Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE)

Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) offers The University of Sheffield's undergraduate students an opportunity to become directly involved in the research activity of the University. Taking part in "real life" research projects in subject areas that are of special interest, and experience what it's like to work in partnership with academic staff or collaboratively in a research group.

Olivia Wills, BA Economics and Politics (2015)Photo of student Olivia Wills

BA Economics and Politics student Olivia Wills completed a six week project as part of the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) scheme with the Department of Economics. Here Olivia explains what it was like to work on her economics project.

What did you choose to apply for the SURE scheme with Economics?

I saw the SURE scheme advertised on Twitter and thought it looked like a fantastic opportunity to gain first-hand experience in doing academic research.

I am particularly interested in behavioural economics, which explores the idea that people do not always make economically rational decisions that classic economic models tend to assume.

I liked the idea of conducting research that could make a real contribution to the literature in this area, and investigate a currently unexplored topic that I have particular interest in.

Having done analysis on data sets as part of my course, I was also keen to understand the processes behind data collection and further my analytical skills using primary data.

What have you been working on during the project?

This project was designed to investigate the link between empathy and economic trust. Recently, research has investigated the role of empathy in altruistic sharing, finding that affective empathy and justice sensitivity go some way to explain altruistic economic behaviour.

Yet the role of empathy in economic trust, where one party gives an amount to another in the anticipation that there will be a return, is largely unexplored. This is a significant omission as trust plays an important part in the economic decisions we make day to day.

The study was part of a wider project on ‘Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy’ (CEDE), which is led by Professor Jennifer Roberts. Project CEDE is a multidisciplinary venture that aims to elucidate the role of empathy as it is experienced in digital interactions.

Given that an ever-increasing amount of economic transactions are made in a digital environment, there is a significant alteration in the presence of social cues, like facial expression and vocal inclinations, which are known to facilitate empathic connection. This change in empathy at the ‘point of sale’ may have important consequences for the consumer decisions we make.

The brief was addressed through an online study, which assessed whether both trait empathy and inducing empathy in participants prior to playing a series of economic ‘games’ would affect their economic decisions. I designed and administered the study on Qualtrics, and used SPSS to analyse the data gathered. During the project, I also wrote a blog entry for Project CEDE on the effects of technology on empathy.

Photo of student Olivia Wills working at a desk

What have you learnt from undertaking the project?

Over the six weeks, I learnt how to use existing literature as a basis for further research and how to put together an academic study. I gained quantitative data analysis skills and learnt how to write an academic report and present results.

I had invaluable support from my supervisor Dr Philip Powell, and learnt good research practices from people in the department who have been conducting research for years.

I also gained a greater understanding of how academic processes work; the rigorous process that studies go through before they are published and where funding comes from.

How do you think this experience will help you in the future?

Prior to the SURE project I had never considered postgraduate studies as an option – but since the experience I am now keen to carry on researching and pursue further academic studies in behavioural science.

My supervisor and project leader have advised me on how to go about applying for a Masters and what funding opportunities are available.

In addition, I've gained skills in survey design and data analysis that will improve my CV, and open up more opportunities when applying for jobs.