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London OUPS Social Psychology 2020 Conference

No train, no tube, not even a plane for some of us, just a stroll into my home office and bingo straight into a Social Psychology conference; I believe this the first full conference offered on-line by the Open University Psychological Society (OUPS) after a couple of trial ‘single speaker’ talks? One could be forgiven for thinking that a socially distanced conference is somewhat the antithesis of social psychology. Missing, as it did, the ‘after party’ in a bar, it was certainly lacking socially. Where it was not lacking was in the quality and diversity of the talks based around the common (dare I say ‘folk’ Prof John?) theme of public behaviour during the Covid-19 crisis.

A diverse cast: Dr Emma O'Dwyer of Kingston University, Professor John Drury of the University of Sussex and Professor Elizabeth Stokoe from Loughborough University, all performing on my computer monitor whilst summoning up memories of TV sit-coms long ago.

First off was Dr Emma, “Solidarity not Charity? A political psychological perspective on UK Covid-

19 mutual aid groups”. Well, the moment she mentioned Political Science I immediately recalled Randy Newman’s 1972 satirical song:

“No one likes us-I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens”

in some ways prescient if one believes the conspiracy theorists that suggest the virus was planned?

Her talk, however, was more about the micro than the macro, the localised self-help groups that had formed during the crisis, some 4500 nationwide, it seems. Dr Emma described the formation and work of a group she was involved in in Peckham, South London, I immediately thought of the most famous alumni of Peckham – yep the Trotter family, Only Fools and Horses the first sit-com of the day. Dr Emma informed us that solidarity was horizontal, I guess she meant with equality and little difference in individual status, whereas charity was vertical with a hierarchy between the donor and recipient?  Dr Emma seemed to describe the formation of the groups as anarchical based on the principles of Peter Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’ yet when surveyed it appears the sample group of members were 85% female, with a mean age of 48, Dr Emma used the term middle-aged women, I’m not sure she’d have got away with that at a face to face OUPS conference! Somehow, anarchy didn’t quite fit with the description, the principles were very sound basically helping local people cope with the restrictions brought in because of the crisis. It would seem Foucault´s Governmentality in action, what was not clear was if there was ´organisation´ behind this localised mobilisation, in particular the funding.

Unfortunately, having identified or singled out certain benefits of being in such a group, we were then presented with results in a complicated visual showing various statistical relationships. I’m afraid once the statistical tail starts wagging the dog of psychology (in particular social psychology) I lose interest, the research in this case was in my mind good enough without having to attempt to prop it up with statistics!  

Dr Emma’s take-home message was that these groups “can contribute to a fairer and more equal post Covid-19 society”. Interestingly the suggestion was given that such groups both adapt to and resist existing structures- she attributed this to Serge Moscovici, I guess she meant minority influence within his Social Representation Theory? This is surely not incompatible with Foucault’s Governmentality whereby the apparent organisation of these groups is leading to a parallel social welfare system offering different models of citizenship? Perhaps the defining answer is who pays the piper- where does the funding come from? Local charity collections are unlikely surely to generate sufficient funds for monthly £50 grants on demand for those in the catchment area of Dr Emma’s group- lovely jubbly! An interesting talk and analysis of self-help groups focused on Covid-19 it seems we’ve come a long way from the efforts of Wolfie in Tooting- Power to the People!

Next up was Prof John Drury “The role of social psychology in responses to the pandemic: Don’t blame the public”. I must confess I was looking forward to this talk, in particular because Prof John was one of the contributing authors to “Together Apart, The Psychology of Covid-19” (Available for free download) a collection of essays that could be termed the Social Identity Theory (SIT) guidebook In addition, he is a member of one of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) sub-groups that advised the UK Government on the handling of the crisis. Prof John came over as highly knowledgeable and curiously I found the talk almost intimate, direct from his home to mine, it seemed. Prof John very quickly conjured up the sitcoms, panic buying in the shops (Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army) he even mentioned the war, but I think he got away with it (Fawlty Towers). To be fair he argued that much of the ‘panic buying’ was in fact quite reasonable behaviour. As for the war he restated Government concerns, related to the time that the people would panic when faced with bombs raining down.

Prof John talked on several levels, I thought much of his work was rooted in SIT, I was wrong he uses the framework of the Social Identity Approach, he certainly seems to be in with the in-group of social psychologists working in that area. Prof John started by asking why social psychologists should have been involved in the Covid-19 crisis, his main premise was that it was better that professional psychologists are involved rather than allowing those in power to rely upon ‘folk psychology’ (note for OU students we saw that term from Trevor Butt in DD307).

To underpin his talk, Prof John cited work from his students on improving how the authorities deal with the public in cases of Chemical and biological type incidents. He was able to demonstrate considerable success in both alleviating the stress and increasing the compliance of members of the public caught up in such incidents. Another example was the policing of football crowds whereby the authorities concentrated on ‘facilitative’ policing, this meant the police guided the fans to large screens etc. hence assisting them rather than the coercive policing of control and enforcement. Prof John is very clearly in favour of persuasion rather than enforcement. He pared this down to: ‘good communication’ leads to ‘shared social identity’ giving ‘influence’.

Regarding the Covid-19 crisis the basis of the message seemed to be ‘trust in government’ and a sense of ‘shared social identity’. The advice seemed to work very well as there were very high levels of compliance with Government advice and it would seem little need for enforcement. He also threw in a chart, with some statistical underpinning, regarding adherence to rules and identification with one’s community.

Prof John then spoke about community efforts such as those described by Dr Emma, hoping that such groups would continue and giving advice to assist with the sustainability. In particular adding support, Prof John quoted from Independent SAGE the ongoing importance of test, trace etc. I personally rather liked the Private Eye (No.1529) version FETTISH: Find, Explain, Test, Trace, Isolate, Support and Home visit (if needed).

One of the major problems Prof John identified was that Politics sometimes ignored Psychology, worse however is that Government often seemed to use the wrong type of psychology (sometimes totally ignoring specific SPI-B (SAGE) advice. However the times have surely been a’changin this past decade since the creation of the ‘nudge unit’ (Behavioural Insights Team) by the Cameron Government. I somehow sense that the ‘nudge team’ are not held in high esteem by Prof John and his fellow academics, yet their fingerprints were surely all over the Government messaging, in particular the switch from red to green chevron borders as the message shifted from ‘stay at home to ‘stay alert’.

Where I struggle overall is there can be no question that psychological interventions in incident response, crowd control, football violence even persuading people to use seatbelts or take out pension plans, are beneficial to the people. The problem with the response to the Covid-19 crisis has been that Covid-19 has taken precedence over all other health matters and one could argue economic matters. I tried to question Prof John on this, his basic response was the actions taken were to support the advice of the more medical scientists and advise government accordingly. He added that regarding human/health costs the decision about who dies is a political one, whatever your view people have died and will die either because of or as a result of Covid. The flaw in the argument is that the ‘science’ of Covid is contested by scientists of equal status to those that happen to be  in the Governments in-group.  Time will tell on the absolute rights or wrongs but there can be no question that government informed by social psychology achieved a remarkably high level of co-operation from the public.

The final talk was from Prof Elizabeth Stokoe “Talking in the time of coronavirus. The science of conversation”, Liz Stokoe ‘rocks’ was the comment of one of my PHD student friends when I mentioned the conference to her. From the title I mistakenly thought Prof Liz specialised in conversation in fact she works in the field of human interaction and doesn’t distinguish between verbal, non-verbal or indeed on-line communication. Prof Liz disappointed at first, because she was the only presenter with a ‘bookshelf’ backdrop, alas it was out of focus so it was impossible to pick out books that might have been revealing of character! I secretly hoped for a half obscured E.L.James or perhaps a vintage Erica Jong? In fact looking at her slides as I write she throws in a final teaser slide with a partially exposed Kahneman’s ‘Thinking fast and slow’, Pinker’s ‘Sense of Style might have fitted too but that’s more about prose than the spoken word.   We also switched to Zoom for this talk from the previous platform. I must admit, this caught me unprepared as previous OUPS online events had both sound and video disabled. This time, one could see the participants- not me, alas, as I had no camera attached, I’ll be better prepared and attired next time!

The first part of her talk was centred on conversation analysis, in particular those little silences that can be so long, in accusatory conversations in particular. Took me back several decades to my selling and sales training days – if you were the first to speak after asking the closing question, you never ever got the order! Some good telesales analysis of both and right wrong processes, Prof Liz would probably find my ‘do I know you?’ response to ‘over familiar’ cold calling salesman a decent avoiding tactic. She very briefly flirted with ‘date talk’ but quickly moved away after a brief discussion about the ‘performance’ of kissing after a first date, a nod towards Goffman perhaps?

Prof Liz then dropped conversation and went on to effectively nonverbal communication in the times of Covid-19. Not for her the complex diagrams with statistical information, rather there were sketches of walking, running and cycling routes through local leisure areas. The objective was to show ‘social-distancing’ behaviour or the absence of, with one hilarious diagram of her lurking in the bushes as she tried to avoid others approaching a ‘pinch point’. Not a sitcom as such but I was waiting for Benny Hill to come on slide leading one of his bizarre comedy chases, to the Yakety Sax theme tune, as the various joggers weaved and dodged to maintain their 2 metres (or is it 1.5?) social distancing.

She finished with a few words about the differences in ‘quality’ of real life and on-line communications. Her conclusion was very elegant, Prof Liz may not welcome it but I think Prof Pinker might approve “(In)effective communicators are (in)effective communicators regardless of modality”. In part the jury has already come out as post Covid-19 Microsoft, Google, Goldman Sachs, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Schroders amongst others envisaging far less office, or face to face attendance from their staff. The ramifications of this shift against commuting to the office will, I’m sure, form the basis of many conferences, across many disciplines.

An interesting day, 3 excellent speakers loosely linked by the Covid-19 crisis, the online medium worked well for the dissemination of information, frankly I preferred Zoom to the platform used for the first two talks. Online worked less well for questions I felt participants were more awed by being online rather than in a lecture room. As for social interaction, that alas was virtually absent, bar a few brief hello comments, the best must have been Dr Babak Fozooni’s “Hello Johnny boy” to Prof John! As for value well twenty quid for OUPS members the price of a dinner out. Perhaps it might have been more popular had a ‘Rishi’ discount of a tenner been applied? An attendance of around 45 was disappointing, more marketing perhaps or maybe an August Saturday found too many in holiday mood? Nonetheless, thank you London & South OUPS, for organising it and, of course the speakers for presenting.


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