Psychology option topics

Instead of lots of little modules, we keep things simple by providing options for you to choose from within modules. In the final year, you can choose four topics to study, each taught by an expert in the area. The exact topics can differ each year, depending on staff availability, but as you can see from the topics available in 2015-16, we cover a very wide range of interests, including forensic, clinical, occupational, developmental and neuroscience topics. You also choose a topic for your final year dissertation, so there is plenty of scope for specialisation. Altogether, you select two thirds of your final year topics, so can make the course fit your interests.

Criminals in the making

The law has long recognised the link between psychology and crime as embodied in the legal principle of mens rea or “guilty mind” - meaning an individual cannot be considered guilty of a crime unless they have carried out the act wilfully and intentionally. But why do some people commit crime, while others do not? Are criminals born or made? This option explores some of the key determinants of delinquent and criminal behaviour from a bio-psycho-social perspective. It takes an individual differences approach to understanding the influence of personality dispositions, as well as considering the evidence for a biological basis to criminal behaviour. The impact of substance abuse and mental health is considered, and we discuss the influence of social and familial factors, particularly in the context of young people and delinquent/antisocial behaviour.

Dr Alison Bacon

Meaning effects in medicine and psychotherapy

Although definitions of placebos typically refer to inert substances, it is the meaning of sugar pills to patients which give them potency. As such, a wide range of props, procedures and rituals may be considered placebos. We will examine historical definitions and uses of the placebo, use of the placebo in contemporary medical research, and the evidence for ‘meaning effects’, in a broader sense, in medicine, psychotherapy, complementary medicine and elsewhere. We investigate current understandings of the range of psychological and physiological explanations of meaning effects, and consider the practical and ethical challenges of using meaning effects in medical practice.

Dr Ben Whalley

Occupational and organisational psychology

Occupational / organisational psychology is the study of human behaviour in the workplace. It reveals what influences and motivates behaviour in the workplace to help improve productivity, efficiency and well-being at work. In this option we introduce and explore key topics in occupational and organisational psychology. These include personnel selection, management and leadership, assessing performance, work motivation and job design, stress and well-being at work. This is a particularly suitable choice for students interested in careers in applied areas of psychology like occupational or human factors/ergonomics, as well as for those with an interest in applying psychological knowledge to real world problems and issues.

Associate Professor Liz Hellier

Eyewitness testimony

Analysis of the recent flood of cases in which convicted prisoners have been released on the basis of DNA evidence has revealed that poor eyewitness memory is a contributory factor in the majority of cases. The main focus of this forensic option is on factors that influence eyewitness identification, touching on eyewitness recall. It covers system-based research (how identification evidence is collected, such as in line-up designs, or the use of mug-books), and estimator-based-research (factors known to influence the accuracy of witnesses, such as individual differences in confidence, or disguise). The course provides a critical evaluation of what psychology can offer the legal process by way of procedural advice or expert testimony. 

Professor Tim Hollins

The developmental implications of child maltreatment

Abuse and neglect impact differently on psychological, behavioural and physical development, but also share similar developmental consequences. Variability in effects of abuse may also stem from individual differences related to the age of victims, and from individual differences in response patterns within an age group, the child’s developmental maturity, personal history, circumstances and personality.  
Topics in this option are: 
a) How clear are the boundaries between the different forms of abuse/neglect? 
b) Are the developmental consequences always going to be visible at the time? 
c) What individual difference factors might influence the outcomes of abuse? 
d) What psychological processes and mechanisms account for outcomes from different forms of abuse/neglect? 

Dr David Rose

Cross-cultural psychology

Our world is characterised by changes in communication, exchange, and integration of world views, ideas, and products. Despite the impression that societies and people are becoming more similar, we experience clashes of values within and between societies. In this option, we discuss the effect of cultural factors on human psychology. We examine how psychology and other disciplines conceptualise “culture” and how we measure it. We review research that has shown how culture affects human (social) behaviour, cognition, personality, and development. We discuss applied fields of cross-cultural psychology, for example, cultural factors in work and organisations, intercultural communication, and health. We explore how cross-cultural psychology can contribute to solve some of the problems of our world, such as migration and prejudice.

Dr Michaela Gummerum

Children’s false memories

In the legal arena, false memories can have serious consequences. Remembering false details about a witnessed event could lead to an innocent person being prosecuted. Historically, children have been deemed as unreliable as eye-witnesses, but research over the past 30 years has shown that children can provide accurate reports of past events. Using children as eye-witnesses in forensic settings has resulted in a wealth of research on children’s false memories. This option explores different techniques to elicit false memories in children such as misinformative interviewing, implanting false events, and evoking spontaneous false memories. We look at developmental trends: when do older children have more false memories than younger children and vice versa? We cover the theories explaining false memories in children in different situations.


Dr Marina Wimmer

Face processing

We recognise our friends, family, work colleagues and we also process the faces of hundreds of strangers. From the face we can obtain a wealth of information such as someone’s identity, gender, attractiveness, ethnic group, or mood, the focus of their attention, and form impressions of their personality. What are the processes behind face perception that allows us to do this, and how do they come about? How do we recognise familiar faces and for those people we don’t know, what can we say about them from looking at their face? And what happens to our face processing skills when these processes break down? 

Dr Chris Longmore

Aspects of consciousness

Across five seminars, we will explore the following topics: 1) Consciousness and perceptual awareness: patient populations and normal populations. 2) Altered states of consciousness: hallucinations, meditation. 3) Conscious control and free will: voluntary movement, executive control, hypnosis, drug addiction. 4) Conscious recollection: human and non-human animals. 5) Consciousness and non-human intelligence: non-human animals, machines. We will consider evidence from behavioural, neuroscientific and comparative experiments. We will also consider philosophical arguments and the case of adaptive (intelligent? conscious?) machines.    

Professor Andy Wills

How do children learn to talk?

Parents are puzzled when a baby says “Mummy” for the first time. For this learning to be possible, the infant must have accumulated an enormous amount of information about his/her maternal language. Over the past 40 years, we have had the empirical and theoretical tools to address this fundamental issue, and distinguish how nature and nurture interact in this learning process. In these lectures, I will try to cover the main findings of the past decades, focusing on the early years (0 to 2 years). I will also explore the most recent areas of research in the field: how children retrieve word units from the continuous speech stream, how they learn about the elementary speech sounds, how bilingualism shapes early perception, how is language implemented in the developing brain.

Dr Caroline Floccia

Visual perception: evolution, genes, and environments

What we see and perceive has been shaped by our evolutionary history. This option explores how our vision has been determined by the interaction of genes with environments. How did the complex eye evolve? Why did vision evolve? Why are our eyes shaped differently from insects? Why do we have eyes in the front of our heads, but many animals have eyes at the side? Dinosaurs had better colour vision than mammals – what happened? Why did our loss of smell coincide with our gain in colour vision – was it fruit, sex, or social life? Why is colour blindness common in men – does it have an advantage? Do blind people get jet-lag? Why, these days, do so many people need to wear spectacles - nature or nurture, or both? To answer these questions, we discuss visual pathways, visual perception, some basic genetics, and evolution, and delve into the mysteries of developmental plasticity.

Professor Chris Harris

Speech, music and birdsong: did we sing before we spoke?

Although we are the only animals to have language, communication systems abound in the natural world. In particular, vocal signals are used very often to signal aggression, cooperation or sexual interest. What are the unique features of human language and what does it have in common with communication in chimpanzees, dolphins and songbirds? Did music come before language in human evolution? What does the way we speak tell other people about how we feel? We will listen to examples of animal signalling and human language, thinking about the sounds of communication in their social and informative context. We investigate vocal sounds that seem to be understood by people from all cultures and consider the special place of swearing in human communication.

Dr Laurence White


Consciousness is one of the biggest mysteries in science. Most of us feel that our conscious thoughts form our personalities and inspire our actions, but is this an illusion? Through a mix of problem-based learning, small-group discussions and lecturing on key material, we tackle problems such as how we can tell if someone else is conscious, how the brain creates consciousness, whether robots will one day be conscious. Practical demonstrations and activities will give insight into some of the complexities of the topic: What are you conscious of right now? Can you control your thoughts? What does it feel like to look at your hand and see a cat instead? This option will help you develop informed opinions on important questions: Are there zombies? Are slugs conscious? Does Marmite taste the same for you as it does for me?

Professor Jackie Andrade

Animal behaviour 

Studies of animal behaviour are used to illuminate aspects of human functioning by many areas of psychology. However, this course will explore animal behaviour as a fascinating topic in its own right, with any implications for human psychology emerging as bonuses rather than being our primary goal. We will explore different approaches and traditions in the study of animal behaviour by psychologists, and there will be particular emphasis on recent developments in the application of operant psychology in animal husbandry.    

Associate Professor Phil Gee

Asymmetry, culture, cognition, and the brain

Most people have heard of the left brain and the right brain, and of their supposed differences. Dividing complicated things, like the mind and the brain, into two is deeply appealing and has deep historical roots that are reflected in our present culture, language, and morality. But is there any truth to all this? This option discusses cerebral asymmetry and laterality of function of the human brain. The goal is to understand how the hemispheres work together to produce perception, cognition, and action. You will learn to distinguish baseless claims about the two sides of the brain from hypotheses supported by empirical evidence. We’ll see that the division of the brain into two halves has real implications for the human (and animal) mind, but that the truth is much more interesting than simplistic claims about the ‘artistic’ or ‘scientific’ brain.    

Dr Matt Roser

Stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination

One of the key issues that social psychologists have long tried to understand is how stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination emerge, how they are maintained, and how best to change or counteract them. In this option we will address such questions as: Are some people more prone to being prejudiced than others? How does the media transmit negative stereotypes about women and minorities? Can people control their reliance on stereotypes when it comes to judging others, or is stereotyping really inevitable? How are members of minority and low-status social groups affected by the negative stereotypes others hold of them? What strategies might be effective in reducing prejudice and discrimination in society? 

Associate Professor Natalie Wyer

Social neuroscience

A capacity that sets us apart from our closest ancestors in the animal kingdom is the capacity for social interaction and cooperation. At any moment, people maintain countless social relationships. We help others or compete with them. We read thoughts or feelings from their behaviour. We share knowledge and objects. This option explores what is known about the processes that make these interactions possible. We investigate brain systems that allow us to recognise and extract information from faces, such as attractiveness and trustworthiness. We cover the processes underlying empathy and imitation that help us to learn from others and understand their emotions. We address higher-level capacities of social cognition, such as moral judgements and theory of mind (the understanding that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that might be different from one’s own).

Dr Patric Bach

Moral psychology: why we are pro- or anti-social

It's wartime, and you're hiding in a basement with your baby and a group of other people. Enemy soldiers are outside and will be drawn to any sound. If found, you will be killed immediately, as well as everybody with you. Your baby starts to cry loudly and cannot be controlled. You try to smother his cries, but if you continue to so, it will die of asphyxiation. Do you allow your baby air, or do you continue to stifle the noise? This option explores the psychology of moral judgements and moral dilemmas: decisions about what is “good” or “bad”, what one should do. A session takes place in the virtual reality lab, where moral choices can be experienced in a virtual real scenario. Psychopathy and terrorism, are examined and we discuss why people are aggressive, harming others, stealing, and lying. 

Dr Sylvia Terbeck

Visual perception and the brain

Vision is the most important source of knowledge about the world that we have. How does the brain deliver to us this rich perceptual world which we experience? In this course we will look at what happens in the brain during visual stimulation, primarily using direct measures of brain function (electrophysiology, fMRI, fNIRS) along with some behavioural evidence. Topics include: principles behind direct recording of brain function, visual pathways, early stages of visual processing, pattern vision, motion perception, colour perception. 

Dr William Simpson

Implicit and explicit memory

Can our memories have unconscious influences on our behaviour? Intuitively, it feels as if they can, but whether this can be demonstrated in the laboratory has proven to be a controversial issue. There is now a fascinating array of research relating to implicit, or unconscious, memory. We explore this research by critically examining: 

  • major theories of implicit memory, 
  • the main methods used for demonstrating that memories can be unconscious, 
  • how processing fluency biases memory judgements, and 
  • whether traditional explicit memory tasks actually have an implicit memory component.  

Dr Chris Berry

Social comparison

People compare themselves and others all the time, sometimes without noticing it. This course is designed to advance your understanding of these social comparison processes. We will look at different domains of comparison, for example, health, achievement, income. Why is it that some comparisons make us feel good and others make us feel bad? We discuss motives for social comparisons, cognitive consequences such as assimilation and contrast, and emotional consequences such as inspiration and envy. We look at social comparison interventions to change actual behaviour. These include comparative feedback and social norm interventions in the field, in domains ranging from health to sustainability. 

Associate Professor Sabine Pahl

Drugs, the brain and behaviour

Who we are and what we do, is determined by the structure and function of our brain. This amazing organ is the most complex machine in the universe. While this complexity provides great and diverse possibilities for function, it brings an equal opportunity for dysfunction, resulting in a diverse array of neurological disorders.We will discuss a variety of different neurological disorders and explore the details of epidemiology, symptoms and diagnosis. We will link these to the biological basis of each disorder and to the drugs used in their treatment. We explore the outcomes of these treatments and discuss where current research might lead to future treatments. You will learn about the brain regions involved in various neurological disorders, the physiological and pharmacological changes that underlie those disorders and how the drugs used for treatment improve quality of life.

Associate Professor Stephen Hall

Human associative learning

This option examines Pavlovian and instrumental learning in humans. We look at the phenomena observed in animals, such as blocking and extinction, and whether the usual “associative” explanations of those phenomena also apply to humans. We address the role of controlled cognition in associative learning. Most psychologists assume that associative learning (for example, that a bell signals food) is a very simple process that occurs automatically, perhaps outside of conscious awareness. This suggests that we have no control over what we learn. Recent evidence suggests that, at least in humans, this view is wrong. The option focuses mainly on laboratory-based experiments that are designed to test the theories of learning. The implications for more applied areas of psychology are also discussed. These include exposure therapy for phobia, learning in amnesic patients and stimulus control of behaviour in addiction.

Professor Chris Mitchell

Memory and false memory

We examine how basic theories of memory can help us understand phenomena in the real world. The focus is on memory failure, and there will be four topics.

1) Theories of false memory.
2) Recovered memories of trauma and abuse.
3) Forgetting and misinformation (in eyewitness testimony).
4) Social collaboration and conformity in memory.

Dr Michael Verde

Cognitive and brain bases of deception perception and production

Individuals and societies have sought methods to determining when a person is lying. These methods rely on behavioural cues (for example, facial expressions), physiological variables (for example, skin conductance), and more recently brain activity (ERPs and fMRI). This option explores recent experimental literature on the psychology and cognitive neuroscience of deception perception and production, to address questions such as: Why and how often do people lie? How accurate are people at detecting that others are lying? How accurate are “lie detection” tests and is it possible to “beat” them? Is it possible to tell if someone is lying by examining their brain activity? Deception will be placed in the context of findings and theories from the psychology and neuroscience of executive control, memory, and social cognition. 

Associate Professor Giorgio Ganis

Humans in technological systems

People drive cars, log onto computers and operate machinery. Some fly planes, operate nuclear power plants or conduct micro-surgery. In human factors we explore how humans interact with artificial technological environments, how technology influences performance, comfort and health. We consider how human capabilities and limitations, for example, psychology, should be used to design technology, work and work systems so that they are safer and more effective. We cover the effects of shiftwork, the design of the human machine interface, warning systems, and the concept of human error. We use case studies such as Bhopal, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. 

Associate Professor Liz Hellier

Music and emotion

Most people’s connection with music is an emotional, rather than a perceptual or cognitive one. It is however only relatively recently that research into the psychology of music has reflected the importance of emotion across many aspects of music and the mind.  This option considers the relationship between music, psychological processes and various aspects of emotional response in understanding the role of emotion and mood in music, in particular the understanding of the mood of music by listeners, the ability of music to alter or enhance moods, the way music can affect performance on other tasks (because of its emotional connotations), and other links between music and emotion. Consideration is also given to studies which have shown direct physiological effects attributable to music listening, as well as other responses such as the ‘chill’ response.    

Professor Judy Edworthy

Amnesia, memory, and the brain 

Empirical research with amnesia patients, especially studies of the famous patient HM who inspired films like Memento, illustrate the ways in which amnesia demonstrates conscious and non-conscious learning and memory processes. We cover the brain systems that support different kinds of memory abilities, including insights about each system that have emerged from amnesia research. We also consider how modern neuroimaging techniques reveal where, when, and how each brain system encodes and reactivates memory. You will learn how to design your own memory studies. Since memory is involved in most applied, clinical, social, and cognitive psychological phenomena, this will be a highly useful ability that can be applied throughout one’s life and career as a psychologist.

Dr Haline Schendan