New: Psychology Essays

It’s been a looooong time since I last posted on this blog. But I’m excited to be back.

A few months ago, I left the world of work and went back to University to study for a Master’s in Psychology. As someone who never studied psychology at school or uni, it sometimes makes my brain explode. Partly because I walked into lectures where they assumed I knew what ‘encoding’ and ‘DSM-5’ meant (I didn’t), but also because I’ve been exposed to ideas and evidence about how we humans think, feel and behave that have pretty much blown my mind.

I’ll be sharing some of the essays I’ve written during my course. Partly because, urm, I have to for one of my modules. But also because it makes me feel nervous and awkward, which suggests it’s out of my comfort zone. And doing things that are out of my comfort zone is good for me. Like eating my greens.

*Big intake of breath* So, here goes. I hope you find them interesting. (The essays, not so much the greens).



Sorry, Not Sorry

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey on Unsplash

How many times a day do you say sorry?

Whilst the exact number might not instantly spring to your mind, thankfully someone else has done some research for us. A 2011 survey of over 1,000 Brits found that many of us say ‘sorry’ up to 8 times a day, which equates to 2,920 times a year and 233,600 times in a lifetime. 12% of those surveyed said the s-word more than 20 times a day.

That’s a whole lot of sorry.Read More »

The belief that others intend to harm us

“Describe the evidence supporting the cognitive model of persecutory paranoia.”

Now for the final essay in this series. This essay felt a little easier than the others. Partly because, by this point, my technique had improved. My reading and note-taking were ruthlessly prioritised. Instead of drowning in notes, I had simple spider diagrams. But there was more to it than that.

Reading for this essay was, genuinely, a humbling experience. Learning about the experiences of people suffering from severe persecutory paranoia certainly gave me some perspective on my usual feelings of essay-anxiety. Rather than letting it take over, I was able to remind myself that the fears I had (not finishing on time, or producing something terrible) were not only unrealistic (I feel like that every time, and things tend to turn out ok), but also just not that bad. If those things actually happened, my relatively comfortable and happy life would go on.

I’ve not yet had a mark back for this essay, but my sense of perspective persists. Regardless of how it turns out, I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn more about this topic. So this essay, at least, feels worth sharing.


Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing, just keep scrolling…)

  • Persecutory paranoia exists as a spectrum across the general population. Persecutory paranoia is the incorrect idea that others intend to harm us. Many of us experience this from time to time. Perhaps we imagine our colleagues are being deliberately irritating, or that people on public transport are trying to p*ss us off. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, some individuals hold strong beliefs that someone intends to cause them serious harm, or even to kill them. As you can imagine, this can be extremely debilitating.
  • To help those suffering with these beliefs, it’s important to understand how they begin, and how they’re maintained. Cognitive models have been described in an attempt to do this. A key model is the threat anticipation model of persecutory delusions.
  • The model suggests that persecutory beliefs develop in an attempt to explain strange, or ‘anomalous’, events. Certain emotional processes, such as those involved in anxiety, and reasoning biases, such as the tendency to jump to conclusions, can make the chosen explanation more likely to be of a threatening nature, and strengthen the level of belief in this explanation.
  • The essay discusses the specific emotional processes and reasoning biases that seem to be involved in the formation and maintenance of persecutory paranoia, and reviews the evidence for them having causal roles.
  • Some exciting new research is helping to pinpoint the specific factors that cause the formation and maintenance of extreme persecutory paranoia, in order to develop more targeted treatments.
  • Overall, the message is clear: more research is needed to continue this progress, and bring relief to many.

If you’re interested in paranoia and anxiety, you might be interested in these:

Read on for the full essay…Read More »

The influence of other people

“In what ways can the presence of other people affect an individual’s cognition and perception?”

When I began this essay, I was determined to try a new approach that didn’t involve reading everything under the sun (remember the 55 pages of notes I ended up with last time? Shudder…). I did achieve that, but, regardless, there was still a TONNE of interesting stuff I couldn’t fit into the measly 1500 word limit. My resulting essay, stripped of much of the carefully crafted narrative I’d developed, felt a little like a shopping list. However, I enjoyed doing the research, and the shopping list still contained some juicy studies I felt excited to mention, albeit briefly. I’d be interested in delving deeper into some of the many ways that the presence of other people can influence us. A future blog post perhaps…?

Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing, just keep scrolling…)

  • The presence of other people affects the way we perceive and think about the world around us. This essay focuses on 4 key aspects of perception and cognition that are affected by the presence of others.
  • 1) The presence of other people affects what we look at. In particular, what they’re looking at influences us. I’m sure you’ve experienced the ‘feeling’ of someone’s eyes looking at you, making you instinctively look in their direction. This effect is seemingly automatic. Other effects seem to occur less automatically, to help us meet certain goals. For example, many studies using computerised tasks have shown how people take into account what other people are looking at to a greater or lesser extent depending on their social status, or the task being performed.

    The seemingly automatic capture of your attention towards the face of someone looking at you is one of the so-called ‘watching eyes effects’ (Conty, George, & Hietanen, 2016)
  • 2) Believing that others are sharing our experience can change how we perceive that experience ourselves. For example, sweet chocolate can taste sweeter and bitter chocolate more bitter when we believe other people are also tasting the chocolate. Weird, huh? There are different hypotheses as to how this happens. Some suggest we take the (sometimes imagined) perceptions of others into account automatically, others suggest we do it intentionally to meet social or information-seeking goals.
  • 3) Our judgements and decisions are affected by the presence of others. For example, you may have come across the famous Asch line experiments, in which many people gave incorrect answers to very simple questions about the relative lengths of lines, when they saw others answering incorrectly. The essay outlines why this might occur.
  • 4) We perform differently on tasks when we believe others are present. For example, we tend to perform worse on difficult tasks and better on easy tasks when others are present. This effect occurs even when the other people are wearing blindfolds and earphones(!!), suggesting it might occur automatically.
  • There are many factors which seem to determine how and how much the presence of others affects our perception and cognition. These ‘moderating factors’ include whether the other people are believed to be from the same, or a different, social group to us. Different people are also affected to different extents, for example individuals with low self esteem are more affected by the presence of others when performing a difficult task than those with high self esteem. There are also cultural differences – the Asch line experiments have been carried out across several countries, and different countries report different rates of conformity.
  • Pinpointing exactly how the presence of others affects our perception and cognition is extremely difficult, because traditional behavioural studies haven’t always controlled for the huge number of moderating factors involved in any one situation. A more precise, multi-disciplinary approach is beginning to emerge, which is gradually helping us to understand this complex area in more detail.

The influence of other people on how we think, feel and behave is a large and fascinating area. Other people can influence us in alarming ways! You might be interested in these:

  • Derren Brown’s ‘The Push’ – Derren investigates the power of social compliance, from lying about veggie sausage rolls to pushing someone off a roof… Not only nail-biting watching, but demonstrates how easily, and severely, our judgements can be influenced by other people.
  • A clip of Asch’s experiments on conformity, outlining the various findings. It also has some excellent vintage hairstyles…
  • A clip from the BBC’s Naked Scientists, discussing how other people’s emotions can influence our mood, via the medium of Facebook posts. Research suggests that reading our friend’s posts online can affect us to the same extent as if we were meeting them face-to-face.

If you’re up for the full essay, read on…Read More »

The mystery of sleep

“What role might sleep play in supporting memory function?”

Ever wondered why we sleep? Scientists still aren’t 100% clear on the answer. But it must be really important – why else would we have evolved to spend hours each day in a vulnerable, unconscious state? There are a few theories on the role of sleep, and a key one is that it supports memory function. This essay reviews the main hypotheses about how sleep does this.

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I found this essay quite difficult. One major challenge was that I spent so long reading about this fascinating topic that I ended up with 55 A4 pages of notes. So when I tried to turn all my thoughts into 1500 words, I couldn’t possibly convey all the ideas I wanted to! I submitted the essay feeling quite dissatisfied (not to mention a little annoyed at myself).

Another challenge was that I found that reading loads of information about sleep actually made me feel really sleepy! And the studies I found seriously encouraged me to give in to the temptation to have a nap every few hours to ‘consolidate my learning’…

Despite these two major challenges, I managed to scrape a first class mark by the skin of my teeth. I celebrated with an early night.

Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing instead, just keep scrolling…)

  • Sleep is really complex. Far from just being either ‘asleep’ or ‘awake’, humans have different stages of sleep: rapid-eye-movement (REM) and 3 stages of non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep. The sleep stages are really quite different – both in terms of the electrophysiological patterns and neurochemicals found across the brain, and in terms of when each stage occurs during the night. The essay argues that if we really want to understand the role sleep plays, we need to study the role of these different characteristics.
  • Sleep plays a role in consolidation of memories. When memories are first created, they’re quite fragile, and easy to forget. Memories become stronger through a process called consolidation. There’s evidence to suggest that sleep actively plays a role in this.
  • Scientists have been trying to figure out how the different sleep stages play a role in memory consolidation. This has led to 3 key hypotheses:
    • The dual-process hypothesis says that NREM and REM consolidate different types of memories. There’s some studies suggesting this could be the case, but lots of contradictory findings too.
    • The sequential hypothesis says that NREM and REM play a complementary role, and need to occur in sequence for memories to be consolidated. There’s some evidence supporting this idea, but few studies have tested it directly.
    • The active system consolidation hypothesis says that, during sleep, new memories are re-activated and transferred from short-term memory stores to longer-term memory stores. This hypothesis is compelling because it takes into account the characteristics of specific sleep stages, but further work is needed to test it.
  • It’s not yet clear exactly how sleep supports memory function! Different studies report different findings. This, in part, might be because the methods used to study sleep aren’t perfectly accurate, and ignore the full complexity of sleep stages.
  • There’s lots more to understand about the mystery that is sleep…

If the essay looks too science-y, but the summary has whet your appetite, you might be interested in these:

  • ‘Why we sleep’ – a book by Professor Matthew Walker (a sleep scientist). Written for the general public, this describes the challenges of our modern attitude to sleep, and the benefits of getting a good night’s kip. Prof Walker argues that sleep is more important for our health than diet and exercise. Crikey. I wonder whether he also struggled to stay awake when he was writing it…
  • A clip from one of my favourite TV shows, BBC’s QI, where they briefly discuss some of the theories of sleep and what the latest view is. Sleep’s role in memory function is an example of what Sandi describes as the brain needing to do some activities ‘offline’ – “think of it as a house party… you can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time”. (Warning – they do get quite off-topic…)

If you’re up for the full essay, read on…Read More »

The social brain of a teenager

“In what ways does social cognition change during adolescence?”

Do you remember what it felt like to be a teenager? I do. Or at least, I remember some things. I remember how, amid all the unnerving bodily changes going on (thanks, acne), there was a lot of change in my friendship groups, too. Instead of simply being ‘friends’ or ‘not friends’, all these complicated dynamics started forming. Suddenly my childhood shyness turned into acute self-consciousness. So when, during my Master’s, our lecture on psychological development in adolescence came up, I was pretty intrigued. And the lecture didn’t disappoint. It turns out that part of the reason that being a teenager felt so intensely weird is because, contrary to what people used to believe, the brain of a teenager is very much still developing. And in particular, a network known as ‘the social brain’.

As I read around the essay question, I learnt a lot about how cognition changes during adolescence. It really put some of my own experiences into context. For example, I remember feeling perpetually misunderstood by my parents and teachers. I found it frustrating that they couldn’t remember how hard it was being a teenager. After my research, I now understand that this feeling of being misunderstood is one of a few so-called ‘cognitive distortions’ often experienced during adolescence. And, jokes aside, my research highlighted to me how hard it really is being a teenager. So much of your internal and external world is changing, and, as I discovered, the way that you perceive and think about yourself and others is changing too. And I was fortunate enough to experience all that before the age of smartphones and social media. Today’s teenagers have got it hard.

Essay Summary

(If you fancy jumping straight into the real thing instead, just keep scrolling…)

  • Traditionally, we used to believe that teenagers were pretty much adults without the life experience. That is, we thought their brain was fully developed and it was just a matter of learning that made them less, well, teenager-y. Turns out that we got that wrong, and actually, the teenage brain is still developing QUITE A LOT. Woops.
  • Social cognition is the way we think about ourselves and other people. And it’s a key aspect of psychological functioning that’s still developing in teenagers.
  • A part of the brain called ‘the social brain‘ changes structure during adolescence. If the words ‘temporoparietal junction’ make you feel a bittenor (4).gifthen do not fear! They scared me too. This is just one of a few key brain regions that seem to be frequently used for social interactions, and so are known as ‘the social brain’. And evidence suggests that these brain regions are still changing at a structural level during adolescence. But, as you’ll see in the essay, exactly what this means is a little unclear. And some people have some pretty punchy things to say about it (Poldrack, I’m looking at you).
  • Teenagers improve at certain social cognitive abilities during adolescence. One key example is that of ‘mentalising’ – the ability to perceive and interpret the mental states of others, including their thoughts, feeling and motivations. Children can do this at a basic level, but it develops a lot during adolescence. This seems to be related to improvements in other social cognitive skills like taking into account other people’s perspectives, social decision making, and processing social emotions such as shame or guilt.
  • Teenagers seem to use areas of the social brain differently than adults, which is thought to reflect them either being less efficient, or using different mental strategies. You’ll find a few interesting examples in the essay!
  • All this change, whilst being great in the end, can cause problems along the way, including the ‘cognitive distortions’ I mentioned earlier. These slightly warped ways of thinking can make being a teenager pretty difficult.
  • This area of research is fairly new, and there are ways that the field could improve so that we can learn even more. This is particularly important as a significant number of mental health issues tend to first appear during adolescence. Perhaps understanding what’s going on in the brain during those years will help us understand why this happens and how to help.

This was my first ever psychology essay, and first Master’s-level essay, after several years out of University. When I started, I didn’t actually know what ‘social cognition’ meant! I had to work really hard to understand all the new concepts. In the end, it got a first class mark, so I was pretty bloomin’ chuffed! But if the essay summary has sated you and you don’t fancy reading the real thing below, I won’t be offended. Before you go, you might be interested in these:

  • A TED talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (who is referenced a lot in this essay, because she’s a genius) on ‘the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain‘. Only 14mins and definitely worth a watch for some insight into what on earth is going on in there.
  • A short article by The Guardian, with some ‘secrets of the teenage brain’ that you may find interesting. Designed to help teachers, but could help us all be a little more understanding towards adolescents.

If you’re up for the real thing, read on…Read More »

A Mini Bit of Mindfulness

The Mindful RevolutionThe term ‘Mindfulness’ seems to be popping up everywhere these days, but particularly in discussions on company success, workplace culture and employee wellbeing. This is an area that’s currently buzzing with activity, so if you haven’t yet heard of it, or you’re not sure what it’s about, here’s a very mini introduction (while I become more mindful of my time, and can write something more meaty…)

Read More »

Do Your Bit For Your Company’s Culture

Company culture is incredibly complex. There are a huge number of different factors which can influence what a company’s culture will be like. These factors can interact with each other in unpredictable ways, so that every culture can seem to be the product of a unique combination of poorly understood and abstract concepts. Even expert definitions of what ‘company culture’ actually is vary widely.

It’s no wonder that many people feel the culture of the company they work for is big, complicated, and something over which they have no influence. But what if they’re forgetting something?Read More »