PhD Student Blog: Attending the Conspiracy Theory Research Training School

By Darel Cookson (PhD Student in Psychology; Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research).

This summer I was lucky enough to attend a training school in Canterbury (at the University of Kent), organised by the COST Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories action group, which focussed on quantitative methods in conspiracy theory research. My PhD research is investigating belief in conspiracy theories and exploring how understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories could help us develop interventions to reduce harmful beliefs. Therefore, this training school was an invaluable opportunity to develop my understanding of the research area and to work with both pioneers and fellow postgraduate students in the field.

The week did not disappoint! Each day was jam-packed with seminars from experts in the field, group-work with peers and challenging discussions and debates. Everyone was completely engaged with the topics, meaning that discussions often ended with new and exciting research opportunities we are now working on. The social schedule was bursting too, with several ideas being developed over fish and chips and a can of pop!

The social schedule also included a walking tour where we visited Canterbury Cathedral

The week kicked off with an introduction to the Psychology of Conspiracy Theories from the training school organiser, Professor Karen Douglas. Professor Douglas discussed the developments in the field, summarising that conspiracy beliefs are often a natural response to psychological needs and threats. For example our epistemic, existential and social needs can all drive people towards conspiracy theories. However, research has found that adopting these beliefs may ultimately be self-defeating.

Professor Sutton then led a seminar discussing the measurement of conspiracy beliefs and some of the pros and cons to using survey measures – extremely relevant to my work! This was followed by our first group work session, where myself and my group learned about each other’s research interests and so began our first discussion session.

The following day Dr Nefes delivered a brilliant seminar discussing his recent research using Rational Choice Theory, demonstrating how conspiratorial theorising can be used rationally in line with people’s political opinions and perceptions of threat. As I am from a psychological, rather than sociological, background it was really interesting to learn about sociological theories and my group were particularly fond of our research ideas developed in this session! We also had an engaging seminar in the afternoon by Dr Cichocka, about conspiracy theories and intergroup relations. We discussed theory development and mediation and moderation models which I think helped everyone with their current research ideas!

Dr Krouwel delivering his seminar on conspiracy beliefs and political orientation

On Wednesday, Dr Krouwel led a session focussing on politics and conspiracy beliefs; specifically the comparisons of left and right and moderate and extreme political views. Dr Krouwel was extremely generous with his time, answering all of our questions and helping us develop interesting and testable hypotheses. On Thursday we had the privilege of listening to Dr van-Prooijen discuss his recent paper on using evolutionary psychology to explain the origins of conspiracy beliefs. This new perspective is fascinating and the ideas bred from this session were definitely innovative and exciting.

By Friday I was feeling inspired but also quite sad that the week was almost over as the research group had become friends. The final seminar was led by Professor Uscinski and this focussed on the politics of conspiracy theories. Here we learned a lot about the role of partisanism in belief in conspiracy theories. Discussions then continued into Kent University’s excellent student union bar!

The training school was extremely useful for my research, particularly the focus on current research and methodological issues within the field. It was also great to collaborate with other postgraduate students and discuss and refine our research ideas. I am extremely grateful to the COST research group and Professor Douglas for organising the summer school and I am looking forward to working with the research group in the future.


The Department of Psychology at Staffordshire University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology at the University’s £30 million Science Centre in Stoke-on-Trent.

Interested in a Psychology degree? Come to an Open Day – for further details and to book your place at an open day please click here.

For more information about the Psychology degrees on offer at Staffordshire University please visit the below pages:

PhD Student Blog: Attending the 1st Keele-Staffs Joint Psychology Postgraduate Conference

Darel Cookson (Psychology PhD student, Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research) blogs about the recent inaugural Keele-Staffs Psychology Postgraduate Conference, with postscript from Dr. Richard Jolley (PhD Psychology course leader)

On the 25th April, 2018 the first Joint Keele and Staffordshire University Psychology Postgraduate Conference was held at Keele University. Although Keele have been running the conference for a number of years, this was the first time the event was organised and ran in collaboration with Staffordshire University. Consequently the event was an ideal opportunity for postgraduate researchers at the neighbouring institutions to share their research and build networks.

The conference was directed by Professor Claire Fox (Postgraduate Research Co-ordinator in Psychology at Keele University) and Dr Richard Jolley (Senior Lecturer in Psychology and PhD course leader at Staffordshire University). The organisation was led by the student committee which consisted of myself from Staffordshire University and Emma Harrison and Charlotte Bagnall, second and first year Keele Psychology PhD students, respectively. Collaborating with fellow PhD students from Keele was an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience.

The morning began with an introduction and welcome from Professor Claire Fox, before the postgraduate speakers commenced. The first presenter was Keele PhD researcher, Olly Robertson, who gave a dynamic and informative overview of her current study. Olly is investigating whether perceived deficits in emotional regulation are associated with heart rate variance; who knew that the time between heart beats was so important? I gave the second presentation discussing the antecedents and consequences of belief in conspiracy theories, while revealing the rationale for my initial PhD investigations. This was followed by a thought-provoking account of the implementation of an innovative domestic abuse prevention programme by Keele MSc student Jess McElwee. Her research assessed student responses to a ‘Love Hurts’ play, aimed at addressing teenage relationship abuse and found that students felt theatre was an effective means of delivery, while further exploration into issues of trust and gender were suggested. The final presentation of the morning session was by Keele PhD student Angela Blanchard. Angela is conducting an autoethnography of childhood emotional neglect, and provided a compelling description of her data collection process and the resultant model she is developing. The model comprises ten themes evolved from thematic analysis.

Lunch was accompanied by poster presentations and of course we had time for a group photo too.

Figure 1. Did you even attend a conference if you didn’t pose in front of the posters?

There was a wide-variety of psychology sub-disciplines represented by the posters:

  • Recollection and familiarity- Memory for pictures and words. Jamie Adams (Keele).
  • The effects of early and late sleep on false memory. Zainab Alyobi (Keele).
  • Student Bullying in Higher Education: The Story So Far. Emma Harrison (Keele).
  • How do we attribute blame and responsibility for alcohol addiction? Claire Melia (Keele).
  • Utilizing eye-tracking to investigate the role of attention in emotional false memory formation. Emma Roberts (Staffordshire).

The afternoon session began with an introduction and welcome by Dr Richard Jolley, proceeded by the first afternoon speaker. Angela Bonner, a PhD student from Staffordshire University, gave an engaging and informative review of her current research. Angela is investigating the impact of glucoregulatory control on emotional recognition memory, when blood glucose is elevated. The second speaker of the afternoon was Kara Holloway, a PhD researcher from Keele. Kara shared her research; implementing a video-based student alcohol intervention, delivered through an app. The intervention included personalised feedback on the harms of drinking and social norming information and preliminary findings were shared. Charlotte Bagnall then discussed how her BSc and MSc research has informed her current PhD study: Improving children’s emotional well-being over primary-secondary school transition. Charlotte has conducted case study research and focus groups to inform her targeted emotional-resilience support intervention aimed at improving children’s experiences of this transition.

After a caffeine re-fuel, the afternoon session continued with Amelia Rout, a part-time PhD student from Staffordshire University, presenting her current research exploring the success of non-traditional students in higher education. Amelia’s research uses mixed methods to examine the influence of self-esteem and self-efficacy on academic success and preliminary findings show that issues around self-confidence and study skills of non-traditional students are often interlocking. The final presenter of the day was Daniella Hult-Khazaie, a PhD researcher from Keele University who provided an in-depth and engaging overview of her PhD area and planned studies. Daniella is investigating the effect of a shared social identity on health risk perceptions in mass gathering; does the sense of a shared social identity influence people’s perceptions of susceptibility to health risks at mass gathering?

Dr Sarah Rose’s keynote

As is illustrated above, there was great research shared from a wide-variety of sub-disciplines in Psychology. The day closed with an honest, informative and engaging Keynote from Dr Sarah Rose. Dr Sarah Rose is a Psychology Lecturer and Course leader for the BSc Psychology and Child Development degree at Staffordshire University and gave an overview of her career pathway which has led her from Staffordshire, to Keele and back! For all the PhD students listening, Sarah’s talk was invaluable and inspiring; thank you for sharing Sarah!

Thank you to all who attended the first Joint Keele and Staffordshire University Psychology Postgraduate Conference and for making it a success. And a huge congratulations to Kara Holloway and Claire Melia, who won best presentation and best poster respectively!


As course leader of the Psychology PhD students at Staffordshire University I was delighted to be offered the opportunity by our Keele colleagues to develop the first joint postgraduate conference between our two universities. Professor Claire Fox commented that this year’s event was the best ever, and we will certainly be working together to continue and develop this conference on a yearly basis. Next year it may well be held at Staffordshire University, watch this space!

This year’s inaugural conference was very professionally organised by the committee of PhD students.The schedule of talks was perfectly organised, with a very good balance of topics and talks from both departments, with well-placed breaks. Professional event organisers could not have done a better job!

If you are interested in studying for a PhD in the Department of Psychology we have nearly 50 academic members of staff, with expertise covering the full range of subdisciplines in psychology: biological, cognitive, developmental, individual differences, and social.  In addition, we have expertise in clinical, counselling and health psychology, running professional programmes in all of these subjects. A range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies is employed throughout the department.

Please contact me at r.jolley@staffs.ac.uk for all PhD enquiries.

Dr. Richard Jolley


The Department of Psychology at Staffordshire University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Psychology at the University’s £30 million Science Centre in Stoke-on-Trent.

Interested in a Psychology degree? Come to an Open Day – for further details and to book your place at an open day please click here.

For more information about the Psychology degrees on offer at Staffordshire University please visit the below pages:

Student Blog: My first week as a PhD student

Darel Cookson

Darel Cookson, a new PhD Student in the Department of Psychology and the Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research, blogs about her first week at Staffordshire University as a PhD Student:

It is hard to believe that this time last week I was (not so) quietly fretting about starting my PhD, excited at the enormous opportunity I had been offered and nervous about the level expected of me, but also anxious of doing something super embarrassing on my first day. However here I am a week later, still alive, and the most embarrassing thing that occurred was dropping my handbag on the floor and watching the contents scatter down the stairs in front of me, (I can live with that!).

I thought I would write a blog post to give some information and insight to anyone who is thinking about starting a PhD, or starting one in the near future, of what you might expect in your first week.

Monday

My first day, I arrived at 8:30am on Monday morning and met my primary supervisor (Dr. Daniel Jolley) who had very kindly prepared me a programme for the week ahead. As someone who likes a good ‘to do’ list this was very much appreciated. My supervisor gave me a tour of the campus and the rooms I will need to locate and then we proceeded to the library where I received my student card (its official!). My next meeting was with Dr Richard Jolley. He and the psychology technicians gave us (myself and a visiting PhD student) a tour of the Science Centre and we learned about some of the fantastic equipment available to use.

At lunch I met with two of my supervisors (Dr. Jolley & Dr. Robert Dempsey) and we talked about the project, discussed different ideas and they gave me some advice on where to start my reading. I spent the afternoon in my office, which I share with another PhD student and a post-doc researcher, I sat at my desk and actually began my PhD!

Its official, everyone buys you a new notebook when you are a student…

Tuesday

After my first day nerves, Tuesday began with a coffee, reading, and researching the training programmes available through the Staffordshire University Graduate School to decide which would be best for me to attend. The series looks fantastic. That afternoon I booked a meeting with the Academic Skills Tutor who helped me navigate the library website, definitely worth doing if you are new to an institution.

Wednesday

In the morning I observed the seminar class I will be teaching next week which was really exciting. I enjoy teaching so had been looking forward to meeting the students and they were all really engaged and showed impressive critical thinking. Let’s hope they are just as focused when I take the class!

Thursday

First thing on Thursday, I made another appointment with the Academic Skills Tutor who was so helpful in guiding me through my reference management options, it was reassuring to have the foundations to manage the literature I will be reviewing. I met with my supervisory team for a lunch meeting (Drs Jolley, Dempsey and Povey) and we again discussed project ideas and have agreed to meet weekly for the initial few weeks.

Friday

I am actually working on my PhD; it is still sinking in! It has been wonderful today to get stuck into the work and to reflect on the previous week. Thank you for everyone at Staffordshire University who have been so welcoming this week, I feel that my next few years here are going to be very special.


The Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research is home to research activity in the Psychology Department at Staffordshire Centre. The Centre is home to a number of research-active psychologists who are engaged in research across a wide range of psychological subdisciplines. The Centre has two overarching research streams: Health and Behaviour Change and Applied Perception and Cognition.

The Centre provides training for PhD students, Research Masters degrees, as well as Professional Doctorates in Clinical and Health Psychology (click here for more details). The Centre also provides bespoke training to private and public organisations, as well as expertise for consultancy research opportunities. For more details about the Centre, its research activities, events and consultancy, please visit our website (click here).