Psychologist helps debunk theory of why our brains can predict the next word

When people read or listen to a conversation, their brains sometimes pro-actively predict which words come next.

Research carried out in 2005 suggested that these brain predictions are very detailed and can even include the first sound of an upcoming word. However, these findings have never been replicated since the study was published.

Now a team of scientists, including Dr Heather Ferguson, has demonstrated that the predictive function of the human language system may operate differently than previously thought.

The latest research involved a large-scale brain imaging study, carried out in part at Kent. More than 300 participants read sentences that were presented one word at a time, while electrical brain activity was recorded at the scalp. The findings demonstrated that there is no convincing evidence for the original claim.

Read the full story at the Kent News Centre.

Dr Heather Ferguson awarded Leverhulme Trust grant

Dr Heather Ferguson has been awarded a three-year Leverhulme Trust Research Grant for a project entitled “Learning from Fiction: A Philosophical and Psychological Study”.

The project represents an interdisciplinary collaboration between Heather and the philosophers Gregory Currie (University of York) and Stacie Friend (Birkbeck), and will explore the effect that reading fiction has on imagination, attitudes, moral sensitivity, and psychological insight.  The project will employ neuropsychological and cognitive-experimental methods within a philosophical framework to understand this important issue from multiple perspectives.

The grant is worth £342,223 in total, with £176,157 coming directly to Kent, and is part of an emerging body of interdisciplinary research in the School, especially funded by Leverhulme.

Dr Kristof Dhont wins grant to investigate impact of animal advocacy literature

Dr Kristof Dhont has won a research grant from US charity Animal Charity Evaluators, which helps provide an evidence base for many forms of animal rights and welfare advocacy initiatives.

Kristof and his co-investigator, Gordon Hodson (Brock University, Canada), will complete a project entitled ‘The Impact of Animal Advocacy Books on Attitudes and Behaviour: A Large-scale Experimental Intervention Study’. As the title indicates, this project involves large-scale randomised-controlled trial, investigating change in diet and attitudes, in a group of participants who read a book on farm animal suffering and the meat industry, compared to a control group. By taking a closer look into the moderators of the effectiveness of educational interventions, the project will help animal advocacy groups to tailor their interventions to their respective audiences.

The project is worth £21,238 and is part of an emerging body of funded research across the School addressing animal welfare topics.

‘Phubbing’ can threaten our basic human needs

Ignoring someone you’re with in a social setting to concentrate on your mobile phone – called ‘phubbing’ – can have a negative effect on relationships by threatening our basic human need to belong.

Kent Psychologists studied the effect on individuals of being phubbed in a one-to-one social situation.

They found that increased phubbing significantly and negatively affected the way the person being phubbed felt about their interaction with the other person.

Researchers Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Professor Karen Douglas, of Kent’s School of Psychology, considered phubbing a specific form of social exclusion that threatens people’s fundamental human needs: belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control.

To read the full news story, go to Kent’s News Centre page. The study, entitled The effects of ‘phubbing’ on social interaction (Varoth Chotpitayasunondh & Karen M. Douglas) is published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Negative childhood experiences can lead people to believe in conspiracy theories

Belief in conspiracy theories stems – in part – from negative early childhood experiences with caregivers, new research has shown.

In two studies, Ricky Green and Professor Karen Douglas, of the University’s School of Psychology, found that participants with what is termed ‘anxious attachment style’ were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

An anxious attachment style is formed in childhood when a caregiver is inconsistently available. Once formed, this attachment style perseveres in adulthood, where it colours many aspects of people’s lives such as their friendships and attitudes.

The research found that participants with anxious attachment style not only believed in general notions of conspiracy but also specific established conspiracy theories, such as that Princess Diana was assassinated by the British Secret Service.

Anxious attachment style also explained belief in conspiracy theories whilst taking into account other important factors such as general feelings of mistrust, age, education and religiosity.

Read more at the News Centre page. Read the full paper entitled Anxious attachment and belief in conspiracy theories.

Psychologist helps develop language development tool for bilingual children

A Kent Psychologist has played an important role in a research breakthrough in the assessment of language development for bilingual two-year-olds.

In a study, led by the University of Plymouth, Kent’s Dr Kirsten Abbot-Smith and academics from eight other UK universities demonstrated for the first time that typically-developing bilingual two-year-olds, who are learning a language which has similar sounds and structures to English, know more words than those who are learning a language which is very different to English.

This information allowed the researchers to develop the first toolkit for health professionals to accurately assess how well bilingual pre-school children are learning language.

Read more at the News Centre page.

Could we have predicted Brexit?

Was Theresa May right to go for ‘strong and stable’ at the last general election? Although that strategy has been the subject of criticism, research conducted by Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Giovanni Travaglino suggests that these themes might have appealed particularly to those who voted to leave the EU.

The research just published in the British Journal of Social Psychology reports evidence from political opinion surveys conducted just before the EU referendum, with samples of 1000 eligible voters from Kent and 1000 from Scotland. It examined the way that respondents’ views predicted their voting intentions in the referendum.

Different explanations have been given for why people voted for Brexit. One explanation suggests that support for Brexit reflected a general rise in xenophobia and prejudice, perhaps fuelled by a populist agenda. Another explanation is that it reflected people’s distrust and rejection of the political establishment. Professor Abrams and Dr Travaglino proposed an ‘aversion amplification hypothesis’ whereby the combination of these two components was particularly influential. They reasoned that when people’s concern about levels of immigration was combined with feeling distrustful of politicians, this would lead to a heightened sense of threat from immigration, and disidentification with Europe. A vote for Brexit reflected a rejection of the political status-quo and a desire for a more predictable future.

To read the full story please go to

For more on this research see our Political and Social Change page.

Perceptions on immigration and political trust shaped Brexit vote

One explanation for Brexit suggests it reflected people’s worries about immigration. Another is that it reflected people’s distrust of the political establishment. Now new research from psychologists on people’s attitudes in Kent and Scotland suggests that it was the link between these two factors that was particularly important.

Researchers at the University surveyed people just before the UK Referendum vote in June 2016 and found that concern about the impact of immigration and a distrust of politicians combined to amplify feelings of threat and lack of identification with Europe in Brexit voters.

The study, led by Professor Dominic Abrams, of the School of Psychology, featured online surveys conducted with 1,000 residents of Kent, where a majority said they intended to vote to leave, and 1,000 people in Scotland, where a majority said they intended to vote to remain.

To read the full story, please go to the Kent News Centre.

For more on this research see our Political and Social Change page.

Research shows participating in the arts promotes kindness

Arts charity People United has published a new report using evidence analysed by psychologists at the University showing that an effective way to encourage kind thoughts, feelings and actions is by enabling people to participate in arts experiences.

People United will launch a ‘be kind’ campaign focusing on World Kindness Day on Monday 13 November. The charity says this will be a ‘call to action for everyone who feels that the world needs a bit more kindness’. It aims to create a ‘be kind’ revolution with ’be kind’ signs popping up across the UK.

Their report, entitled Changing the World through Arts and Kindness, draws together ten years of quantitative evidence about the impact of People United’s projects, collated and analysed by academics at Kent’s School of Psychology.

To read the full story, please go to the Kent News Centre.