety (their anxiety levels in the moment). They also answered questions about their state anxiety after viewing the video.

The ASMR-experiencers had significantly greater scores for neuroticism and trait anxiety compared to the non-experiencers, which suggests these are characteristics associated with the ability to experience ASMR. The ASMR-experiencers also had greater pre-video state anxiety scores, which were significantly reduced after watching the video.

In contrast, there was no difference in non-experiencers’ state anxiety scores before and after watching the video. So the ASMR video alleviated anxiety, but only among the ASMR-experiencers.

A woman sitting in a park watching something on her laptop, with earphones in.
ASMR videos are very popular on YouTube. Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

However, when we looked at the data in a different way, we found that a propensity for greater neuroticism and anxiety overall – regardless of whether participants experienced ASMR or not – was associated with the ASMR video having a positive effect on anxiety levels.

This emphasises the importance of individual personality traits when thinking about ASMR as a potential therapeutic intervention. It also shows us that the benefits of watching ASMR videos can be experienced even if you don’t necessarily feel the “tingle”.

What does this all mean?

We have provided new evidence regarding the traits that may characterise people who experience ASMR, and an indication that ASMR could have potential as an alternative treatment for anxiety.

Our study supports previous research demonstrating that ASMR-experiencers exhibit greater levels of neuroticism. We’ve also found that people with elevated anxiety levels are more likely to experience ASMR.

Notably, in our study, watching the ASMR video reduced state anxiety among people who experience ASMR. While this seems logical considering that people who seek out ASMR often do so for therapeutic reasons, the results of our study also suggest that ASMR may have anxiety-reducing effects more generally.

So if people are prone to neuroticism and/or anxiety, they may benefit from watching ASMR – even if they don’t routinely watch ASMR videos or experience ASMR tingles.

Where to next?

Our study was only in a relatively small number of people, and we cannot discount that the targeted group most likely had a predisposition to seek out ASMR. So it will be important to carry out research with more ASMR-naive participants.

Certainly, further research into the use of ASMR as a psychological intervention will be important to better understand how this may help people who experience anxiety.

In the meantime, findings from recent neuroimaging studies are beginning to shed more light on this phenomenon. Using a type of brain imaging called electroenchephalograpy (EEG), researchers have shown that the electrical activity known to be associated with relaxation (including mindfulness meditation) increased in response to ASMR stimuli. This was true even when participants were performing a mentally demanding task.

These studies suggest that ASMR leads to changes in brain activity typically associated with a relaxed state, possibly even during day-to-day activities. More neuroimaging research will compliment behavioural studies and help us to identify the mechanisms that could underpin ASMR’s anxiety-reducing capabilities.

About the author

Joanna Greer is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department, working in the Cognition and Neuroscience research cluster.

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

Funded PhD Opportunity: Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students

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Author(s): Angela Rodrigues and Nicki O’Brien

The field of health communication tends to centre on analysing the effectiveness of specific information contexts and less on relationships between message framing, intentions and behaviour (Nabi & Green, 2015; Joyce & Harwood, 2014). People’s health-related decision-making is not completely rational (Witteman, van den Bercken, Claes & Godoy, 2009). Framing effect theory suggests that different presentations of health-related information can affect individuals’ decision-making preferences (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Research suggests that messages presenting gains are more persuasive in encouraging prevention behaviours (Noar, Harrington & Aldrich, 2009); Rothman, Bartels, Wlaschin & Salovey, 2006). Gain framing messaging may be more effective in promoting vaccination – a type of health preventive behaviour (Park, 2012).

Persuading young adults to get vaccinated is critical for the national vaccination programme as a whole and is also arguably the key to achieving herd immunity. Within the national vaccination programme for young adults, the following vaccinations are available: Human papillomavirus (HPV), meningitis, seasonal influenza, and COVID-19.

According to the latest figures, HPV vaccine coverage for the first dose in 2019/20 was 59.2% in Year 8 (aged 12-13) females (compared with 88.0% in 2018/19) and 54.4% in Year 8 males (Public Health England, 2020). From September 2019 the national HPV vaccination programme became universal with 12- to 13-year-old males becoming eligible alongside females (Public Health England, 2020). For females that missed or chose not to get the HPV vaccine offered in school, they can get the vaccine up until their 25th birthday; males can take up the vaccine until they are 45 years old (NHS, 2021).

Influenza is a vaccine-preventable disease, and annual influenza vaccination is the most effective method for prevention (WHO, 2012). Despite not part of the national vaccination programme, some universities are implementing a flu vaccine for their student communities (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/support-and-wellbeing/health-care/vaccinations/get-flu-vaccination).

Research has found low seasonal flu vaccine uptake and low vaccine knowledge among university-aged students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). In the US – where influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone aged ≥6 months – data show that vaccination rates range from 9-30% in university students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). Recent evidence suggests that making the flu vaccine part of the national vaccination programme for young adults (<20 years old) might be cost-effective (Hill et al., 2020). 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency to vaccinate young adults and promote COVID-19 vaccination uptake in this population is particularly pronounced (Lucia, Kelekar & Afonso, 2021). Recent NHS England figures show that approximately 75% of 18-24 years olds have had one COVID-19 vaccination; but only approximately 60% have had two vaccinations (NHS England COVID-19 Dashboard 21 Oct. , 2021). Together, these figures highlight that a proportion of young adults is left unvaccinated. Vaccination of young adults can potentially provide direct protection for the recipients and indirect (herd) protection for the community (Pebody et al., 2018).

In the transition period of attending university, for many away from home, there might be an opportunity to promote a range of vaccinations to young adults, and shape these emerging adults’ vaccination habits for other vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccines. As settings within which students become independent, universities have both a responsibility and the potential to enable healthy development (Tsouros, Dowding, Thompson & Dooris, 1998). Accordingly, ‘health-promoting universities’ are being called upon to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and of providing health-promoting activities for students (Bachert et al., 2021).

Understanding underlying mechanisms that drive young adults’ preferences for and engagement with vaccination campaigns could inform the design of effective messaging to influence their decision-making processes when communicating during a public health crisis.

What is the aim of this PhD project?

This PhD project will develop and test, evidence-based vaccination messages targeted at young adults, using framing theory as theoretical approach.

Objectives

  1. Appraise existing vaccination campaigns directed at young adults by exploring effective behaviour change strategies and mechanisms of change associated with vaccination uptake;
  2. With young adults, co-design and develop a suite of health messages aimed at promoting vaccination uptake (such as influenza, COVID-19, HPV, meningitis);
  3. Conduct experimental and longitudinal studies to explore young adults’ preferences for and impact of the co-produced vaccination messages.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about health-related behaviour change, 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

Angela is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department and has experience in the area of developing and evaluating complex interventions for behaviour change, with a specific focus on theory- and evidence-based interventions. Angela co-Leads the Behaviour Change Research Programme of Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health).

Nicki is a Health Psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Psychology department. She has expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions, and a particular interest in the application of co-design techniques for intervention development with stakeholders.

The supervisory team works alongside other behaviour change experts in the north east of England and the North East North Cumbria NHIR ARC

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Angela Rodrigues (angela.rodrigues@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

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

Ruddy, E., Moor, J., Idowu, O., Araujo Soares, V., Rodrigues, A., & Birch-Machin, M. The Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on health behaviours of the UK population: a cross-sectional study. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. [Manuscript in preparation].

O’Brien N, Vijaykumar S, Craig M, Land E, Aguilar S, Bedoya X, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Nicolau L (Under Review). A before-after cross-sectional survey of the effect of exposure to GIFs communicating Covid-19 preventive behaviours on behavioural cognitions of Guatemalan adults. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

O’Brien N, Land E, Vijaykumar S, et al. (2021) Languageless animated gifs to communicate COVID-19 preventive behaviours to adults in Guatemala: Development and evaluation of efficacy. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 28:S11-S12.

Araújo-Soares, V., Hankonen, N., Presseau, J., Rodrigues, A., & Sniehotta, F. F. (2019). Developing behavior change interventions for self-management in chronic illness. European Psychologist, 24(1), 7-25.

Rodrigues, A., Sniehotta, F. F., Birch-Machin, M. A., Olivier, P., & Araújo-Soares, V. (2017). Systematic and iterative development of a smartphone app to promote sun-protection among holidaymakers: design of a prototype and results of usability and acceptability testing. JMIR Research Protocols6(6), e112.

O’Brien N, Heaven B, Teal G, Evans E, Cleland C, Moffatt S, Sniehotta FF, White M, Mathers J, Moynihan P (2016). Integrating evidence from systematic reviews, qualitative research, and expert knowledge using co-design techniques to develop a web-based intervention for people in the retirement transition. Journal of Medical Internet Research,18(8):e210; doi: 10.2196/jmir.5790

Always forget to keep your New Year’s resolutions? Smoking and drinking could be why

ratmaner/Shutterstock.com
AUTHORS: Anna-Marie Marshall, University of York; Colin Hamilton, Northumbria University, Newcastle, and Tom Heffernan, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Given that the New Year is just around the corner, now might be a good time to come up with a resolution to reduce your drinking, or stop smoking (or both). That is if you remember, of course.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and smoking cigarettes together could be having a negative impact on your memory. In fact, the impairment associated with using both of these substances is greater than the single use of either substance – a double whammy.

Prior research has established that drinking alcohol in excess (more than 14 units a week, or binge drinking in excess of six units for females and eight for males in a single session) and smoking is associated with a variety of negative health and memory outcomes.

One part of memory that is negatively affected by alcohol and cigarette use is prospective memory. Prospective memory involves planning and remembering future activities, such as remembering to meet with friends at a specific place or time, or remembering to take medication on time.

Excessive alcohol use can damage prospective memory. In one study, when participants were asked to carry out specific tasks, such as handing the researcher a book after a cue from the environment or to call the garage at a specific time, binge drinkers remembered to carry out fewer actions than those who do not binge drink. A similar pattern is evident in smokers. Regular daily smokers remember to carry out fewer memory actions, compared with those who have never smoked.

Not only does drinking excessively and smoking impair memory when used separately, when used together they intensify the effect. Smoking has been found to worsen the memory in those who drink alcohol in excess. Those who both drink and smoke have more memory issues, an impaired ability to think quickly and efficiently and have greater issues with problem solving. Also, those who are dependent on alcohol and also smoke cigarettes suffer more brain damage than those who do not smoke. These people show more cortical thinning in the frontal region of the brain – a region of the brain that is important for memory.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in short- and long-term memory. Alila Medical Media/Shutterstock.com

Testing polydrug users

As people tend to drink alcohol and smoke together, we investigated the combined (polydrug) effect of these two substances on prospective memory. To do this we recruited four groups: excessive drinkers who do not smoke; smokers who do not drink excessively; people who both smoke and drink excessively (polydrug group); and a low-alcohol, non-smoking control group. Participants were tested on their ability to remember six actions. For three of these the participant was asked to carry out a task at a specific time (for example: “In seven minutes, I would like you to change the pen you are using”). For the other three actions participants were asked to carry out a task in response to a cue (for example, “When you come to a quiz question about ‘Eastenders’ I would like you to give me this book”). Participants were asked to remember these while completing a set of puzzles.

Our analysis of the results showed that the polydrug group (people who both smoke and drink excessively) had a greater impairment than the excessive drinkers and smokers combined. This suggests that there is something that happens when using both of these substances which negatively impacts memory.

Our study is the first to show this effect for prospective remembering. This finding is important because it highlights that prospective memory may be compromised by the combination of excessive drinking and cigarette smoking.

It is our hope that the findings uncovered here will help to improve our understanding about the dangers of excessive drinking and smoking beyond the health concerns usually highlighted in public health warnings.

This research highlights the dangers of combined heavy alcohol use and smoking in relation to everyday memory, in this case prospective memory. If you’re considering what your New Year’s resolution should be this year, why not give up booze or cigarettes in the New Year. You might even want to consider giving up both.

About the Authors

Dr Anna-Marie Marshall, completed this work as a PhD researcher and demonstrator in the Psychology department at Northumbria. She is now a research fellow at the University of York

Dr Colin Hamilton and Dr Tom Heffernan are Senior Lecturers in Cognitive Psychology in the Psychology Department. Both work within our Cognition and Neuroscience Research Group

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

The Big 5 Ep 6: Pam Briggs “Cybersecurity… a human centred issue.”

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

On this episode of The Big 5, Professor Pam Briggs tells us about her work on how understanding human behavior and emotions help us improve cyber security. #CyberSecurityDay

Show notes:

For more tips on how you can keep yourself and your data secure online, please visit the National Cyber Security Centre.

For more of Pam’s research you can visit her Northumbria page.

The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Funded PhD Opportunity: Coordination in Context

Authors: Dr Merryn Constable, Dr Kris McCarty, Dr Nick Neave
  • Playing jump rope.
  • Holding the door open for the person behind you.
  • Dancing, singing, and being merry with your friends at a wedding.
  • Building an aeroplane that reduces carbon emissions.
  • Navigating a roundabout.
  • Performing life-saving medical assistance.

Humans face coordinative challenges every day. Some are mundane, some propel society toward new innovations, and others may be life or death situations. The human species has survived and thrived because of the strong drive toward collaboration (Boyd & Richerson, 2009; Tomasello, 2014).

Nevertheless, collaborating, coordinating and cooperating is not necessarily simple. Coordinative failures are common: Sometimes doors are closed in people’s faces, dance steps are missed and car crashes occur.

So, how do humans adapt to each other to achieve the best possible outcome? How do humans coordinate in a variety of situations? How can the frequency of coordinative failures be minimized?

This is the study of Joint Action!

Researchers who are interested in how human cognition supports collaboration, coordination and cooperation study what is called Joint Action (Sebanz & Knoblich, 2021).

To collaborate humans must develop a representation of the task. This representation will often include a predicted representation of the actions that each person will take to do the task.  Establishing such a representation might not require much effort. In fact, the required representation sometimes already exists, as in understanding the rules that one must abide by to navigate a roundabout.

If rules or conventions do not exist, the representation will be developed by more complex routes. Communication and negotiation are obvious means of aligning task representations, however, humans also use variety of ‘mindreading’ processes to align representations without direct communication.  

To illustrate: Around the roundabout we go….

Roundabouts are designed such that the cognitive resources of coordination are minimized. And in fact, the installation of roundabouts does tend to reduce car crashes that result in injuries and fatalities for those in cars (Elvik, 2003). This coordinative event relies upon road users (1) having knowledge of the rules and conventions associated with roundabout use, (2) abiding by those rules and conventions, and (3) trust in other road users to abide by those rules and conventions. Without trust, the traffic through the roundabout would not proceed smoothly.

Most often, traffic proceeds smoothly. Each individual aims to proceed past the roundabout, and can reach their goal by following the rules. They must monitor the progress of other cars in the roundabout but they can do so at a minimal level. Coordination manifests with little effort.

When it goes wrong….

Consider a rogue American driver on a British roundabout. They went anti-clockwise instead of clockwise! How can a crash be avoided?

Other drivers may begin to beep to communicate the error and (hopefully) get the rogue driver back on the right track. But the driver is oblivious and bopping away to some loud music; the communication has failed. Other drivers must begin to engage in more effortful action monitoring and prediction processes so they can adapt and avoid collision.

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

Using human movement analysis this project will explore the cognitive strategies that coordinative partners use to adapt to different task constraints. For example, task difficulty and task uncertainty.

This fundamental research aim will then be explored in terms of environmental context. Specifically, ‘How do factors present in the physical and social environment (e.g., physical constraints, hierarchical structures, partner familiarity) shape the coordinative strategy employed during a joint task?’ Answering these fundamental questions about how the human cognitive system works will provide theoretical direction to tackle the collaborative and coordinative challenges that humans face. From designing urban environments that promote free-flowing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, to implementing policies and workflows to optimise coordination within hospitals, the theory of joint action can assist.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who is enthusiastic about working across disciplines to contribute to the cumulative pursuit of knowledge within cognition and joint action.

You should be confident in quantitative research methods and have ambition to develop skills in human movement analysis. The applicant will be expected to engage with a wider group of academics interested in both fundamental and applied research aligned with the themes of coordination and teamwork.

Applicants should have a background in psychology, kinesiology (sports science) or a related discipline. The successful applicant will have a history of academic achievement as demonstrated by first-class, or upper second-class undergraduate honours degree and/or a masters degree (or equivalent).

About the supervisors

Merryn is a Senior Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow within the psychology department. She is committed to advancing the research profile of Northumbria and passionate about supporting young researchers. As such, she sits on the University’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee advocating for the interests of Early Career Researchers. Prior to the UK, she has held academic posts in Australia, Canada and Hungary, with her research networks extending to Austria and Italy.  Her research takes an interdisciplinary perspective as a result of her background in psychology, kinesiology, cognitive science and business communications. Most recently, Merryn has been translating her work on social cognition and joint action to comparative psychology, healthcare and robotics. Merryn also has a strong technical background, with a particular interest in using motion capture technologies to answer fundamental questions about human cognition.

Kris is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He is also the department’s technical lead and as a part of that role oversees the use of the specialist hardware and software that researchers use to conduct their research. With his expertise in Motion Capture, Eye-tracking, Body Scanning, virtual reality, and a variety of programming languages he provides assistance and training to staff and students in the technical aspects of experimental psychology. Kris has worked on an array of applied projects using motion capture including a collaboration with the European Space Agency and NASA investigating the effect of reduced gravity on muscle function and postural control.

Nick is a Professor within the Department of Psychology. He is the Director of the Hoarding Research Group, Faculty Director of Ethics, and Chair of the Faculty Research Ethics Committee. He has extensive experience of conducting high quality research and in managing research teams and supervising research students. He has a keen interest in motion capture technology and has conducted research using motion capture to explore human dance movements and how such movements may serve as ‘honest’ signals to reproductive quality.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Merryn Constable (merryn.constable@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.

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

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

Constable, M.D., Bayliss, A.P., Tipper, S.P., Spaniol, A.P., Pratt, J., & Welsh, T.N. (2016) Ownership status influences the degree of joint facilitatory behavior. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1371-1378. doi: 10.1177/0956797616661544

Constable, M.D., Elekes, F., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2019) Relevant for us? We-prioritisation in cognitive processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(12), 1549-1561. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000691

Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2021). Progress in Joint-Action Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0963721420984425. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420984425

Török, G., Pomiechowska, B., Csibra, G., & Sebanz, N. (2019). Rationality in Joint Action: Maximizing Coefficiency in Coordination. Psychological Science, 30(6), 930–941. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619842550