Kimberley Hill

  • Kimberley HillKimberley Hill is originally from Gloucestershire. She completed her PhD in March 2015 and her thesis title is 'Understanding and Preventing Alcohol Misuse in Young People: Affordances and an Ecological Approach to Cognition'.

    Tell us about your research project.

    I have always had a fascination with the mind and a natural interest in tackling important theoretical problems. 

    I completed my British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited Bachelor of Science (Bsc.) Degree in Psychology after being awarded an Academic Excellence Scholarship by Oxford Brookes University. I then went on to complete a Masters of Research (MRes) degree, which was recognised by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and jointly taught between Oxford Brookes and the University of Oxford. This provided me with extensive psychological research and methods training that led to Brookes awarding me with the Postgraduate Taught-Postgraduate Research Prize by Brookes. 

    My undergraduate and postgraduate research relied on an information-processing approach to cognition. Through this, I became interested in looking beyond the brain to investigate how complex behaviour could be explained by dynamic relations between an individual and their environment. 

    My doctoral research uses contemporary ideas about the ecological approach and affordances to investigate alcoholic drinking behaviour in young adults. This research is funded by the Oxford Brookes Doctoral Training Programme, which supports innovative cross-disciplinary research that focuses on the scientific study of young people’s education, health and psychological development. 

    Alcohol misuse is a pressing area of public health concern, particularly for the United Kingdom, which currently has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world. Young adults are most likely to engage in heavy episodic alcoholic drinking behaviour and are most at risk from alcohol related injury or harm. However, this population segment tends to be overlooked by prevention approaches and public health policy.

    Many dominant alcohol misuse prevention approaches are underpinned by psychological theory. Social cognition models rely on cognitive attributes, such as beliefs, attitudes and intentions, as the primary mediator of behaviour. For example, it is believed that moderating or controlling the intention to engage in risky alcoholic drinking behaviour prevents it from occurring. Not only are these prevention approaches poor at preventing risky alcohol consumption, but they imply a dualism between brain-body and body-world.

    Taking behaviour back to be explained solely in terms of brain functioning neglects the fact that the brain is embodied within a body, which is embedded within the world. My research puts the focus back onto this relationship, by exploring how the relation between an individual and their environment promotes or inhibits opportunities to consume alcohol in certain contexts. This is important and exciting, as it turns existing psychological principles on their head through the suggestion that behaviour emerges from complex individual-environment relations and that cognitive processing might be secondary to this. 

    My research draws upon J. J. Gibson’s ecological approach, which proposes that perception is direct and meaning exists within the interplay of brain, body and environment, in terms of affordances. This is an original approach because it describes individuals as active explorers of their information-rich environments, not passive receivers of sensory input. As perception is direct and unmediated, there is no need for representation or for inferring meaning from limited perceptual input.

    Affordances are directly perceived opportunities for action, which illustrate the functional meaning an environment has for an individual. An environment has various but limited opportunities for action. For example, certain objects can be picked-up and individuals can be spoken-to. These affordances are based upon an individual’s developmental capabilities and history of experiencing the culturally normative uses of objects in certain contexts. They are inherently relational and neither properties of the environment nor the individual.

    Affordances have been used to explore simple perception-action relations, but never complex, maladaptive social behaviours, such as alcohol misuse. This may be because they are difficult to measure directly. I have argued that subjectivity can be re-defined as something not hidden and internal, but accessible within individual-environment relations. Subjectivity can then be used as a window into individual-environment relations.

    I have then been able to utilise methods which tap into subjectivity, in order to investigate how drinking behaviour is constrained or extended by an individual’s relationship with their drinking environment. This has included systematically observing alcohol-related affordances within licensed premises; conducting a phenomenological investigation into individual drinker’s perceptions of alcohol-related affordances; and using Q-Methodology to understand group perceptions.

    As well as promoting under-used methods in psychology, my findings have practical implications for premise design, policy formation, and behaviour prevention. This includes restricting features which promote alcoholic drinking behaviour and understanding why certain action potentials are taken up by particular individuals in certain settings. There is also scope to develop these ideas to investigate other health-risk behaviours conducted by young people, including smoking, drug use and unhealthy eating.  

    These ideas have substantial implications for psychology, by providing an alternative approach to limited theories of representation, transforming existing theories and methods which maintain mind-body dualism, and contributing to a global theory of prevention which is more inclusive of the brain, body and environment. My research reflects the importance of understanding behaviour in context and could have major implications for how prevention scientists promote health and prevent harms in society.

    The Doctoral Training Programme has allowed me to make a high profile contribution to an area of pressing policy concern. This has provided me with the opportunity to present my research at conferences all over the world, publish my research outcomes and further develop my professional research skills through ongoing training. In addition to this, following successful completion of my PhD, I will be eligible for professional recognition of Chartered Psychologist status from the British Psychological Society.

    I was recently awarded a Science for Prevention Academic Network (SPAN) bursary to attend and present my research at the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR) conference in Paris, France. I have also had the opportunity to present at events coordinated by Oxford Brookes. For example, I was awarded the Ahmed Al-Qhtani/Nigel Groome Prize for best oral presentation at the Annual Research Symposium and have won the Annual Graduate College On-Line Conference Poster Competition.

    I have also had the opportunity to share my knowledge and expertise in teaching aspiring psychologists. I am now an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and am continually seeking opportunities to build on my teaching skills across a range of psychology and healthcare modules. I look forward to continuing my research and lecturing, while making an important contribution to the psychological knowledge base.