Funded PhD studentships in the School of Psychology

Potential PhD topics in Cognition and Social Cognition

Testing Models of Explicit and Implicit Memory Dr Chris Berry

Computational models are powerful tools for understanding human cognition, and their use has led to new, often counterintuitive, theoretical insights. Projects are available that combine computational modelling with behavioural experimentation to investigate the relation between explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) memory. Although the traditional view of explicit and implicit memory is that they are driven by distinct memory systems in the brain, numerous lines of research have converged on the view that memory systems may not divide so sharply on consciousness. Indeed, computational modelling approaches have shown that an alternative, single-system model explains numerous key findings thought to be indicative of distinct systems; it also makes predictions that can be verified empirically. This type of project would suit someone who has experience or interest in programming and has strong statistical/research methods skills. Applicants are advised to make contact to discuss the specific direction of the project before applying.

Why and When do Habits Control our Behaviour?  Professor Chris Mitchell

Habits can be very useful. For example, an experienced car driver can change gear habitually, leaving plenty of mental capacity to monitor complex traffic conditions. However, sometimes habits lead to costly errors, such as calling a new partner by an ex-partner’s name. These kinds of errors – where our learning leads us to do things that we would prefer not to, and which feel outside of our control – allow important insights into our psychology. Important questions remain as to why this kind of automatic behaviour occurs, the situations in which it is most likely to be observed and who is most likely to be susceptible. Students with an interest in associative learning, memory or attention are invited to apply for scholarships in this or a related domain.


Cue Reactivity Professor Chris Mitchell

Food cues in the environment have a profound impact on what we eat. When choosing between a healthy and unhealthy snack in a supermarket, we may be biased towards the unhealthy option by colourful packaging and exciting advertising. This bias is termed “cue reactivity” and is also seen with other rewards such as smoking and drinking. Cue reactivity is usually thought to be due to an automatic process. According to this approach, our choice in the presence of cues is (at least partially) outside of our control. This project will use a laboratory model of cue reactivity to examine the psychological mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon. Students with an interest in associative learning, memory or food choice are invited to apply for scholarships in this or a related domain.

Mind wandering, Imagination and Emotion Dr Clare Walsh

When people engage in everyday tasks, they frequently allow their minds to wander to unrelated thoughts. During mind wandering people often think about the past or the future and they often imagine how things could have happened differently or they imagine what might happen in the future. This project will examine the processes involved in different kinds of mind wandering. By varying the tasks that people engage in, we will examine the impact on the amount and content of people's mind wandering thoughts. The project will also examine the impact of these thoughts on people's judgments and emotions.


Navigation in real and virtual worlds Dr. Peter Jones & Dr. Alastair Smith

For effective navigation, it is essential that we are able to keep track of our location and orientation in space. How exactly humans and other animals do this is hotly debated, and this project will aim to shed more light on this process. We will examine how people navigate in real and virtual environments in order to determine how we use different kinds of information to find our way. For instance, people might use distinctive landmarks and boundaries as a guide to position. We might also use visual and self-motion cues to maintain a record of our movements so that we know where we are in relation to where we have come from. This project will examine how we learn to find our way around, how different kinds of information interact with one another, and whether our movements are guided by internal maps of the external world.


Category Learning  Professor Andy Wills

Categories are the fundamental building blocks of thought, but how do we acquire new categories? A currently popular view is that our brain contains two or more competing (or cooperating) processes; for example explicit rules and implicit similarity, or prototypes and exemplars. Yet, the evidence securely in support of such multi-process views is limited, particularly in light of recent re-evaluations of some of the key empirical results. Another problem is that the relative adequacy of the various formal (mathematical) theories of category learning has not been systematically investigated. The aim of this project is to advance both the empirical and theoretical work in this area.


One step ahead: how predictions shape social perception Dr. Patric Bach

Humans are masters in predicting others’ behaviour. By watching a child’s facial expression, we know exactly which toy she will go for. When seeing someone frown at an open window, we are not surprised when she gets up and closes it. Conversely, a breakdown of these predictions might be one reason why social interactions are so confusing to those with autism. This project investigates the neurocognitive mechanisms that allow humans to make such predictions, on what kind of information they rely on, and how they interact with subsequent processes to drive perception and action. It will rely on sophisticated methods from psychophysics and experimental psychology, as well as neuroscientific methods such as EEG/ERPs and TMS. For motivated students, there is the option to work with individuals on the autism spectrum. The work will run in association with an ESRC research project led by Patric Bach. The student will be part of Patric Bach’s Action Prediction Lab.


Source errors in recall.  Professor Tim Hollins

Memory errors often involve confusions about the source of an event – people report reading what they saw on TV, witnessing what they heard in conversation, or confusing yesterday’s dinner with what they ate the day before.  Why do such confusions occur?  Two steps are involved. First the wrong memory has to come to mind (selection), and then it has to be wrongly accepted (monitoring).  To date, the study of such errors has been dominated by source-monitoring paradigms using recognition memory tests, but these neglect the role of selection (because the experimenter provides the item). Consequently, this PhD will attempt to develop recall-based paradigms to test the joint role of selection and monitoring in recall.


The cognitive representation of non-speech audio Professor Judy Edworthy, Professor Sue Denham 

Understanding how we process non-speech auditory information has important implications for how we learn, remember, and represent auditory sequences. Two examples of short auditory sequences which have important real-world functions are the hooks of popular songs and the auditory alarms and warnings which surround us. In this project we will investigate the contributions of acoustic and other factors (for example, semantic factors) which contribute to the ease with which short audio sequences are learned, remembered, imagined, are capable of conveying metaphor and meaning,  and are involuntary (in the case of 'earworms'). The methodologies used may include cognitive psychology experiments along with other techniques (which may include physiological measurements) and approaches. The project will further develop our theoretical knowledge of auditory cognition whilst contributing to the relevant applied areas of popular music construction and the design of audible alarms.         


Singing out of tune: the Rod Stewart phenomenon Professor Judy Edworthy & Professor Sue Denham 

How do we react to out-of-tune singing? Anecdotally there are several very successful singers who habitually sing sharp, and yet we find this acceptable, indeed enjoyable. As a psychological phenomenon the issue of mismatch between auditory figure and ground taps into several fundamental issues of auditory perception including psychophysics (how out-od-tune does the melody has to be before we notice it), categorical perception (when a melody is so out-of-tune relative to its background it is now in a new and different key) and aesthetics (how can we sometimes like an out-of-tune melody, and how does this interact with categorical perception). This project will investigate these issues in a series of experiments using traditional laboratory techniques, and in later stages may take a neuroscience and/or applied perspective, working with local music studios.


Using virtual worlds to understanding human foraging behaviour Dr Alastair Smith

Foraging is a fundamental behaviour for many species. In humans, it has even been typified as the context of our cognitive evolution, and many societies today still subsist on hunting and gathering. However, foraging behaviour is present in all societies, from searching a supermarket shelf to scouring your home for a lost set of keys. This activity is supported by a variety of psychological functions that include, perception, attention, memory, and decision making. Traditionally, psychologists have studied human search behaviour using the visual search paradigm, although this tends to constrain our understanding to simple two-dimensional spaces presented on a monitor. Advances in virtual reality technology present an exciting opportunity to create controlled three-dimensional search spaces that participants can freely move around. This project will make use of Plymouth’s world-class VR suites to explore the psychological factors that support efficient foraging behaviour. This can include explorations of environmental structure (e.g. shape, landmarks), statistical properties of the array (e.g. fruiting patterns, spatial likelihoods), and the individual differences that underlie search (e.g. working memory, autistic traits). There may also be the opportunity to address some of these issues in patients who have sustained neurological damage, and to look at changes in search behaviour associated with typical ageing.

Multi-modal approaches to social and moral judgements  Dr Sylvia Terbeck

In this project of experimental social psychology, you will have the opportunity to study social and moral decision making using a multi-array of methods and theories. You can study moral judgements (based in philosophy; decisions about what one ought to do) as well as social judgements (intergroup relations, prejudice), using experimental psychology, psychopharmacology, and computer science methods. You will have the opportunity to use 3D immersive virtual reality to study realistic virtual human behaviour. Furthermore, the neuroscience of such processes can be studied using pharmaceutical interventions (such as amino-acid depletion paradigms, or the use of OTC medicines).  Results can impact on the fields of philosophy, social neuroscience, social sciences and law. Co-supervised by Dr Ian Howard (Computer Science and Robotics).

Memory: Is forgetting an adaptive mechanism? Dr Michael Verde

Theories of memory have traditionally viewed forgetting as a negative consequence of limitations of the memory system. Anderson’s (2003) retrieval inhibition theory proposes that, on the contrary, forgetting is adaptive and the ability to suppress certain memories is beneficial to the normal function of the memory system. This research will use a range of empirical paradigms and quantitative modelling techniques to investigate the factors that contribute to forgetting, including interference from other memories, conscious inhibition, and context change. Although the focus is on basic research, there is scope for investigating the implications of inhibition and forgetting in applied areas. For example, are emotional or traumatic memories more difficult or easy to suppress? Does suppressing irrelevant information facilitate problem-solving? In revising educational materials, does the strategic inhibition of knowledge actually, improve long-term learning?


Effective Learning through Testing: The Testing Effect in Basic and Applied Research Dr Michael Verde

A great deal of recent interest has focused on the role of testing in learning. Both basic and applied research suggests that revising information through active retrieval is one of the most effective ways to promote long term retention (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006; Roediger & Pyc, 2012). This research project has two goals. The first is to investigate the factors that make testing such an effective method of revision. We will consider theories of associative strengthening, information integration, and contextual reinstatement. The second goal is to apply our findings to ecologically valid materials and settings such as science education. This project has strong potential for interdisciplinary work with researchers in education and biology.

Potential PhD topics in Developmental Psychology

 Decision-making and risk-taking in online and offline environments  Dr Michaela Gummerum, Professor Yaniv Hanoch

From shopping to information search to interacting with friends and finding a mate, much of people's live is now spent online. Yet, systematic research on whether and how people's behaviours differ when they make decisions in online compared to offline environments is sparse. This PhD project will specifically focus on how people take risks online, for example how they share personal information with others or how they react to (online) fraud. Ideally, candidates for this position are interested in examining developmental changes in online risk taking, as well as develop and examine potential interventions. The ideal candidate should have interests in developmental psychology, risk taking and decision making. We highly recommend that you contact one of the supervisors prior to applying to discuss the position and the project direction.      

Children's false memories  Dr Marina Wimmer, Dr Michael Verde

False memories occur frequently and are usually harmless. For example, viewing a scene on the playground (e.g., two children on a swing and a partial view of the slide) we might falsely remember a zoomed out view - we remember seeing more of the scene as is shown (e.g., the same children with full view of the slide). This type of false memory is termed boundary extension and can occur because either we automatically “zoom-out” beyond what we actually see or because we cannot remember anymore whether we saw the whole view or have just imagined it. In this PhD it will be examined how boundary extension false memories develop in 5- to 11-year-old children and compare them to adults.

The development of political attitudes in children  Dr Jeremy Goslin

Political attitudes are central to our moral beliefs about the world, but when and where do we acquire these attitudes? It has long been suggested that children largely inherit the political beliefs of their parents, and yet the development of the political attitudes of young children, and how these attitudes subsequently shape our early moral outlook remains a mystery. This project will draw upon techniques used in experimental psychology and behavioural economics to make an experimental investigation that explores the relationship between the political beliefs of parents and the implicit attitudes of their children to economic decision making, inequality, and sharing. A systematic examination of children over the course of development (from 3-14) will allow an understanding of how children develop politically, and how this affects their behaviour and moral interpretations of society.

Why do we trust less a speaker with a foreign accent than a native speaker?  Professor Caroline Floccia & Dr Jeremy Goslin

Our social categories, preferences and stereotypes are deeply rooted in infancy, with young children showing early preferences based on gender, race and language. A speaker’s accent provides a salient cue for social categorisation, as for example, as adults, we trust non-native speakers less than native ones. However, how accent preferences emerge in childhood has led to conflicting results. Whereas 5-month-olds discriminate accent differences and prefer adults with a native accent over a non-native accent, the ability to use accents as cues to social preferences in forced-choice tasks does not seem to emerge before the age of 5 years. A series of studies comparing discrimination and preference responses from infancy to childhood are needed to understand the emergence of the use of accents in guiding social preferences.  

 Consonant bias in Arabic infants and adults. Professor Caroline Floccia

It has been proposed that consonant and vowel sounds play a different role in language processing, with consonants being more important for coding information about words and vowels playing a greater role in prosodic and syntactic information. This is called the consonant bias. Developmental research, which has concentrated in English, French, Italian and Danish, clearly suggests cross-linguistic differences in the emergence of this consonant bias. The Arabic language offers a unique and new opportunity to examine the consonant bias, as in Arabic consonants are lexically much more informative than vowels. A series of experiments in adults and infants using eye tracking and reaction times are needed to track the emergence of the consonant bias in that language. In addition, a comparison between English-Arabic bilinguals and English monolinguals will allow understanding how perceptual biases are shaped by dual language exposure. A knowledge of the Arabic language is desirable but not necessary.

Children’s awareness of words  Dr Allegra Cattani & Professor  Caroline Floccia

Pre-school children at around age three are constant talkers, sometimes in an endless stream. This helps children learn and process information. When children talk, they need to successfully make use of the correct phonological rules of their own language. This project aims to discover how children learn and become aware of the phonological rules. Is there a link between vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness? Are there learning routes within the same language or across languages? When and how do bilingual children become skilled in the phonological knowledge of each of the two languages? The methodology includes psychology experiments along with other approaches including vocabulary testing.

Development of face processing in young children Dr Allegra Cattani & Dr Chris Longmore

‘Incipe parve puer risu cognoscere matrem’, the ancient poet Virgilio was cognisant that a newborn infant and the mother exchanges smiles from the very early moments of life. Within a matter of hours after birth infants show an impressive ability to track human schematic faces and within quickly develop sensitivity to the particular type of faces that they are exposed to. Infants appear capable of processing configural information in faces and they respond to internal features of faces. There are still many unanswered questions of face processing in infants around the understanding of the characteristic of development toward the preference of own versus different race faces or about the face familiarisation process in infants. The proposal may also investigate the development of hemispheric preferences. The prospective PhD student will tailor the research angle using the available eye-tracking and picture cards methods with the support of the team supervisors. This proposal aims to explore questions such as these in further detail

Potential PhD topics in Health and Applied Psychology

 Functional Imagery Training Professor Jackie Andrade & Professor Jon May

Functional Imagery Training (FIT) is a novel technique for supporting motivation through mental imagery. Our recent trial data show a fivefold improvement in weight loss for participants receiving FIT compared with motivational interviewing (Solbrig et al., 2018). We have also shown that FIT improves resilience or ‘grit’ in elite athletes (Rhodes et al., 2018). Building on this work, we would like to recruit a PhD student to test FIT in a new domain or investigate the mechanisms underpinning its efficacy.

Understanding how people with complex mental health needs can take part in healthcare team decision making. Dr Cordet Smart

This is an opportunity to join an established research group (MDTsInAction) examining interprofessional care and teamwork within mental health and complex care services. Service User (SU) involvement is crucial in healthcare decisions, to avoid neglect and reduce morbidity and mortality. This PhD would examine what happens when SUs meet with multiple professionals and how these meetings can be designed to genuinely involve service users in decisions. A research programme would be developed with involvement from our SU consultants to: record meetings and analyse them in a detailed manner (probably through conversation analysis) revealing what practices engage service users; explore how these affect decision making; and capture reflections from SUs and staff about the meetings. The research would use theory from social psychology to examine how emotions and other psychological phenomena are used in these meetings, producing an applied psychology thesis with real impact for people with complex needs.

Long-term Health Conditions in children  Dr Alyson Norman, Dr Michaela Gummerum, Jon Pinkney

There has been very little research looking at the involvement of children in medical decision-making. Children with long term health conditions, such as cleft lip and and/or palate, or pituitary conditions that affect hormonal control within the body require considerable medical management. Their management is notoriously difficult and patients often experience high levels of distress which are often not addressed by health professionals. This PhD will focus on understanding the experiences of children with one of these conditions and developing a better understanding of their involvement in the decision-making process. This PhD would involve interviewing children and young people aged 10–25. 

The development of an intervention to support the social and community rehabilitation of Individuals with acquired brain injuries (ABI).  Dr Alyson Norman

Many individuals with ABI experience difficulties once they are discharged from hospital care, such as unemployment and an inability to return to education. Additionally, they are known to be at increased risk of developing mental health or substance abuse problems, becoming homeless or entering the prison and probation services. It is important to understand how to support individuals with ABI through these services in order to develop interventions to improve people’s access to services. The exact nature of this PhD will be decided with the candidate but, the basic premise includes, 1) identifying the difficulties experienced by individuals with Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI) across a range of services associated with their rehabilitation, 2) identifying the difficulties professionals experience when interacting with individuals with ABI, and 3) identify ways to better support individuals through their rehabilitation in the future by developing a new intervention.

Bereavement in families  Dr Jacqui Stedmon, Dr Cordet Smart

Bereavement in young people is an under researched topic, and in particular has not been explored or understood in relation to family systems.  It is a particularly sensitive area, and we know from clinical practice and exploratory research projects that some children cope with bereavement better than others. Further, we have already found a possible relationship to the child’s attachment style. However, we do not as yet know how families manage bereavement together, and how different attachment styles within families might impact on how they are able to manage bereavement. The proposed research project would be to explore this in further detail. The study would be mixed methods including the collection of qualitative and quantitative data to explore and compare how people narrate their experiences of bereavement, how this relates to attachment styles and patterns as well as standardised measures of coping and trauma.  This is a chance for the applicant to gain from a rich research environment within the Clinical Psychology department in Plymouth, where there is considerable expertise available to support the candidate in developing expertise in attachment, narrative methods and both clinically and research-based understandings of bereaved young people.

Potential PhD topics in Human Neuroscience

 Neuroimaging of Environmental Extremes: exploring brain changes in a hyperbaric chamber. Professor Stephen Hall (UoP) & Dr Gary Smerdon (DDRC Healthcare)

Changes in atmospheric pressure, for example during deep-sea-diving, produce a range of different cognitive and behavioural effects. Similarly, conditions of high or low oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gasses results in observable changes in human performance. We will use a combination of neuroimaging techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), to understand the neural basis of changes that occur when humans are exposed to increased atmospheric pressure in a hyperbaric chamber. We will use controlled manipulation of the gas environment inside and outside the chamber, to better understand the mechanisms that underlie the cognitive and behavioural effects of these treatments. This project is a collaboration between the new University of Plymouth, Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC) and the Diving Disease Research charity (DDRC Healthcare).

Passing the Neuroscience of Tool use to Robots Dr Jeremy Goslin

In embodied models of cognition our representations of objects are formed around the motor programs used to manipulate them. This means that not only do we automatically prepare relevant actions when viewing objects, but also that our actions modulate our perception of our environment and those interacting within it. Robots with a similar embodied architecture should also benefit from a more seamless sensory-motor integration. In this project electrophysiological brain imaging techniques will be used in virtual reality environments to examine how object-based affordances help us to learn and manipulate tools. This new understanding will then be used to directly inform interactive models of human-robot object manipulation and collaboration.

The role of response inhibition and response conflict in deception Dr Giorgio Ganis, Dr Patric Bach

"Deception is defined as an attempt to convince someone else of something the prevaricator believes to be untrue. Much research on deception has focused on the idea that telling a lie results both in response conflict and in the inhibition of the corresponding truthful response. Initial electrophysiological findings were consistent with this idea, but they did not distinguish between response conflict and inhibition. More importantly, they were contaminated by serious experimental confounds. This project will use cognitive neuroscience methods (brain sensing and brain stimulation) and theories to investigate the timecourse of response conflict and inhibition during deceptive interactions. Furthermore, it will develop ecologically valid paradigms and novel analysis techniques to enable the use of this information to optimize deception detection methods."

Indecision-making   Professor  Chris Harris

In cognitive psychology, our understanding of human decision-making is based mostly on two-alternative forced choice experiments (2AFC), where a participant must choose between two mutually exclusive alternatives. The ‘rational’ decision is to choose the alternative with the higher value or (subjective) utility. There is accumulating evidence that this is a very narrow and artificial interpretation of decision-making. This PhD project is to explore a completely different approach to decision-making and even to question whether decisions are really made at all. It is well-known that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy of responses, and we have shown that there is an optimal time to respond with higher valued choices being responded to more quickly. Thus, 2AFC experiments map onto the time-domain in an ordered sequence. Our previous and current experiments clearly show that participants respond in a way that maximises their rate of reward. A logical consequence of this mapping is that more than one choice can be pursued simultaneously (i.e. in parallel). The fundamental question to be addressed is how do we cope with this much richer space of alternatives and is the concept of ‘rationality’ obsolete.