Aberystwyth Summer School

Critical Dialogues on Psychology, Behaviour and Brain Science. Graduate and Early Career Summer School

15th September 2015

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Aberystwyth University is hosting a Graduate Student and Early Career Researcher summer school, funded by the ESRC. This will take place at Aberystwyth’s beautiful coastal campus in Ceredigion, West Wales.

The summer school investigates the potential challenge posed by the behavioural sciences to social science, arts and humanities research. Transformative post-disciplinary engagement and experimentation in the form of a ‘bio-social science’ have been promoted to address this challenge but critical questions remain as to the precise direction this might take, the methodological innovations which might be required and the political issues at stake in developing such a mode of research enquiry.

Behavioural science research has had a significant impact on public policy, commercial practice and everyday conceptions of personhood. Some of the more recent impact has been driven by insights from behavioural economics, cognitive psychology and affective neuroscience which forward ‘post-rational’ forms of human subjectivity and citizenship.

Examples include: behavioural economic-informed policy making (for instance, the work of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team and the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative (‘Nudge Squad’); psychological insights relating to sustainable behaviours, health, taxation, welfare, crime prevention, gender equality initiatives; and neuroscientific approaches to education, family intervention, workplace training, architecture, advertising, finance, economics and combating racism.

The summer school invites participants to explore how concepts of behaviour, the mind, psyche and brain are mobilised in the empirical sphere in which you are conducting your own research. What are the specific encounters you have had with these concepts, what spaces and sites are involved, and what kind of methods have been useful in investigating the practices which you are investigating? Where does your research fit between behavioural and social science modes of explanation and how does this shape the analysis you can offer?

The event will involve sessions chaired by Dr Ben Anderson, Dr Maria Fannin, Professor Rhys Jones, Professor Joe Painter, Dr Jessica Pykett and Professor Mark Whitehead.


Keynote speaker: Dr Felicity Callard, Department of Geography, Durham University and Director of Hubbub at Wellcome Collection.

Felicity Callard is an interdisciplinary researcher who also engages with policy and advocacy in relation to mental health. Her work sits at the intersection of the humanities, the social sciences and the life sciences. She has broad interests in the history of twentieth- and twenty-first psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience, psychology and psychoanalysis, and she also collaborates with neuroscientists.

Speaker Abstracts

Helen Stinson, University of York: Exploring Narratives of Vulnerability within Behavioural Conditionality

There has been growing political enthusiasm for policy interventions that emphasise the role of personal responsibility. This is reflected in the intensified incorporation of behavioural conditionality in an increasing number of welfare policies. Yet, despite the assertion by successive British government’s that this intervention will promote self-sufficient behaviour , the escalating number of benefit claimants subject to intensified behaviour controls has proliferated decisions to apply financial sanctions and led an increasing number of people to exit the mainstream benefit system to unknown destination. It has been argued that this has led to unacceptable levels of ‘vulnerability’ for some, despite government claims that ‘vulnerable’ people would be exempt from certain behavioural conditions.

This presentation will discuss how current narratives of vulnerability intertwine with, and shape, the implementation and effects of behavioural conditionality within unemployment benefits. As concepts of vulnerability have become increasingly influential in determining a claimant’s legitimacy to, or exclusion from, social welfare resources, it is critical to explore the relational tensions inherent to current discourses that underpin the operation of vulnerability within behavioural conditionality. Although generally understood to relate to measurements of risk, alternative empirical paradigms seek to explain vulnerability in terms of the complex relational tensions between the individual claimant, service professionals and the structural context within which these relationships occur. In accordance with these relational perspectives, this presentation will challenge the customary measures of risk and contend that this conceptualisation limits further exploration into how vulnerability is iteratively constructed and sustained through behavioural conditionality and has given rise to intensified forms of psychological governance. Consequently, it is anticipated that this presentation will highlight some of the frictions intrinsic to behavioural conditionality as a policy mechanism directed at unemployment benefit claimants.


Roger Tyers, University of Southampton: Nudging the Jetset to offset’: Voluntary carbon offsetting for flying and the limits of ‘nudging’

Carbon offsetting is a way for people who care about the environment to do something to mitigate the harmful effects of unavoidable air travel. While there is a growing field of research into encouraging pro-environmental behaviour in areas such as domestic energy use or recycling, little research has been carried out into how carbon offsetting could be extended and encouraged. Despite research suggesting that many people would be willing to pay to offset the carbon from their flights, take-up of offsets remains low. My research examines the possibilities of techniques from behavioural economics (so-called ‘nudges’) in encouraging individuals to buy carbon offsets for their flights, using a sample of University students taking part in a randomised controlled trial (RCT).

The RCT results showed that despite a large level of expressed interest in offsetting, very few people actually paid for an offset when offered the opportunity to do so, and the nudges tested had no statistically significant impact. The RCT was followed up by focus groups aimed at shedding light on the RCT’s ‘failings’, and a second ‘improved’ RCT is planned for later this year.

As nudge becomes a more prominent policy tool for promoting behaviour change, these findings raise questions about the ‘limits’ to nudging, and whether nudges are appropriate tools for dealing with issues such as carbon offsetting, a policy tool for which there is little consensual support among the general public, and for which the (environmental) benefits to society diverge from the (financial) costs to the individual. It might be suggested that for behaviours such as this, nudging might be inappropriate, and possibly even a distraction from more effective policies.


Osian Elias, University of Aberystwyth: ‘Behavioural’ Language Policy? Language Planning and Revitalization in Wales.

Despite the increasing influence of the behavioural sciences on public policy, there have so far been no attempts to evaluate the incorporation of behavioural insights and techniques to language policy. The Welsh Government’s Welsh Language Strategy for 2012-2017, A living language: a language for living, places a strong emphasis on the language choice available to individuals, while outlining the Welsh Government’s strategy for the promotion and facilitation of the use of the Welsh language in everyday life. Recent language policy initiatives indicate the growing influence, and use, of behavioural insights and techniques; with a strong focus on the use of social marketing techniques to promote the Welsh language.

This research evaluates the extent to which language policy efforts in Wales are informed by the various behavioural sciences. This presentation will focus on one language policy initiative: Supporting Language Habits. This initial research shows a strong awareness of the implications of the behavioural sciences for language policy; but betrays a lack of understanding regarding the systematic implementation, or incorporation, of behavioural insights or techniques to Welsh language policy initiatives.  Consideration of the relevance of the behavioural sciences to language policy is timely, but the context of minority language revitalization and wide-spread individual bilingualism offers specific challenges and potential rewards to the behavioural sciences.


Rupert Alcock, University of Bristol: 4E Cognition and the Archaeology of Things: Tracing a power/critique convergence in contemporary cognitive politics

Contemporary debates in philosophy of cognitive science stress the distributed nature of mental processes. While the scope of distribution remains hotly contested – whether ‘embodied’, ‘embedded’, ‘enacted’ or ‘extended’ – 4E approaches mount a collective critique of Cartesian conceptions of mind by stressing dynamic interactions between brains, bodies and environments. Recent policy approaches to behaviour change reflect a similarly broad understanding of decision-making, locating determinates of change in the built environments and material contexts within which decisions take place. This article positions the environmental emphases of cognitive politics within the context of a renewed interest in social and political theory in matter and materiality. In contrast to prescriptive approaches to behaviour change, however, which view material contexts as choice architectures, the article examines an emerging interest within security and intelligence communities in the role of things as agents of cognitive processes. In particular, I examine recent research undertaken by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) of the US Director of the Office of National Intelligence. Such programmes demonstrate the governmental apprehension of a different ‘agency of things’ to that described by new materialists. Anticipating a cognitive archaeology of the present has become a prescient concern of contemporary security research.


Diana N.M. Beljaars, Cardiff University: Geographies of compulsive bodies: Reimagining the nature of Tourette syndrome

In understanding human being, in the past decade human geographers, and in particular those concerned with deviations from the norms have sought to understand human conditions and their alternative ways of being with the world (see Hansen & Philo, 2007). In seeking to contribute to and expand on this work, this paper does two things. First, it problematizes how human conditions have come to be understood in almost exclusively medical terms. In lacking a consideration for socio-spatial contexts in ways conditions express, a particular imagination of these conditions is created. Tourette syndrome (TS) is such a human condition that is currently being understood as a phenomenon that occurs strictly in the brain and in the body parts involved in its expression. Consequently, its distinctly spatial nature is not recognised as contributing to TS’s understanding, despite its pronunciation in compulsive behaviours that evoke physical interactions with socio-material environments – e.g. compulsive touching and symmetry or balance seeking behaviour. Therefore, human geographical conceptualisations of ‘place’ could help advance the understanding of the condition and the circumstances of its expressions. Second, by exploring TS induced bodily interactions with socio-material environments through literature on TS in neuropsychiatry, embodiment health and disability geography, and affect and the sensory in nonrepresentational theories, the paper seeks to reimagine the nature of the TS condition. In this process, the paper aims to help advance human geographical understandings of affective interactions with the more-than-human through the concept of compulsivity. Herewith, the paper suggests pathways to new research on alternative human conditions that can help understand how human beings relate to the world around them. As such, the paper calls for research that does not only seek to understand what makes human conditions different, but how differences help to understand human being.


Rachel Lilley, University of Aberystwyth: Mindfulness, Decision making and behaviour change.

This research investigates the hypothesis that if people can become more aware of the irrational drivers that shape their own action (through knowledge of behavioural science), they can become empowered to co-design effective interventions to allow us to live healthier and less environmentally damaging lifestyles, thus a psychologically empowering approach to mitigating climate change. It has further developed and trialled mindfulness training (a secularised meditative technique) within the public and charitable sector as a practical basis for achieving behavioural awareness and building psychological capital.

This work was developed through an ESRC grant Negotiating Neuroliberalism: Changing Behaviours, Values and Beliefs (funded as part of the ESRC’s 2013 Transforming Social Science call). This project has run a series of trials (in partnership with different divisions of the Welsh Government and the NGO Global Action Plan), to test the extent to which 8 week mindfulness training could provide an effective context for supporting behaviour change policy development. Our resulting ‘Mindfulness and Decision Making’ programme contributes to the development of secular forms of mindfulness and an emerging body of research on the effectiveness of mindfulness training in health care settings and schools.


Steven Stanley, Charlotte Longden and Rebecca Crane, Cardiff University: Constructing the Mindful Subject: Reshaping Experience through Mindfulness-based Interventions

In this paper we report our work-in-progress qualitative research project, situated within critical social psychology, analysing the construction of subjectivity within Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy courses. We connect recent critical debates about the social and political functions of the ‘mindfulness movement’ in the societies of the Global North with a fine-grained empirical study of the conduct of mindfulness teachers and their students. We conduct a discourse analysis of audio recordings from three 8-week mindfulness courses.

‘Mindfulness’ is sometimes taken-for-granted by researchers as a private, inner psychological state or trait within individuals. Our project extends and develops mindfulness research by re-conceptualising mindfulness as involving public relational-embodied-discursive practices. We conduct an eclectic discourse analysis of the institutional talk comprising mindfulness-based interventions, informed by ethnomethodological conversation analysis and Foucaultian post-structuralism. We analyse the use of ‘little words’ or ‘micro-politics’ of mindfulness courses along with broader socio-cultural patterns of sense-making; treating mindfulness as a psy-discourse which is practically embodied in the institutional talk of mindfulness-based interventions.

How is mindfulness talked into being through intersubjective dynamics? How is the subject position of the mindful individual constructed through interaction? What practical dilemmas are negotiated by teachers and participants within mindfulness courses?


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