Road Trip to Exeter University

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

We began our road trip in Bristol at 6:30, and arrived in Exeter at about 8:30am (after a detour for coffee). Our first reaction was mild university envy over the design and looks of the campus buildings. The main building containing their student services was equally impressive — however, I was slightly disappointed that we didn’t get to see the library, as I can imagine wanting to spend hours in there if I saw inside.

The main body of the day was made up of student presentations, where courageous third-year students presented their dissertation research and findings to us.

“Associations between observed parental intrusiveness and warmth and adolescent and parental anxiety” was professional and polished. The student presenting clearly knew their data and methods like the back of their hands. Despite a complicated methodology – which analysed parent-child pairs using both descriptive behaviour-coding and quantitative rating scales, requiring twice as much work as a normal study – it gave a modest but unambiguous result.

Effects of Product Labelling a Novel Food Product as ‘Diet’ or‘Highly Satiating’ on Satiation and Satiety” wasn’t quite as polished as 1B, but the sheer effort and the attention to detail in this study were impressive. (This seemed to be the consensus view, as this talk was awarded Best Presentation). The student’s work in designing a new food product for the study, as well as other additions like making product packaging and outfitting the testing room with monitoring equipment, hidden scales and secret cameras, showed how they spared no effort in capturing as much information as possible. It also covered an area that’s implicated in psychological research, health research and media research.

Between lecture blocks, we spent most of our time in the hub room, where everyone’s posters were displayed during the day. It was also where we were given post-lecture refreshments, aka free coffee and biscuits – the organisers know their audience well!. Two of our group were presenters- Beth’s poster was about working with users of a hospital Pain Management centre, while Emily’s was about women’s views on how women are shown in the meme “The Lad Bible”. While both studies used the same qualitative research method- thematic analysis- they were on very different subject areas, so covered entirely different groups of people.

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

Even though neither was the lucky winner of the “Best Poster” certificate, both studies were still really interesting. Another poster that caught my eye was based around playing Call of Duty: seeing a genuine academic reference for such a mainstream game was unexpected and the actual study looked well-designed and researched.

Non-significant results were a recurring theme throughout the talks I went to – of the nine studies I heard talks on, five had no significant support for their hypothesis while three had partial support for some of their hypotheses. In many cases I wanted the result to be significant purely because the person presenting had obviously put in so much work and research that it almost seemed disappointing for them to not find anything for it.

However, even when the students didn’t find the results they were looking for, they still explained and defended their research in an incredibly professional way. Considering the news of practices like publication bias and the “file-drawer effect” that often prevent research with non-supporting or non-significant findings from being publicised, I think it’s important that students learn about the best way to deal with experimental non-significance. The conference seemed to act just as I hoped an academic conference would – a place run on ideas and free thought, focused on the methods and process of science rather than just the results.

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

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

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

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

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

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