Division of Health Psychology

Public Outreach in Health Psychology

Dr Katherine Finlay, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Buckingham https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/research/chr

Knowledge of Health Psychology is growing, but still weak in the general public, often trumped by people’s knowledge and perceptions of counselling psychology or clinical psychology. Therefore there is an urgent need to increase awareness of Health Psychology, what Health Psychology can do and what it is to be a Health Psychologist. We (at the Centre for Health and Relationships research, University of Buckingham) were recently been awarded the DHP public engagement grant for 2017, and having got underway with some of our outreach projects, it is a great time to take stock of what works and what doesn’t when talking to the public. We have run a pop-up Health Psychology lab, taking the lab to large STEM festivals, town centres, schools and community events.

What works:

Create a distinctive brand. Use ‘pop-up lab banners’, wear ‘pop-up lab’ lab coats. It may be stereotypical, but people are drawn to traditional signifiers of science and inquiry. Make the link with health psychology explicit through banners and DHP logos.
Theme your event. If your research strength is in a particular area of Health Psychology, theme your lab and your activities around that research area. For us, this has been pain research – something that is relevant to those with and without health conditions and is easily accessible and understandable for discussions.
Have obvious activities to draw people in, particularly children. For example, we set up a colouring-in stand where people could make and take away ‘brain hats’, with different regions of the brain highlighted and a brain map on the floor to walk through. Activities that took time, without pressure, allowed for creative discussions with all ages. Similarly, a giant connect-four game was very popular and had many health links as we used it to talk about strategic planning, goal setting, habitual behaviours and approach/avoidance behaviours, etc. Set up some interactive activities on the edge of the lab/stand and some in the centre so that you are drawing people in.


Consider including activities that make a noise/commotion. This draws attention from people on the fringes of events. We used joke-shop style electric-shock pain toys, such as electric shock chewing-gum and electric shock pens. These create hilarity and snowball effects as people invite friends to join in, developing a crowd and allowing for discussion of analogous areas of research.
Keep a record of footfall. Use a simple click counter to monitor activity levels, helping you to establish quantitatively at which events you have the widest reach and therefore where you are best investing in the future.

What doesn’t:

Edible freebies. People move in for the sweets and then move away without discussion.
Too many staff on the stand. For us, three was the magic number. More staff than this meant that people became cautious about entering the stand as they felt they would be pushed to take part/have discussions when they were still unsure about whether they were really interested enough to engage.
Static academic posters. People are cautious about reading a poster if they feel they will be forced to talk about it.  Similarly, natural chat is truncated as there is less room for creative thought and enquiry or spontaneous discussion.

For the future:

As we look to expand our lab, we hope to learn from our events, improve our outcomes and promote health psychology even more widely. Here are some things that look promising:

Invite participants from research studies. We work closely with patient populations, recently working with chronic pain support groups and those with spinal cord injury. If they’ve been involved in your research, invite them to take part, to staff and to visit your stand.
Create banners highlighting chronic health conditions/health behaviours. These can be used to encourage people with those conditions or behaviours to enter the stand and discuss their health status. Such conversations can be used to explain Health Psychology further and signpost those who are interested towards Expert Patient Panels and active Patient and Public Involvement groups in current research.
Link with careers in Health Psychology. Many people who visited our lab had an interest in psychology, but little knowledge of health psychology as a career route. Map pathways and provide handouts detailing how to qualify and train in health psychology.