COUPS Conference 2014: 'Psychological Perspectives on Health and Wellbeing'


This conference was organised by the Cambridge Branch of OUPS and was held at St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge. Having seen this conference advertised by OUPS last summer, just a couple of months after being accepted onto an MSc in Health Psychology, I decided to register for what I thought would make for an interesting day, which might complement my studies. Little did I know how much I would gain from attending.

The day was chaired by Dr Alan Pechey and Dave Clarke, and included presentations by five speakers, followed by a brief Q&A with Dr Alan Pechey, Dr Rachel Pechey & Professor Brendan Gough. Each of the speakers spoke for approximately 45 minutes, with time for a few audience questions afterwards. There were also a number of posters on show, with the authors available throughout the day to discuss their work in more detail.

Dr Jeff Dalley, University of Cambridge - 'Neuroscience of Addiction'

Dr Dalley's presentation provided an overview of some of the factors that contribute to addiction, exploring why some of us become addicts, persisting in certain behaviours despite adverse effects. As well as discussing substances such as opiates, methamphetamine and cannabis, Dr Dalley also stressed the damage that can be caused by alcohol, and the growing problem of unregulated 'legal highs'. His presentation covered different models of addiction, and highlighted some of the mediating factors, which include genetics, poverty, impulsivity and depression.

With reference to a variety of experimental studies involving 'Zippy', the impulsive rat, Dr Dalley illustrated some of the neurobiological areas involved in 'reward' and implicated in addiction, although he stressed that pleasure does not equal addiction. Typically, it has been suggested that dopamine is heavily involved in reward and addiction, but Dr Dalley made reference to more recent research suggesting that differences in GABA neurons may have more of an influence on impulsivity and addiction. This could have an impact on the focus in drug treatment - instead of relying on replacement (e.g. methadone), the focus could shift to 'strengthening' neurons in the pre-frontal cortex, to increase 'top- down control' over addiction behaviours.

Dr Poul Rohleder, Anglia Ruskin University - 'HIV & People with Disabilities: Excluded from a Health Crisis'

Dr Rohleder's presentation began with an overview of models of disability and an introduction to the social construction of disability and sexuality. Drawing on previous research, he highlighted key problem areas related to sexuality in people with disabilities. These included the 'myth of asexuality', stigma and low sexual self-esteem, and sexual abuse and exploitation. These issues, along with a lack of education and access to healthcare, represent some of the risk factors that can contribute to HIV infection amongst people with disabilities. Dr Rohleder also highlighted a lack of research exploring HIV in people with disabilities, and drew attention to the fact that most people with disabilities live in areas of high HIV prevalence.

Dr Rohleder then presented an overview of recent research he had been involved with, conducted in South Africa. The first of these studies surveyed disability organisations and schools about HIV education for children with a range of disabilities. The second study surveyed HIV knowledge and risk behaviours amongst people with disabilities in the general public. The final study used interviews to explore educators' experiences of providing sex education to young people with disabilities. He concluded that providing appropriate and accessible education is helpful, but that much work remains to be done to increase our understanding of this complex and important area.

Fan Zhang, University of Cambridge - 'Work for Good, Feel Good'

Ms Zhang began her presentation with a discussion of different approaches to defining 'wellbeing', before moving on to discuss positive emotions in the workplace. The working experience appears to be critical to the overall life experience, so her research is focused on exploring the factors that can predict happiness at work.

Ms Zhang went on to discuss how she and her colleagues have tested their hypotheses; over 6,000 people were surveyed in more than 90 countries to explore how far the perceived prosocial impact of a job can predict workplace and overall happiness, and the relationship between these factors. Ms Zhang is now working on the second phase of this study as part of her PhD research.

Professor Brendan Gough, Leeds Metropolitan University - 'Smoking, Drinking, Getting Fat and Ill: A Critical Health Psychology Perspective'

Professor Gough introduced himself and his research interests by sharing with us his "critical history", before expanding to explain the area of 'critical psychology'. He discussed how critical psychology draws on ways of thinking from ideologies such as feminism, Marxism and social constructionism, in order to challenge mainstream psychology.

In relation to health psychology, Professor Gough highlighted how mainstream psychological research can have a limited focus on individual cognitions, losing sight of context and meanings. He asserted that complex and contradictory behaviours can be overlooked, and critical health psychology offers an alternative approach to understanding health behaviours. Critical psychologists often use qualitative methods such as discourse or narrative analysis to explore research questions.

Professor Gough then discussed in detail some research examples, with topics including, media representations of women and drinking, focus groups with young people about smoking, and exploring men's experiences of body consciousness. Finally, Professor Gough emphasised the ability of critical health psychology and qualitative research to embed research within the social context, work with marginalised groups and to challenge orthodox psychological 'knowledge'.

Dr Rachel Pechey, University of Cambridge - 'Socioeconomic Status and Diet: Exploring Influences on Food Purchasing'

Dr Pechey's presentation began with an overview of obesity prevalence in relation to socioeconomic status (SES); in both adults and children, obesity is more prevalent in the most deprived groups. She also presented evidence that we eat more if we are presented with a larger portion size, and eat less if food is harder to reach.

Dr Pechey then presented the findings from three studies relating to food purchasing habits. The first study explored the differences between the food categories purchased by different SES groups; all the healthier food categories were purchased more by the higher SES groups, with most of the unhealthier food categories purchased more by the lower SES groups, although some categories, including alcohol and cheese, bucked this trend. The second study explored the impact of advertising and end-of-aisle displays in supermarkets, and found increases in sales for all six drinks categories studied. The final study looked at the impact of price promotion, which found that consumers are more responsive to price promotions on unhealthy products and that the lowest SES groups are the most responsive to such price promotions. Her conclusions were that there are food purchasing differences between SES groups and that the supermarket environment can have an impact.

Final thoughts

This was my first visit to a psychology conference, and I was unsure of what to expect. However, I found the day to be thoroughly worthwhile. The atmosphere was professional, yet friendly and relaxed, and the day felt like a very good introduction to the world of conferences. The venue was good, with the main lecture theatre a comfortable size, and the all-important refreshments were plentiful and tasty. The speakers were engaging and the topics gave a good flavour of the wide variety of research happening in the broad field of health psychology and related disciplines.

I was surprised at the variety of people who were amongst the delegates; I met people who were students like myself, at various levels of study and from different institutions, but also met with professionals from a wide range of disciplines, and not just those directly related to psychology. I found it exciting to meet new people and enjoyed the opportunity to discuss ideas about psychology and share experiences of applying psychology to 'real-life', for example, observations in the work place or attitudes to stress amongst colleagues and friends.

Lastly, I volunteered to write this article for the OUPS newsletter, as I wanted to share my experience of the day so that others can get a feel for what happens at a conference. I am one of many OU Psychology graduates, and I can safely say that I would not have made it through my degree with as much success as I did had it not been for the support and help that OUPS offered. If you are current student, I would strongly recommend that you take advantage of the events that are organised - they are a brilliant way to meet people, gain confidence and learn more about the subject and practice of psychology.