#Psychology #Statistics #ResearchMethods | #PhD #Academia #HigherEducation | #Arts #Theatre #Fiction #Literature #AppliedArts 

Why study fiction empirically?

There are tensions inherent to experimental research on fiction. There are concerns among literary scholars and general readers that in seeking to establish discreet causal relationships, research into fiction-effects risks reducing literature to the sum of its parts. I’ve heard work on fiction effects described in terms of “social engineering”. Literature may impact things like empathy and moral decision making, and art more broadly can address social issues and instigate change, though these aspects can be functions rather than drivers of artistic expression. It’s not about curtailing artistic freedom, but exploring what art reveals about creativity as well as, in some cases, using it instrumentally. Some art is for art’s sake, and some art is for, I don’t know, assessing competencies during recruitment drives (e.g., in roleplay). There’s room for both.


It’s true that literature cannot be reduced to a set of discreet variables. It cannot be disentangled from the physical and cultural environments in which it exists, the situated and social aspects of reading, nor from each unique human body that engages with it. Fiction is not outside the reader, it is an active process of co-creation by (at least) two imaginations – the author’s and the reader’s – mediated by words (not to mention pages, screens, voices, gaming devices and so on). 


In 1974, Marina Abramović, the mother of performance art, positioned herself alongside a table of objects at a gallery in Naples, with the following instructions: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. Performance. I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility. Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am).” Over the course of the piece, the artist’s clothes were removed, her skin was cut and a fight broke out when a loaded gun was held to her temple and her finger placed on the trigger. These acts constituted the piece “Rhythm 0”, a production that could only come into being through the interplay between artist, audience and objects. Rhythm 0 was available to be recreated (it was re-exhibited), just as Shakespeare’s plays are reimagined, just as editions of books are read by different readers in different environments. The same performance could not exist twice. Fiction, theatre and performance art – even digital recordings – emerge through interactions between multiple agents, and each iteration of the work is constituted via new processes of co-creativity.


The goal of studying literature from a psychological perspective isn’t necessarily to establish the effects of particular story-genres on a set of psychological outcome measures (scores on a questionnaire, the ability to interpret vignettes, or the likelihood of donating to charity, for example). Exploring and operationalizing fiction-engagement can inform knowledge on cognition, creative thinking and expression. Take empathy: If we can operationalise the factors that moderate fiction effects on real world empathy, we can develop knowledge of the ways people understand others.


The concept of empathy has its origins in the study of aesthetics – the original German Einfühlung refers to projecting oneself or “feeling into” objects – and was only later appropriated by the social sciences where its meaning was extended to incorporate the range of cognitive strategies that people use to understand others. If the activation of imagination during engagement with literature was found to improve empathy (and several researchers are attempting this), then it would suggest that appreciating others’ experiences (in that situation, with that sample) is a creative act of imagination, rather than the strategic application of acquired social knowledge. Fictional stories are considered to have validity as representations of the world, which is why fictional narratives have been widely used as stimuli in studies assessing how much people understand about others and the world, as well as in diagnostic tests of neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by social difficulties. Fiction both presents the world, is of it and is in it. It both presents human experience and is constituted through it. It both presents empathy and is experienced empathically. It surely has much to reveal about each.

What do statistical tests actually do?                       (here's a t-test example)


Why can't we just look at group averages to see if one group is "better" / "higher" than the other?


Let's say we are looking at scores on a test for students in Jim's class and students in Jamie's

class. The module lead thinks that Jim is a better teacher than Jamie, so she wants to compare the scores in the two groups. 


On average (mean average) students in Jim's class scored 45 on the test and students in Jamie's class scored 40 on the test. This seems to confirm the module lead's intuition that Jim is a better teacher, because Jim's students scored higher on the test on average. 


However, different scenarios could have led to this result:

(a) let's say everyone in Jim's class scored 45, or 44 or 46 and everyone in Jamie's class scored 39 or 40 or 41. EVERYONE in Jim's class scored higher than EVERYONE in Jamie's class, which shows a clear difference between the two groups. Surely, Jim must be the better teacher.  (b) let's say that in Jim's class some people scored 10 and others scored 100, 25, 35 90 and so on. It just averaged out at 45. Similarly, in Jamie's class, people were scoring 0, 5, 50 and 100; it just averaged out at 40. There's so much variation within each group, that we can't be sure whether the difference between the average scores are due to the students attending Jim's class versus Jamie's or whether it's just due to random differences between the students (in other words, due to chance, because it's by chance that students got allocated to one class instead the other and the slightly less capable students just happened to be in Jamie's class).


Our inferential statistics take into account the differences in scores between the groups (what's called "systematic variance" - the variance that is the result of having either Jim or Jamie as a teacher) as well as the differences in scores within the groups (the unsystematic variance - the variance in scores that's due to random chance factors such as levels of IQ, sleep, caffeine, natural ability, revision time - all those things that might impact a test result). These statistics look at both the average scores in each group, as well as how far the individuals' scores deviate from the averages (that's what standard deviation tells us - the spread of data points around the average). 


The module lead ran an independent samples t-test to compare the two groups, and found it to be non-signifncant. There was so much variation within each group, that we couldn't say with confidence that Jim was a better teacher than Jamie, or vice versa. As such, both had their contracts renewed! 


Teaching and learning statistical significance


Before I began teaching stats for psychology, my approach to results was the same as most students’: go straight to the p-value; less than .05 = good and more than .05 = bad. If asked why .05 was good, I might have said, “because it means there’s less than a 5% chance the result was a fluke”. That answer is along the right lines and it’s intuitive, but it’s fundamentally misleading. Knowing this, I have nevertheless found it a useful shorthand when explaining or thinking about statistical significance - a habit I’m trying to grow out of.


In their recent open access paper, Spence and Stanley (2018) offered what I found to be a useful way to phrase what that p-value really means. Perhaps you’ll find it useful too. They state that (assuming alpha is set at .05) “…statistical significance is declared if less than 5% of other results would be more extreme than the result observed in the current study, when the null is true (i.e., when there is no effect)”. So let’s say we compared two groups on some measure, and the effect size we obtained (an F ratio perhaps) was 5. Our null hypothesis is that the difference between those groups is zero and that’s what we tested. The p-value associated with that F-ratio indicates what proportion of hypothetical test results would be as different from zero (5) or more different from zero (6, 7, 8 and so on [absolute values]) if there was, in fact, no real difference between the groups (i.e., the real difference was zero).


Psychology students often haven't been taught about the replication crisis and open science, let alone the researcher degrees of freedom and issues of multiple testing that can lead to false-positive results (see Simmons et al., 2011). Still, these are important topics for budding researchers to understand, and clarifying statistical significance (as teachers and as learners) seems a pretty good place to start.


I hope this has been useful to you. Thanks for reading! 


Follow @PsychPaperClub on Twitter to join in the discussion about the Simmons et al. (2011) paper and others. Contribute via the hashtag #psychpaperclub





I sent the following email to explain statistical significance to someone whilst on a train back from a wedding slightly worse for wear. Still, in case it's useful...



Here’s a quick bit on statistical significance for you. Let’s use correlation as an example, but significance is exactly the same for any other type of effect (e.g., effect of intervention on outcome or prediction of y from x).  


So let’s say we have a correlation between a and b, of 0.8. This would be a strong positive correlation because 1 means that a and b are the same, 0 means that there is no correlation, and a negative correlation (meaning one goes up and the other goes down) would have a “-” in front of it. The value of 0.8 represents the “size of the effect” (in our case, the strength of the relationship between a and b).


In statistics, we work with probability not certainty. P-values represent the probability (p stands for probability) that our effect is real and not due to chance (a fluke). P-values are between 0 and 1 which means that you can think of them as percentages. 1 = 100% and .5 = 50% so .05 = 5%.


So let’s say you read a paper and it says “there was a statistically significant positive correlation between a and b of 0.8, p = .05”. This would be statistically significant because we accept significance if p = .05 or less. (NB .05 is the convention in psychology, though it’s actually an arbitrary value – more on that below).

That p-value of .05 value represents the probability that the effect we got (our correlation of 0.8) was due to chance (a fluke, or a “false positive result”), in this case, that’s a 5% chance. That means we can be 95% convinced that the effect (the correlation between a and b of 0.8) is real. Therefore, if the p-value was .01, it means there is a 1% chance that the effect is a fluke, and therefore a 99% chance it is real. If p = .001 it means there is a 0.1% chance it is a fluke and a 99.9% chance it is real. That’s why something has to be less than (<) .05 to be considered “statistically significant”.




That explanation is a really useful shorthand but it’s actually not quite accurate (though most people think it is, and that’s how it tends to get taught).


This is what it really means: P-values refer to the likelihood of getting the result we got, or a more extreme result (better, more convincing, in our case this would mean a stronger correlation) if there was in fact no effect and we ran the study loads of times:


Assume that there was actually NO EFFECT (in our case there is no relationship between a and b) i.e., the result is a fluke, a “false positive”. If p is less than .05 it means that if we ran the study loads of times, we would expect to see a false positive result (our correlation of 0.8 or higher) in 5% of studies. If our p value is .01 it would mean that if we ran the study 100 times we would expect to get a false positive result once. In other words, it actually refers to a hypothetical number of studies run, rather than probability concerning the single study reported. 


Extra info!: The criterion of .05 was set by a statistician called Fisher. This criterion is called “alpha” and our p-value (the significance value that comes with our effect size [correlation or whatever] when we run our analysis) is measured against alpha. Fisher suggested that 95% confidence in a result is a reasonable level of confidence so we set alpha at .05. Some researchers might set alpha at .01 for example, because they want to be even more confident in the result. Then their p-value would need to be .01 or less for their result to be considered statistically significant. This happens in pharmaceutical research for example, when you might want to be very very confident that a new and very expensive drug really would be worth it. 


So what does any of this mean for reading psychology papers? It means that the lower the p-value the more confident you can be in the finding. Beware p-values of .05 or .04 or .03 (as it’s easy to tease your p-value a little if you know how). Also beware of papers that report loads and load so results (e.g., dozens of correlations), because every test reported increases the likelihood that there’s a false positive result in there!


It also means that, theoretically, 5% (ish) of published results are hokum, hence the replication crisis!*


Finally, don’t forget that you can have a tiny effect (a very small correlation, for example) but with a teeny tiny p-value (e.g., .00000001) meaning we’d be VERY confident in it. You need more participants to detect a small effect and fewer participants to detect a big effect. For example, grapefruit does reduce cellulite, but the effect of grapefruit on cellulite is so small that you’d have to eat SO many grapefruits to impact cellulite at all, you’d be dead! Statistical significance alone doesn’t provide any info about the size of an effect. Some effects are very statistically significant, but so small that they’re pointless!


* Ps Actually false positives in published papers are surely MUCH higher than 5%. That’s because most journals don’t publish null findings (studies showing no effect). So these studies are sitting unpublished in the file drawers of grumpy professors and this is called the “file drawer” problem (the huge bias towards positive results in the published literature).* In 2015, the Open Science Collaboration replicated 100 studies from top journals in psychology. 97% of the original studies had statistically significant results, compared to only 36% of the reruns. (Though there has been some criticism about whether this large scale replication replicates – there’s some evidence that things aren’t quite as bad as it suggests - but we could go on forever….!!) 


Another issue here is that if you find no effect it doesn’t mean that there actually is no effect (which itself would be informative). It actually means that there’s either no effect or you just didn’t find the effect (the chance of this is usually set at 20%, but I won’t go into that now!) You can address this by using a different type of statistics but that’s too much for a Sunday!

Mac update and SPSS


Updated your Macbook and can't use SPSS? Me too! Here's the fix that solved the problem. All works well, but note that "spssstatisticsapp" is simply the app (so you can open it as usual). You may need to go to "open with..." to open TextEdit. Search anything you can't find straight away (e.g., it's quick to search "authorization wizard"). You may need to re-enter your licence code. 


From: IBM Support.

Arts and Minds: Clarifying the relationship between social cognition and the arts

Rose Turner for On Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts, 2(2017) 


Social cognition refers to the range of cognitive processes that operate in response to social phenomena; it includes constructs like empathy, theory of mind and emotion recognition.

Social cognition is of interest to researchers in developmental and clinical fields where deficits in skills such as interpreting facial cues can serve as diagnostic markers, and to those working with typical populations where they link to prosocial behaviour and the maintenance of positive interpersonal relationships (e.g. Castano, 2012; Johnson, 2012).


Social cognition has become increasingly important to researchers interested in the psychological impact of the arts. Studies have shown that social cognitive skills positively relate to various forms of arts-engagement, including reading and viewing stories (Mar et al., 2006; Mar, Tackett & Moore, 2010) and acting (Goldstein, Wu & Winner, 2009). Furthermore, it has been suggested that engaging with fiction may provide “grist for the mills” (Zunshine, 2006, p. 16) of theory of mind, a facet of social cognition that refers to the ability attribute mental states to oneself and others. Recently, the positive causal effects of reading literary (award-winning or canonical) fiction on theory of mind have received particular attention (e.g. Kidd & Castano, 2013; Pino & Mazza, 2016; see also Panero et al., 2016).


Despite a growing interest in how neurologically typical adults may develop their social cognitive skills via arts-engagement, the multidimensionality of social cognition has led to inconsistent definitions of its core constructs. This has resulted in some disparity between the dimensions that researchers claim to measure, and the tools they use for measurement. For example, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Eyes Test; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) is widely regarded as a reliable measure of theory of mind. Participants are asked to attribute mental state terms to photographs of the eye regions of faces, and attributions are scored for accuracy. Participants with low scores are considered to have lower theory of mind ability that those with high scores. The Eyes Test has provided the cornerstone for several papers reporting theory of mind deficits in groups with Autism spectrum disorder, and has constituted the central measure in research showing positive effects of engaging with fiction on theory of mind ability (e.g. Black & Barnes, 2013; Kidd & Castano, 2013) However, Oakley et al. (2016) point out that the Eyes Test is in fact a measure of emotion recognition rather than theory of mind per se. This, they argue, is an important distinction, because studies have shown that the abilities can dissociate: people may have trouble decoding facial expressions, but can attribute mental states accurately using alternative cues.


To complicate matters further, empathy is regularly used to refer to the ability to attribute cognitive and affective mental states, overlapping with the theory of mind construct. In a useful review of the concept, Cuff et al. (2014) defined empathy as an affective response similar to the emotional state of another agent, accompanied by recognition that the emotion is coherent with the agent’s circumstances and not one’s own. The experiential aspect therefore distinguishes empathy from theory of mind, and also from sympathy (or “empathic concern”, e.g. Davis, 1983) where emotions are experienced for rather than as another agent. Given the growing interest in the social cognitive benefits of the arts (and fiction in particular), a move towards greater consistency in defining social cognitive constructs would be of great benefit to the field.


A final challenge for research into social cognition and the arts is that many traditional social cognition tasks are prone to ceiling effects with healthy adults (e.g. false-belief tasks and basic emotion recognition tests). Consequently, more complex, multidimensional tasks have emerged, designed to probe variation in high-level abilities. Such approaches have included narrative-based film and reading tasks (e.g. Dodell-Feder et al., 2013; Dziobek et al., 2006), which can incorporate a fuller range of cues, entailing lower-level decoding and higher level mentalizing and empathic processes, more reflective of real-world social phenomena than traditional measures.


Two issues arise from these more complex approaches, (1) multidimensional tasks can enable compensatory strategies which conceal specific deficits, (2) task performance may be affected by individual differences in narrative-engagement; therefore, multidimensional tasks may be most usefully applied alongside traditional singular approaches (Turner & Felisberti, 2017). For example, the Eyes Test could be used in conjunction with a story-based test of theory of mind to facilitate a comprehensive perspective of individuals’ abilities to interpret facial cues, dialogue and contextual information in attributing mind-states. Importantly, this approach would highlight variation in social cognitive skills both within and between participants. In turn, this could help to clarify the specific and unique effects of different modes of engagement with the arts.


Arts practices are constantly evolving, and it seems plausible that different modalities may entail different social cognitive processes. To develop a more comprehensive understanding of the psychological impact of the arts, the field should work towards a more cohesive view of social cognition, its components, and the tools we use for measurement.



Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 42, 241-251. 

Black, J., & Barnes, J. L. (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 355-494. 

Castano, E. (2012). Anti-social behavior in individuals and groups: An empathy-focused approach. In K. Deux, & M. Snyder (Eds). The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (pp. 419-445). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2014). Empathy: A Review of the Concept. Emotion Review, 0, 1-10. 

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126. 

Dodell-Feder, D., Lincoln, S. H., Coulson, J. P., & Hooker, C. I. (2013). Using fiction to assess mental state understanding: a new task for assessing theory of mind in adults. PLoS ONE 8: e81279. 

Dziobek, I., Fleck, S., Kalbe, E., Rogers, K., Hassenstab, J., Brand, M., et al. (2006). Introducing MASC: a movie for the assessment of social cognition. Autism and Debelopmenal  Disorders, 36, 623–636.

Goldstein, T., Wu, K., and Winner, E. (2009). Actors are skilled in theory of mind but not Empathy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 29, 115-133. 

Johnson, D. R. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 150-155. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.005

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380. 

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsch, J., dela Paz, J. & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Research in Personality, 40, 694-712. 

Mar, R., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development, 25, 69-78. 

Oakley, B. F. M., Brewer, R., Bird, G., & Catmur, C. (2016). ‘Theory of mind’ is not theory of emotion: A cautionary note on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. Abnormal Psychology, 125, 818-823.

Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016). Does reading a single passage of literary fiction really improve theory of mind? An attempt at replication. Personality and Social Psychology, 111, e46-e54. 

Pino, M. C., & Mazza, M. (2016). The Use of “Literary Fiction” to Promote Mentalizing Ability. PLoSONE 11, 1-14. 

Turner, R., & Felisberti, F. M. (2017). Measuring mindreading: A review of behavioral approaches to testing cognitive and affective mental state attribution in neurologically typical adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00047 

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

To self-fund or not to self-fund: Who wouldn't want to do a funded PhD?


So, you’ve decided to embark on the dizzying pursit of a doctorate. If you don’t have savings or other steady income, you may have no choice but to strap on a big pair of… HIKING SHOES (what else?) to begin trudging up the hill of competitive funding applications. If however, you have a nest egg, a wealthy and willing spouse, or plan to work part-time, you may have the option to self-fund. It’s still a big steep hill – you’ll still need the same qualifications and a decent proposal – but it’s a smaller hill. To get to the PhD start line at least. Sounds good, eh?


So, if you are planning a full-time PhD, why wouldn’t you go for a studentship award if there’s a chance you could get one? Surely being paid to do you research compared with paying to do your research is a no-brainer! Turns out, there are plenty of reasons you might choose to self-fund. 



Studentship = money. That’s a good thing, of course. You’ll get something like £17,000 a year for a fully-funded PhD (maybe more, maybe less, depending on the funding body). Which is way more than the minus £5,000-ish you’d get paying to do one. Put another way, that’s >£50,000 to do you research project compared to -£15,000-ish. So with funding, the pressure’s off a little bit, in terms of being able to put coffee on the table. However, it is much harder to squeeze any more pennies out of your university / department / external funding bodies if you already receive funding. Why would anyone give you a bursary instead of the dozens of self-funded applicants that also need one?


If you’re funded or in receipt of a grant, you may be required to teach as part of your contract. That’s no bad thing – a lot of doctoral students want to teach because teaching experience is integral to advancing your academic career. But what if you’re funded and your contract says nothing about teaching? You may well find yourself in a disadvantaged position, where your paying colleagues have all been granted bundles of paid teaching work, and you have been overlooked because, respectively, you’re absolutely loaded. The thing is, £17,000 per year is actually not very much money at all in the context of the real world, so you’re probably feeling very un-loaded even though the department perceives you as bling-er than Drake. Furthermore, if you’re self-funded or part-funded, it is generally accepted that you undertake other paid work alongside your PhD. Whereas if you are fully-funded, taking on other work is something of a grey area (it will depend on your funding body and contract, though there may be a lack of clarity).  So although being funded may seem the best financial option, self-funding could actually support your access to grants and bursaries, teaching opportunities and other work opportunities outside the university. All of which can bolster post-PhD progression.



When you’re self-funded, pressure on your research output is a teeny tiny bit reduced. You may not feel that way of course, especially if you’re conscious of getting your thesis submitted before the next round of fees are due. Departments expect their studentship candidates to storm through the PhD (especially if the funding is departmental!) so there’s little room for mistakes, changes of plan, or taking time out to go on holiday, do other work, have babies or personal crises. There are processes in place for the more serious life events (usually up to a few months off, though funding may be suspended during that time), but it’s unlikely those will cover time needed to reacquaint yourself with friends/family/the outside.


If you’re funded, your supervisor probably had a part in the process – they will have helped to develop your proposal or, at the very least, put their name to it in the first place. Therefore, if you and your supervisor run into problems (it happens) they may be much harder to solve. Insurmountable supervision issues are awful for anyone, but if you’re self-funded, you can afford to have more of a ‘hey, I’m paying for this, and this isn’t good enough’ attitude. If you look for PhD support on the web, you’ll consistently run into phrases like, ‘you’re supervisory relationship is the single most important factor in PhD success’, so it’s really worth considering.


Feeling proper

Yes, being funded helps you to feel validated in the work you’re doing, and that’s great. And you can legitimately tell people you’re doing a research job, rather than that you’re a student which, if you care about those sorts of things, can really boost your self esteem. If, like me, you’re a little beyond respectable-student-lifestyle-age, being funded can be an important aspect of communicating who you are. Just bear in mind that a doctorate is a doctorate no matter who paid for it. Financial awards look great on an academic CV, but you may find it’s easier to get other (albeit smaller) batches of dosh if you self-fund anyway.


There’s no right or wrong, just do what works best for you. You may not have a choice either way round, but if you do, it’s good to know that there are different ways of doing these things, and all are equally valid for different reasons. And don’t forget that, comfortingly, you’ll be entitled to NUS discount whichever route you choose. Not to mention that your railcard will say 16-25 on it - whether you’re 16 or 76 - for at least the next three years. Which is very much fun for confusing ticket collectors.



Reading literature enhances theory of mind: Fact or fiction?


Theory of mind describes the ability to perceive what other people are thinking and feeling. It entails setting aside one’s own perspective to understand another’s knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, intentions or emotions. Theory of mind is important because it enables us to interpret social situations, predict people’s behaviour and maintain positive interpersonal relationships. There is limited information, however, on how we can best practise and develop this interpersonal ability.


A research team from the University of Toronto suggested that reading fiction allows us to imaginatively experience social interactions, and so it may help to hone our theory of mind skills. The team asked participants to select names that they recognized from a list containing fiction authors, nonfiction authors and made-up names. Points were awarded for each correct name and deducted for each incorrect false name selected. Final scores indicated people’s experience of fiction and nonfiction reading, and were analysed in relation to performance on tests of theory of mind.


The results showed that people who had read a lot of fiction (“bookworms”) scored higher on tests of theory of mind than people who had, conversely, read a lot of nonfiction (“nerds”). However, it remained unclear whether reading fiction improves theory of mind ability, or whether people with good theory of mind are simply drawn to fictional stories.


Researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano addressed this problem. In a paper for Science, they described a series of experiments that tested whether reading a passage of fiction could directly enhance theory of mind. They assigned participants to read one of a range of texts that were either nonfiction, popular fiction or literary fiction (award-winning or classical literature). The results showed that reading fiction did improved performance on tests of theory of mind, however this result was specific to literary fiction. Kidd and Castano proposed that literary fiction forces readers to use their theory of mind capacity, because it typically contains more complex characters and scenarios than popular fiction.


The findings, which could pave the way for literature-based theory of mind training, were widely publicised. However, recently, other researchers have attempted to replicate the study with mixed results. In a paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Panero and colleagues presented the results of three independent research laboratories that did not produce the same findings as Kidd and Castano, even when they replicated their approach. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the original finding that literary fiction uniquely enhances theory of mind, is reliable. Panero and colleagues called for further research in the area.


In the original study, participants read short read passages of fiction rather than full-length stories. It could be that following full story arcs that deal with character experiences over time, may have a greater impact on theory of mind than short passages. Furthermore, Kidd and Castano suggest that theory of mind may be improved by engaging not only with literature, but with art more broadly. According to a paper in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, watching award-winning TV dramas, for example, improves theory of mind task performance. By defining the aspects of art that may influence theory of mind, researchers will be better equipped to uncover the possibilities that exist for enhancing it.


This area of fiction research chimes with bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapeutic tools. Perhaps in the future, researchers will recommend a night in with a cup of tea, a tome or the TV, to help us enhance our social experiences.



   Black, J. & Barnes, J. L. (2015). Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 9(4), 423-429.

   Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342, 377-380. doi:10.1126/science.1239918  

   Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsch, J., dela Paz, J. & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(5), 694-712. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.002

   Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016). Does reading a single passage of literary fiction really improve theory of mind? An attempt at replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(5), 46-54. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000064

What we mean versus what we measure: Untangling how psychologists understand social cognition



Social cognition, theory of mind, emotion recognition, definitions, measures, Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, false-belief test




“Social Cognition” is an umbrella term used to capture the range of cognitive processes that operate in response to social phenomena. It includes concepts like empathy, theory of mind and emotion recognition. Social cognitive skills are of interest to psychologists, because they are key to social experience; a lack of these abilities can result in social exclusion. Furthermore, problems with some aspects of social cognition can reflect underlying clinical and developmental disorders, such as Autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Psychologists have developed a range of tools to assess social cognitive abilities, however there exists a disparity between the aspects of social cognition that researchers claim to measure, and the tasks they use for measurement.


Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues’ influential Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Eyes Test; 2001) is widely regarded as a reliable test of theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to others). In the Eyes Test, participants attribute mental state terms to photographs of the eye regions of faces, and attributions are scored as accurate/inaccurate. Participants who obtain low scores on the test are considered to have lower theory of mind ability that those with high scores, and the test has provided the cornerstone for several papers reporting theory of mind deficits in groups with Autism. However, in a recent paper for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Oakley and colleagues point out that the Eyes Test actually measures emotion recognition rather than theory of mind per se. This is an important distinction, because studies have shown that people can have problems with recognising emotions from faces, but not other theory of mind tasks and vice versa.


Traditionally, theory of mind was tested using false-belief tasks, which assess participants’ abilities to set aside their own knowledge in order to take the perspective of another individual. For example, a participant might be shown a cartoon featuring Sally and Tim. Sally put the cookies in cupboard and left the room. While she was out of the room, Tim moved the cookies under the table. Participants would be asked where Sally would look for the cookies when she returned to the room, and to answer successfully, they must set aside their own knowledge of where the cookies actually are, in order to understand Sally’s false belief.


Versions of the false-belief task have been widely used in theory of mind research, however they are not complex enough for use with typical older children and adults, who often score at or near 100%. Researchers have developed detailed and complex approaches to probe differences in ability across individuals capable of high level social cognition.


The MASC (Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition) is a short film produced by Isobel Dziobek and colleagues. It features four characters interacting at a dinner party and tests participants’ abilities to understand the thoughts, feelings and intentions of all four characters, by interpreting facial expressions, voice tone, language and context. Complex tasks like the MASC better reflect the range of information available in real-world social situations. 


By acknowledging and testing the range of processes involved in social cognition, they highlight differences in ability within individuals, thus generating a more complete picture of participants’ social cognitive abilities. In turn, they support the development of a multifaceted perspective on social cognition.


References and Further Reading

       Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 42(2), 241-251. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00715

       Dziobek, I., Fleck, S., Kalbe, E., Rogers, K., Hassenstab, J., Brand, M., . . . Convit, A. (2006). Introducing MASC: A movie for the assessment of social cognition. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 36(5), 623-636. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0107-0

     Oakley, B. F. M., Brewer, R., Bird, G., & Catmur, C. (2016). ‘Theory of mind’ is not theory of emotion: A cautionary note on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 125(6), 818-823. doi: 10.1037/abn0000182

     Turner, R. & Felisberti, F. M. (2017). Measuring Mindreading: A review of behavioral approaches to testing cognitive and affective mental state attribution in neurologically typical adults. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00047 

    Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 103-128. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5


Scents & Sensibilities: A Very Short History of Perfumery

Scent is made up of atoms, and things smell a particular way because of their molecular vibrations[i], which are processed and interpreted by the brain. Smell is located in the part of the brain responsible for emotion, memory and creativity which is why scent can evoke strong feelings and even memory flashbacks.[ii]


The art of smell is older than the science of chemistry, with the oldest known perfumeries dating back to the Bronze Age.[iii] Although scent was used earlier for religious practices and ritual, Al-Kindi (born 801, Iraq) was the true father of the perfume industry, researching and experimenting with combinations of scent from crushed plants, herbs and oil. Perfumery was brought to Europe around the 14th century, with Hungary producing the first modern perfume, designed to be worn and drunk. Mmmm… a carafe of your finest Paco Rabane, if you please!


By the 16th century perfume was popular among the European elite. Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici, whose personal perfumer lived in a house connected to hers by a secret passageway so that recipes couldn’t be stolen, brought perfume to France when she married the French crown prince. Meanwhile, in Tudor England, the sharpness of Elizabeth I’s sense of smell was said to be matched only by the slyness of her tongue. Under her reign all public places became scented – she couldn’t bear bad smells - and the practice of alchemy grew.


Helped by unsanitary conditions of the renaissance period, the perfume industry blossomed in 17th century France. Had you been there at the time, however, you might have smelled a rat, as perfume was occasionally used as a murder weapon through administration of poison absorbed via the skin. Nevertheless, perfume was popular with men and women alike and in the 18th century King Louis XV named his court ‘the perfumed court’, demanding a different fragrance every day. France remains the European centre for scent today. From the 1800’s new knowledge shifted perfume-production from alchemy to chemistry, laying the foundations for today’s fragrance industry, which is projected to be worth an eye-watering $38.8 billion by 2017.[iv] Talk about the sweet smell of success!


[i] Turin, L. (2007). The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, New York: HarperCollins.

[ii] Proust, M. (1913-1927/2002) Remembrance of Things Past. New York: Conbray.

[iii] Morgan, T. (2005). Bronze Age perfume discovered. Retrieved from BBC (16.04.2015):

[iv] King, M. (2013). Global fragrances industry to be worth $38.8 billion by 2017. Retrieved from UK Finance (16.04.2015):

What ISN’T a PhD? – A myth-busting factsheet for friends and relatives

If you're regularly asked how your "course" is going, how fun it is to be a student again / able to do whatever you like / sit around at home all day... here's a little bit of info to set the record straight. Not because they've done anything wrong, but because everytime someone implies you're reliving first year at uni it makes you want to slam your face into your computer keyboard and close the lid on your head repeatedly whilst wailing "you don't understand me, nobody understands me"...  So, for the sake of your laptop, here's a few things you might like them to know. I recommend printing it out and sellotaping it to your forehead:



A PhD isn’t… anything like your undergraduate dissertation. Really it isn’t. At all. Unless during your undergrad. you had to teach masters level students, produce publications in peer-reviewed journals, present at international conferences with top academics in your field, organise conferences, partner with organisations, write grants and obtain competitive funding, produce press releases about your work for print, online and TV news outlets around the world, or write 80,000 words and not pass unless your work was considered by leading academics to constitute a brand new contribution to knowledge. Is that what you did when you were 19? Didn't think so. Though if you did, crikey, get off this nonsense blog and go win a Nobel Prize [or drink some blue WKDs to make up for lost time]). Yes, we have to undertake training as part of our PhD (we are trainee researchers) but it’s more like workplace training than university lectures, ok? We almost never go in our pyjamas.


A PhD isn’t… like being a student. See reasons above. Plus, we work fulltime (or part-time if we have other commitments), we don’t drink to excess (unless absolutely necessary or you’re talking about coffee) and we aren’t rebelling against a sheltered teenagedom. In fact, many of us have been fully enrolled in the working world for years.  Instead, we have a line manager (‘supervisor’) and some of us are paid for producing our PhD projects, so it’s really more like your job than it’s like your 3rd year dissertation. Please don’t say our PhDs are like your dissertation. We really need you to understand that they aren’t. BUT we do get a student discount, and our work is often based at a university, so we see undergraduates from time to time (sometimes we teach them), but we honestly don't play ring of fire with them. At least we really shouldn't because, you know, boundaries. NB lots of PhDs are based in industry rather than at universities.


A PhD isn’t… a short-term thing. A lot of people don’t know how long PhDs lasts, let alone their friend’s/partner’s/sibling’s topic. That’s totally fine – I can’t remember your birthday, your job title or your kids’ names. To set things straight, a PhD usually lasts three-to-four years fulltime minimum; funding is generally for 3 years (or four years if it includes an MRes in year 1 [NB the first year of a three-year PhD usually amounts to an MPhil). Part-time, a PhD tends to take 6-8 years. But some people take 25 years. Twenty-five mo-freakin years I hear you cry. Yes. Because they are HARD. You know those long-term projects your organisation has ongoing? The ones on the Gantt Chart? It’s like those, except crammed into 3 years, done by one person with little or no delegation, and it's examined at the end. 


A PhD isn’t… easy / something everyone can do.  It’s not easy to get – you need to have a strong proposal which will likely have been developed over many months.  If you’re going for funding it’s much much harder - you'll have faced a long application process and a gruelling interview (like any other job but with much more writing upfront, and usually with far more applicants than other jobs). It’s not easy to do, either: PhD candidates need to be resilient enough to handle a lot of pressure. They are pretty much solely accountable for what they do and they have to do all of it on their own. Depression levels are particularly high in PhD candidates.  Around 40% dropout. To succeed requires a varied skillset including presenting, writing, project management, not to mention the ability to produce original scholarly discoveries. Many subjects require advanced statistical abilities, advanced experimental design, advanced qualitative and quantitative methods, advanced critical review skills, computer programming and the ability to interpret things like these: p < .001; F(3,26); M, SD, r, rs, adj. R2, b, B, ηp2 ….. 


A PhD isn’t… like that distance learning project you’re doing in your spare time (although it’s great what you’re doing and we wholeheartedly support you). First of all, it isn’t something that can be done in one’s spare time. Secondly, and importantly, if you aren’t going to be a Dr on successful completion of your course, then it’s not like a PhD.


A PhD isn’t… something that a skint person is doing. As I said, some people are fully funded (paid a salary) to do their PhD. Some are given grants to conduct the research (and fees are waived), and some receive cash in return for teaching. Some do related or other work to earn more cash. You won’t earn a fortune by doing a PhD (you won’t earn a fortune in academia generally) but you make a decent living if you budget. Just. Like. Any. Other. Job. 


A PhD isn’t… the safe option. It’s not the case that people do it as a post-uni safety net. Most people have a Masters before they do a PhD and/or have worked for years in the field. Minimum requirements are a strong degree in the subject area whether you’re funded or not. We'll likely be presenting at lots of conferences (provided our work is accepted; conferences, like publications, are peer-reviewed) and presentations are always followed by difficult questions from experts in the area. It's scary. Oh, and 80,000-100,000 words and a >3-hour grilling (I’ve heard of it lasting 9 hours!!)? Only the brave.


So what IS a PhD?

It’s a very big piece of research that the candidate is responsible for producing. Although there may be training and learning aspects, these are to ensure that the candidate is at the level required to produce the research. Doing a PhD makes you no more or less awesome than anyone else doing a different job of their choice and working hard at it. The point is, it's just like anyone else doing a job that they believe in and work hard at. Yes we think our PhD topic as super cool but we couldn't do it if we didn't. A lot of people feel that way about their jobs. In sum, a PhD is like a difficult job for which you get a specific qualification at the end. That’s it.


Now is it time for coffee?*


*Awful stereotype I know, but I really do require a lot of coffee. 

The discounting effect

Studies have shown that the strongest type of long-term change to people’s beliefs happen when there is a "discounting cue" – something that makes us think “er, hang on, I’m not sure I trust this message, let me think about that a bit more…” - such as a source that is dislikeable or unreliable (like certain MPs, PMs or media sources). Then, over time, that discounting cue is forgotten, or becomes disassociated from the message, and the message itself remains, becoming integrated into our ideological framework.* In this light, while the media can be made to retract untrue statements, the damage persists regardless (and I suspect the same could be said for poster-propaganda). This shows the importance of a rigorous, fact-based journalistic media. 


*Sources: Appel & Richter, 2007; Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Kumkale & Albarracin, 2004

A show for a change? How theatre can transform us

Rose Turner for Theatre Perform

Poetry can inspire us, paintings capture moments and music alters mood. Theatre is unique in its power to synthesize these art forms via a social activity that bonds us, provides escapism, elevates and entertains. The proscenium arch is like a magnifying glass that focuses in on fragments of the human experience, and allows us to sample alternative worlds from the curiosities of Wonderland to Rooster Byron’s caravan. So what if real people don’t tango in prison? We theatre-goers willingly suspend disbelief for American Dreams and Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams alike. We are adept at distinguishing what happens on stage as ‘pretend’ and what happens in the auditorium as ‘real’, whilst retaining our ability to empathise with characters in exactly the same way as people in the real world.

Through these psychological demands and theatre’s capacity to spotlight human experience, we can emerge from a show transformed – and it has nothing to with the double G&T we had at the interval. Research shows that viewing theatre enhances our thinking, strengthens attention processes in the brain, and lifts our mood in familiar ways (I can’t be alone in skipping home through puddles to an internal Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack). Furthermore, because empathy for characters activates the brain in the same way as real people, the more we’re exposed to complex fictional characters the better we become at what psychologists call ‘social cognition’ – understanding the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of others – essential for our real-life relationships.

Not only does theatre cultivate our social abilities, it can change our beliefs too. Psychology tells us that when we become absorbed in a story, our thinking alters to match the implicit values of that story. So a rousing rendition of Do You Hear The People Sing may change your perception of rebels and revolutionaries, and the more you weep at Warhorse, the more you’ll appreciate… well, horses. Joking aside, this has significant social implications, considering that feeling empathy for people from marginalised groups improves our attitudes towards those groups. In this way, good drama can facilitate social change, and that’s something theatre-makers and performers have at their fingertips. It’s not all about the West End of course; intimate fringe shows, interactive and immersive theatre may be even more effective at enabling us to walk in the shoes of others. So whether you seek enrichment, education or just an escape from your daily grind, look no further than your local theatre. You’ll be all the better for it.

Roofie Detecting Nail Polish: Prevention in your hands?

One in three women will be raped during her lifetime, and alcohol and drugs are involved in over half of all reported assaults - rather a bitter pill for us ladies. But it’s not just women; men are victims in 12% of drug rape cases so this issue affects everybody. Drug rape is ‘the administering of a drug against an individual's wishes, or without their knowledge, which incapacitates or disorientates the individual with the intention of carrying out a sexual assault’ (


Date rape drugs are administered through alcohol in over 50% of cases, with 70% of attackers being known to the victims. It’s most prevalent in bars and nightclubs - environments where booze flows and bustling bars provide opportunities for subtle spiking - a particular problem on university campuses with bars and bedrooms in close proximity.

But help is quite literally at hand, according to a group of four male students at the North Carolina State University, who have designed ‘Undercover Colours,’ a nail polish line that detects whether your drink has been spiked with drugs. Just dip your finger into your drink, they say, and if your varnish changes colour, you’ve been spiked:


“With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger... Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk they can get caught... we are the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault”.

Sounds good, right? Your safety is in your hands; you can now put two colourful fingers up at the guys who might try to assault you, whilst still looking glamorous as hell. Hang on, is this really the answer? And what exactly is it the answer to?


Your safety is in your hands

Some feminists argue that whilst innovative, roofie detecting nail polish is actually counter-productive to women’s equality. “I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted – it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behaviour... I don’t want to f***ing test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in,” says Rebecca Nagle of activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. I take her point. There’s a risk that a well-intended product such as this could fuel victim blame: you wore a short skirt, you flirted with him, you got so leathered you forgot to twirl your finger around your Pinot, so you didn’t really do everything in your power to prevent the assault, did you? It’s only really a baby step away from ‘she asked for it’. As Tracey Vithers, the board chair of Students Active For Ending Rape puts it: “I think that anything that can help reduce sexual violence from happening is, in some ways, a really good thing. But […] we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women”.


Undercover Colours is ‘the first fashion line to empower women to prevent sexual assault’. Thanks very much for empowering me, but doesn’t that imply us women are responsible for preventing sexual violence? It’s subtle, but it sounds to me a lot like the buck stops with us.

The designers of Undercover Colours believe that their product will make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a women’s drink because ‘there’s now a risk they can get caught’. If this product decreases instances of rape, that is certainly no bad thing. But not raping someone because you’re afraid of getting caught trying to do it doesn’t sound all that progressive to me. What about addressing the underlying issues that support a date rape culture in the first place? Alexandra Brodsky, one of the founders of Know Your IX, a survivor led gorup addressing campus sexual assault says, “I really wish that people were funnelling all of this ingenuity and funding and interest into new ways to stop people from perpetrating violence, as opposed to trying to personally avoid it so that the predator in the bar rapes someone else”. I take her point too, but let’s not go too far and blame women who are taking these precautions, as we must respect any woman’s decision to protect herself as she sees fit. However, Brodsky does raise the problem that some perpetrators might simply find someone with naked nails to pray on, use more force, or seek out somebody vulnerable, without ever considering that forcing someone to have sex, however you go about it, isn’t ok. Kinda makes you see red, doesn’t it? 


But will it work?

Women are often assaulted in situations where they feel comfortable, like on a date with a guy they like or with a friend they trust – situations where they might not think to wear their roofie-detecting-rouge. And even if you are wearing it, will you really remember to check each of your drinks, particularly when the booze and conversation are flowing? This brings me to another problem with Undercover Colours. Yes, it tests for drugs like Rohypnol, GHB and Ketamine, so if he’s slipping one of these into your G&T, you’ll know to phone a friend. But Undercover Colours doesn’t test for every drug and, importantly, it doesn’t test for the most common substance used to spike drinks – more alcohol.


Given that extra booze is the number one rape drug of choice, I think there’s a risk that your nail polish might lull you into a false sense of security – it has the potential to do more harm than good. Not only might he spike with alcohol, which your nail varnish can’t detect anyway, but after a few drinks and the added confidence that goes with them, you may well neglect to dip your finger in altogether and then… wait a minute… you’ve only got yourself to blame? Writing for the Washington Post Alexandra Petri notes, "this is all about taking total responsibility for the behaviour of others while looking as sexy as possible”. Yep, I take her point too. To my mind, an underlying problem here is the view that taking advantage of someone when they’re intoxicated isn’t really rape. If they’re not saying ‘no’ in a really really stern way, then it isn’t ‘no’, whether or not they’re so wasted their consonants and vowels have turned the wrong round.  If alcohol (the #1 date rape drug) isn’t detected by the nail varnish, that kind of implies alcohol date rape doesn’t really count as date rape at all. Imagine the Blurred Lines that could create in the court room.


So now what?

There are, of course, people and organisations attempting to address the attitudes facilitating a rape culture, but they’re not hitting the headlines. Maybe it’s because they’re not using the latest technology, or perhaps simple solutions with nifty taglines and a spatter of irony minimises the problem just enough that it feels nice ‘n’ solvable. I think this could be it, bearing in mind there are far more complex inventions out there. The, for example, is a sensor about the size of a lighter that detects drugs in drinks, currently used by America’s drug enforcement agency, the DEA, and still seeking crowdfunding. It doesn’t just act as a warning signal like Undercover Colours, it also updates an online database with the substance and location, providing important in-the-field information about new drugs and drug prevalence, aiming to raise awareness of the issue ( Not bad, eh? And no requirement to stick your fist in a Guinness.


Using the latest technology to protect women from rape is certainly valuable, though I would like to see more investment in getting the message out that sex without consent isn’t ok, it’s rape and it’s a crime and it’s very very wrong. I’ve spoken to women who see no problem with Undercover Colours and are appalled at the feminist argument against it. But if it’s nail polish, it’s aimed at girls. And if it’s something we’re expected to do that the men aren’t, it’s an issue of inequality. And if it’s an issue of inequality, it’s an issue for feminism. So I would urge women to think carefully before panning the feminist argument, because it’s standing up for you and your rights. And those rights might include a non-nailbiting safe night out. 


Note: Researching this article I came across the following notice on the website of The Roofie Foundation:


Unfortunately due to lack of commercial funding, and the demise of Legal Aid, from Jan 20th 2014 The Roofie Foundation has had to cease to operate. We would like to thank everyone who helped us establish the Foundation as one of Britains leading organisations that dealt with the issues and helped to support the victims of Drug Related Sexual Abuse. We would also like to thank many members of the press & media who helped to create the public awareness of the issues from 1995 onwards.


So it seems the coverage of Undercover Colours has just been a media storm in a teacup surrounding cool new technology and hot debate, rather than a genuine commitment to the prevention of sexual violence. And that certainly leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.


Immersive Theatre


I was round at a friend’s mum’s place for breakfast (a fry up for them, a slice of wedding cake for me – being a vegetarian at breakfast has it’s perks, especially if you have a sweet tooth), and I noticed a bundle of familiar white masks dangling above the cups and saucers cupboard. When I went to Punchdrunk’s acclaimed production The Drowned Man, we weren’t allowed to take our masks home – at least, not that I was aware of (perhaps we’re still not, in which case your secret is safe with me, wedding cake friends).


The Drowned Man is a theatrical experience unlike most I’ve had, and I’m lucky to have seen some very good immersive pieces. It's not cheap at £35+ per ticket, but you get a good few hours of interactive experience and spectacle for your money. I must confess that I didn’t see it all, I spent a little too long in the bar, though it seems everyone missed something someone else saw, met new characters in the finale, or ‘didn’t even see a caravan!’ Looks like you could go again and again, and have a new experience each time, if you had the inclination and the spare pocket money (and for us it’s tax deductible).


What’s special to me about the interactive and immersive theatre forms is that they rely so completely on relationships between performers and spectators, their intersubjective minds, moods and whims. I like to think about a butterfly effect where catching a different bus that morning meant time for a coffee before your meeting which meant the project got signed off sooner, which meant you left work early, which meant time for a drink before the show, which meant you were a little tiddly when you followed an actor into a tiny room missing a key plot development somewhere else in the building, which made the ending a confusingly spectacular surprise. Clever interactive theatre like Punchdrunk evolves via twists and turns in multiple interacting storylines.


Immersive theatre offers a thrilling approach to life-as-art. A counter-argument to the misconception that ‘theatre studies isn’t a hard subject’ is that theatre represents and microcosmically reproduces life. Everything that happens in life can happen in the theatre. So long as we keep breathing, immersive theatre - and indeed all theatre - will have relevance. But audiences are fickle, and preferences for art, like fashion, can change suddenly. Its staying power will rely on inventive staging, exciting locations, talented interactive performers and imaginative writing. I get the sense that there’s no room for complacency when it comes to immersive theatre, even somewhere as epic as Temple Studios. The most thrilling aspect of immersive theatre for me is not the spectacle, but real interactions with characters, where you feel you have impacted the story in some way. Although the feeling of being in a live museum is exciting, and spectacular, more intimate interactions would feel truer to the form. I guess that's the difference between immersion and interaction. Perhaps as audience members we will become more accustomed to taking responsibility for our own experience and seek those precious moments out. 

Vegetarians – Not Fair Game

It usually goes something like this:


‘Oh, you’re a vegetarian?’


‘What, you don’t like the taste?’

‘No, I like it.’

‘Oh, so why then?’

‘It’s just a personal choice.’


‘Do you mind us eating meat in front of you?’

‘No, not at all.’

‘What if I get meat juice on your burger…’

‘It’d rather you didn’t’.

‘Do you eat chicken?’




(Knowingly) ‘Ohhhhh, I see, so you’re not a vegetarian…‘

‘I am.’

‘No, no, …you’re a PESCETARIAN’.


‘Oh well that really annoys me, you can’t call yourself a vegetarian if you eat fish’.

‘Yes I can’.

‘Do you eat lobster? And crabs? And prawns?’


(Even more knowingly) ‘Ohhhhh, well why not, what’s so special about them?’

‘Nothing, I’m allergic’.


If you’re a veg, a veggie, a vejazzle (wait, that’s something else) you’ll have endured countless conversations like this. And you’ll probably have noticed that the person you’re talking to isn’t actually interested in your answer. They’re not asking out of curiosity, oh no, they’re looking to catch you out. Why? Because if you say you’re meat-free for Moral Reasons, they think you’re questioning their moral code. To avoid conflict, many veggies find it safer to cite Reasons of Taste (there’s no accounting for it, you see), whilst secretly salivating over Greggs sausage roles.


To keep things friendly, I tend to describe my vegetarianism as a Personal Choice. It’s quick, it’s to-the-point, it’s designed to close the debate before it’s begun, oh and it’s ABSOLUTELY TRUE. If someone tells me they like wearing red, do I interrogate their views on pink and purple? No. What if they hate their siblings, avoid their parents, work for a bank, eat chocolate during Lent or don’t have children… is it appropriate to ask them why? In public? OVER DINNER?!


Of course not. Then don’t do it to the veggie in the corner who just wants to munch their Mexican bean burger in peace. Unlike the many other personal choices people can expect to make in private, perfectly decent people seem to think vegetarians are fair game when it comes to a debate at the dinner table. Well, we’re not. Going veg a choice just like anything else is, and how we choose to define their beliefs and practices is up to the individual. So next time you find out someone’s a veggie, just leave it alone, and stop distracting them from the one thing on the menu they can actually eat. In return, we promise not to pester you about your sexual preferences or taste in shoes. Even if they both involve leather.


Theatre Review: 'On The Ropes' - Salon:Collective Theatre Delicatessen, March 2014

Downstairs in a sweaty corner of Theatre Deli (which, if you haven’t been, is like the set of a zombie apocalypse, complete with derelict toilet cubicles, abandoned machinery and spooky red lighting) was the perfect location for Salon:Collective’s boxing ring. Two actors entered the ring and the MC/referee gave us the premise of their characters’ relationship: ‘brothers on a stag do’, ‘mother and daughter at Christmas and the mother’s drunk again’, ‘couple having an affair’ were a few I remember.


As each scene played out, spectators could purchase slips containing long lists of instructions to choose from, like ‘get physical’, ‘kiss’, ‘do a monologue’, ‘fight’... what a clever way for the show to make money!  You’d chose what you wanted to happen and who you wanted it to happen to, then wave your slip in the air, and a member of the company ringside would give the MC your instruction. ‘long-haired boy get physical’, or ‘man belittle woman’, for example. The actors would immediately incorporate your instruction to the improvisation. Sometimes outcomes were funny, sometimes sad, sometimes kinda disturbing. Not only must this have incurred some full-on mental acrobatics on the part of the very talented actors, it was a thrilling experience as an audience member. There’s something disconcerting about paying for young woman to beat up her mother (just a bit), but it’s fantasy, so its okay, and the performances were electric. If you wanted to get theoretical, you could say it raised questions of culpability, and if you didn’t, you'd still be and impacted by this incredibly fast-paced, brave and entertaining piece of theatre. What a fantastically imaginative approach to interaction, and to making the money required to retain and reward the artists that brought it to fruition. 

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