Hanna Eldarwish – Psychology BSc – discusses the Junior Research project she conducted over the summer.

Conducting independent research at the University of Sussex has been the highlight of my degree. I was able to combine different areas of psychology and apply the knowledge I gained from my degree to a project I am really passionate about.  I’m really honoured that my hard work and dedication were appreciated by the University and would recommend this experience to all undergraduate students. I was able to do this through the Junior Research Scheme, which is available to second-year students over the summer.

We often hear that human beings are first and foremost social beings and that our well-being is informed by the quality of our social relationships. There’s a wide range of literature suggesting that a sense of belonging promotes meaning in life; that humans are social beings and that we have an innate need to belong and matter. Essentially, when I feel like I belong, I feel like my life matters. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and I do have my moments of absolute avoidance.

As such, my project involved looking at individual differences in predictors of existential mattering. Your attachment style incorporates both your perception that a secure figure is available and how you relate to them. Securely attached individuals exhibit more positive attitudes towards social relationships, as well as their self-perceptions within peer groups. Insecurely attached individuals perceive others as unreliable and distant and view themselves more negatively during social interactions. More specifically, dismissive individuals prefer less intimate relationships, while preoccupied individuals require more social recognition and appraisals, and fearful attached individuals are anxious in their relationships. Of course, instead of looking at attachment style as a categorical measure, I opted for continuous attachment scales to capture variations in attachment orientations. 

I based my study on these questions:

  1. Does a sense of belongingness influence experiences of existential mattering?
  2. Does attachment style moderate the relationship between a sense of social belongingness and existential mattering?

The aim of the study looked at how attachment patterns can affect interpersonal relationships (i.e., a sense of belonging) and subsequently, the magnitude of their effects on existential mattering. 

I used an online Qualtrics survey that I sent out via various social media platforms (e.g., Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Reddit). I adapted Lambert’s (2013) experimental design to manipulate a sense of belonging in participants. For this, participants in the experimental condition were asked to think of individuals with whom they feel like they really belong, write these names down, describe how they felt with these individuals and describe a situation in which they felt a strong sense of belonging with them. Participants in the control condition were given a matched task, unrelated to belonging, and were asked to think of two tv shows or books. 

During the data cleaning process, I found that I had more noise in the data than anticipated. For this reason, I remain cautious with any interpretations I make or conclusions I draw from the study. Presumably, this was due to an error on my part, having sent out the survey on Reddit. I received an overwhelming number of responses, but I also received a lot of mis-responses or duplicate responses. I have taken this as a learning opportunity for my next project. 

Very unexpectedly, I found that there was no significant difference in belongingness scores across groups. It seems like overall our intervention was unsuccessful in priming a sense of belonging in participants. I then tested whether our sense of belonging intervention may have primed a host of other related variables, such as self-esteem and mood. If these yielded significant results, it would highlight a methodological flaw, in that the intervention did not actually prime a sense of belonging, but these other variables instead. However, I did not observe significant effects. Thus, I presume that the intervention was just deficient in priming a sense of belonging. However, further research is needed to assess this claim. 

As the intervention was unsuccessful in priming a sense of belonging, for the most part, I observed non-significant main effects of condition across the attachment styles, as well as non-significant interaction effects.  I did, however, observe a significant moderate interaction effect between condition and dismissive attachment on mattering scores. When individuals scored high on dismissive attachment and were in the belongingness condition, they displayed higher scores of existential mattering relative to the control condition. In other words, it seems like individuals who undermine or ‘dismiss’ the importance of their positive social relationships, actually benefit from positive social interactions the most. 

The study I have conducted looks at each attachment style separately, and thus, I cannot draw any comparisons between the different attachment orientations. This may be valuable for assessing individual differences. 

I learned that research is done in incremental steps. So, to take this project further, I would go back a few steps to create a more secure foundation on which to base my project. Having learned what works and what doesn’t, I would re-run the study by altering parts of it. 

Hopefully, I will be able to build on this project, and any suggestions for future directions may be spoilers for my dissertation. 

As part of the project, I designed a poster with a summary of the study. I’m looking forward to presenting my poster at the exhibition in October, alongside all the other summer research students.  I would like to thank my supervisor Dr Vlad Costin, for being patient and supportive during the whole project. I’m looking forward to working on a dissertation with him in my third year. 

I think the JRA project has provided me with great insight into what it is like working in research, and it has definitely sparked my interest in social psychology. I’ve also learned some of the quirks that go along with research. For instance, while we usually get tidy and formatted datasets in our modules, my data was relatively funky. This experience has given me the perfect foundations to apply for postgraduate study, and I would highly recommend this experience if you have an interest in a research career.

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