UWTSD Experimental Social Psychologist, Dr Paul Hutchings, talks about how he started out and his current research activity relating to issues of prejudice, discrimination and attitudes towards group membership.

03.12.2015

Dr Paul Hutchings speaks at TEDx Swansea A terrorist attack set experimental social psychologist Dr Paul Hutchings on his research path. Paul, a mature student with a background in engineering, was about to start a new course of study as a psychology undergraduate when he was caught up in a shocking event in 2001. “Shortly before I began my degree I was involved in a terrorist attack at Bandaranaike Airport in Sri Lanka, and this piqued my interest in how people could be so hostile towards people they had never met purely based upon their group status  – something that is all too common in many of the issues facing us in the world today,” he says.‌

Dr Hutchings focused upon this during his undergraduate degree, offering to get involved in research being carried out there during the holidays. “I developed a fascination for research and, after my degree, was awarded a Master’s and PhD studentship funded by the ESRC, examining the effects of implicit and explicit prejudice upon in-group and out-group recognition,” he adds.

“I came to this university in 2008 and, along with colleagues, designed courses to reflect our specialisms and knowledge of psychology in modern society – and that is where I am now, researching and teaching issues of prejudice, discrimination and attitudes towards group membership.”

Dr Hutchings, who is a lecturer, researcher and programme and studies director at UWTSD, explains his field of interest: “I use scientific methodologies to examine how people think and behave in relation to their environment; that environment may be physically interacting with people, it may be interacting with information from media sources.

“Ultimately, in order to understand people we need to consider not just the individual but the context of situations that they find themselves in; not an easy thing to do, but by isolating variables in behaviour and situations and carrying out studies we can start to understand some of the intricacies of human social behaviour.

“Our current research is looking at how implicit and explicit attitudes influence people’s perception of groups – this is linked to issues such as different races and religions in society, and attitudes towards migration.”

This field of study and research is of great relevance in today’s world, he says. “It is clear that issues of group membership, migration, terrorism, and so on, are at the forefront of many people’s minds when they think about modern society. Our research enables us to consider how people behave towards different groups and how they may be influenced by the media messages about these issues.”

Bringing greater understanding of these issues to a wider audience was a prime factor in Dr Hutchings’ decision to take part in TEDx Swansea. Dr Hutchings looks completely at ease when you watch him give his talk but he was nervous, he says.

“A TEDx talk is nerve-racking,” he says. “It is like no other talk that you will ever give. You only get to give one, your audience could comprise those who have no knowledge whatsoever of the topic you are going to talk about through to experts on the topic – you need to cater for them all, explaining the topic and making it interesting. All in 12 minutes! It is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but it is a great experience… when it’s over.”

He wanted to make people think more about why they do what they do, he explains.

“I’m extremely passionate about psychological science. Psychology lies at the heart of everything to do with humans and society, but many people don’t necessarily understand the scientific principles within psychology – the evolutionary arguments, the empirical studies, and the different perspectives used to look at human behaviour in different ways.

“That is why I wanted to give a talk that captured some of these elements, but also that ultimately made people think about their behaviours; because so much of what we do is automatic, we are barely conscious of the ways we react with other people, but the consequences can be far-reaching.”

The response has been good too.

“It has had a really good effect,” he says. “People have asked to use it in lectures and talks so that they can use it to get points across. It is just a quick snapshot of what we study in my area of psychology but sometimes that is all that is needed to get people thinking and debating about the issues – and that is what I attempt to do in everything that I do.”

So why study at UWTSD? Dr Hutchings says: “I think we have a fantastic mixture of new and experienced researchers in the school and they all have one thing in common – a passion to teach people about their areas of psychology.

“We are a small school and so we know our students at an individual level, and this allows our students to go much deeper into the research areas with these experts – and that is a rarity in the university sector now. We are also skilled at putting together courses that reflect modern psychology in modern societies – as well as being academics many of our staff are involved in external roles that give them first-hand knowledge of what the issues are out in society.

“We had a school visit to the university a few weeks ago and one of the comments from a visiting student was ‘I thought I’d be visiting a place fully of stuffy old white guys – I couldn’t have been more wrong!’; and that just about sums us up – we’ve got a fantastic, dynamic group of staff who really know their stuff and love teaching it to students.”

What opportunities are there for postgraduate study in the faculty?

“We have a great MSc in Applied Social and Health Psychology that really taps into the expertise of our staff, so it focuses on the cutting edge of research in applied social psychology − attitudes to issues in society, migration, politics, climate change, and so on − and applied health psychology (health behaviours, public policy, genetics). One of the things we are most proud of on this course is our Professional Skills module – a research internship where the students work with the academic staff on a project of direct relevance to a current issue in society, with the idea being to produce an actual solution to a real issue; this takes it beyond just learning to truly having an impact on society.

"We also offer PhDs in our areas of expertise, so in my area I take on PhD students to examine issues of prejudice and attitudes, while other staff members supervise PhDs in areas of health psychology. We have a small but vibrant postgraduate culture in the school and this is something that we are looking to grow over the next few years – we want to take on people who are as passionate about psychology as we are and to help them develop into professionals who, wherever they end up in employment, can take the skills that we develop and put them to good use.”

Dr Hutchings works at UWTSD as a Senior Lecturer, the Programme Director for Undergraduate Psychology and is the Director of Studies for Postgraduate Psychology.