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Expert psychologist on Channel 4's 'Secret Lives of Four Year Olds' joins UEL

TV academic looks forward to furthering his research in east London

A leading developmental psychologist who appears on the hit Channel 4 series ‘The Secret Life of Four Year Olds’ has joined the academic team at the University of East London.

Dr Sam Wass is one of three psychologists who provide expert analysis on the TV show as a group of four, five and six-year-olds interact in front of hidden cameras – often with hilarious results.

But Dr Wass is also a distinguished researcher in the field of childhood development and has moved to UEL from the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge to further his research in one of the most economically and ethnically diverse areas of the country.

UEL’s School of Psychology is one of the largest and most respected psychology departments in the country. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, UEL was ranked equal first in England for the impact of its psychology research – ahead of Oxford and Cambridge.

“UEL is a very fresh, rapidly developing environment in terms of its research,” said Dr Wass. “It’s a very stimulating research environment because there are not the old traditions in place like there is in an environment like Cambridge.

“There are some really interesting people here doing some fantastic work already and I’m excited about putting in for a lot of research grants so I can grow a research team here.

“The specific thing that attracted me here is that I’m very interested in how background affects children when they’re growing up.

“Most of the research grants I’m applying for now are looking at how socio-economic status and other factors associated with that affect concentration and stress levels in children as they are growing up.

“In Cambridge, it’s very hard to reach children from diverse backgrounds. It’s a very middle-class city. 

“East London is this amazing place at the moment where you have incredible diversity, with so many people from so many different backgrounds – really rich people as well as people who are struggling financially but are all living together. So it’s the perfect forum to recruit and get a much more ecologically valid sample.”

As well as lecturing and leading research at UEL, Dr Wass will continue with various international collaborations with Cambridge University, Birkbeck, University of London, the Institute of Psychiatry in London and universities in Finland, Canada and the United States.

He says the experience of working on last year’s series, which was Channel 4’s highest-rated documentary of 2015, has helped suggest future lines of research.

“I’ve had the opportunity to observe, for the first time, how children’s tress and excitement levels are continuously changing throughout the day,” he said. “How getting told off, or having an argument with one of the friends can have knock-on effects on how a child is behaving 10 minutes later.”

Dr Wass studied for his undergraduate degree in experimental psychology at Oxford. He spent his twenties directing operas in Germany before returning to the UK to undertake a PhD and a Post-Doctorate at Birkbeck. He then moved to Cambridge on a post-doctoral fellowship.

Throughout his studies, Dr Wass said he was always interested in the developmental side of psychology.

He said, “The thing I find most interesting is watching a child emerge as a human being, and the degree to which individual differences in personality are pre-determined, versus a function of your environment.

“And whether parenting is just learning to appreciate your child for what they are, or whether you can actually do anything to steer them, and if so what?

Dr Wass’s main area of current research involves designing computer games to train concentration skills in babies as young as nine months old. This approach comes from the idea that early on in development, the brain is more plastic and so easier to change.

“Theoretically, if we want to try and fix a problem, the earlier we start, the more of an effect we can have,” he explained.

“The future of medicine is all about preventative health care, so when you’ve got an individual who’s at high risk of developing a disease like ADHD or autism, you can put them into a preventative intervention, before the disease has started to develop. That is thought to be the most effective way of stopping the disease from developing.”