Funded PhD studentships in the School of Psychology

Four lecturing posts are available - closing date 6 January. We are recruiting an Associate Professor, in Clinical Psychology, a permanent Lecturer in any area, a 4-year Lecturer in cognitive neuroscience, and a 3-year Lecturer in any area. 

Three PhD studentships (fees and maintenance) are now available, in any area, for a 01 April 2021 start. Closing date is 12 noon on 4th December 2020

Applications for ESRC funded PhD studentships through the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP) are also now open, application deadline 19 January 2021.

Applications are invited for three PhD studentships (3yrs full-time). These studentships will start on 01 April 2021. Successful applicants will be part of a large, vibrant, highly collaborative community of PhD students and academic staff. Currently the school has 80+ students registered for a PhD or studying for a DClinPsy. Students will have access to extensive, modern and well-equipped laboratory facilities supported by a dedicated team of technical staff, a Baby- and SchoolLab, as well as the newly constructed Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC; https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/psychology/brain-research-and-imaging-centre). For more details of the school’s research activity, please visit our research pages (https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/psychology) and our individual staff pages (https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/schools/psychology/academics).

 

Choosing a project

A range of potential projects and supervisors can be found below. Research can be conducted in any of the specialist areas of research supported by the school, which include cognition, learning, music, development, emotion, health, clinical psychology, social psychology and neuroscience. Candidates are strongly encouraged to discuss their proposal/plans with their intended supervisor. Further details about research in our school and our academic staff are available from our web pages.

Potential PhD topics in Developmental Psychology

 Language in the “wild” – Features of infant-directed language input and its coupling with social and emotional cues Dr. Rana Abu-Zhaya and Professor Caroline Floccia

  • Infants learning their native language are exposed to it from birth through meaningful social interactions with their caregivers. Within these interactions, language is typically presented in a special speech register along with social and emotional cues that together render the infant-directed input highly multimodal and multi-sensory. The ways in which we package this rich input to infants are bound by cultural norms, just like our socialization habits and how we create emotional bonds. Yet, most of our current theories on language acquisition are not only driven by a historical focus on the unimodal features of infant-directed speech, but are also heavily based on research conducted on infants growing up in WEIRD (Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) communities representing only a small portion of infants worldwide. Hence, the goal of this project is to provide a thorough investigation of the multimodal, multi-sensory nature of infant-directed language input, and how features of this input 1) change with development, 2) are influenced by cultural background, and 3) influence the developmental trajectory of language acquisition. While the scientific focus of this project and the exact research questions will depend on the preferences of the candidate, the goal is to come up with a series of small projects that can contribute to informing theories on language acquisition and to a more holistic, culturally-sensitive approach to the study of infant-directed language input. The candidate can use a wide array of research methodologies, from corpus studies (using data collected by other scientists, as those available in Databrary and CHILDES) to infant-friendly research paradigms available at the Plymouth Babylab.

Mum and Dad have a different accent when they speak to me: how do I make sense of English words?  Professor Caroline Floccia

  • The effect of speech variability on language learning is uncertain. On one hand short-term exposure seems to be helping young infants to retrieve phonological categories, as shown in lab-based word learning tasks. On the other hand, long-term exposure to variability doesn't seem to have the same facilitatory effect at all, and this is mainly coming from word recognition data comparing children exposed to multiple versus one accent at home. Understanding the role of variability in language learning is very important to determine the kind of processes that children use to build their phonological/lexical systems. In this project, you will use a combination of head-turn preference paradigm and eye-tracking preferential looking tasks to investigate the time course of development of word recognition and learning in young infants and toddlers, as a function of their linguistic background (mono- versus multi-accent exposure). You will work within the Plymouth Babylab, a unique research facility at the University of Plymouth which invites around 600 families a year to take part in psychology studies. A clear enhanced DBS check will be requested.

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.

The development of cooperation in collective action problems   Dr Patricia Kanngiesser

  • Collective action problems are at the heart of many of the most challenging problems of our time be it the current pandemic, climate change, or scarce resources. Collective action problems arise when individual interests are in conflict with group interests and although cooperation would be beneficial for everyone, it can break down due to free-riders trying to maximize their own benefits. Developmental studies can help to shed light on factors that influence cooperation such as social norms and values that are acquired during childhood. These insights could also be leveraged to develop educational tools (e.g., games and simulations) to foster better understanding of collective action problems. Methods would primarily include behavioural experiments with children and adolescents in the lab/schools/online and there may be opportunities to conduct cross-cultural work. The exact shape and scope of the PhD project would depend on students’ interests. Candidates with an interest to develop online experiments/games are particularly welcome.
 

Potential PhD topics in Health, Applied, and Social Psychology

 Humour and social relationships Dr Sonja Heintz

  • Our social lives frequently entail laughter, jokes, irony, and banter. Humour is also regarded as one of the most desirable traits we value in other people. Theories and research propose that humour can either act as a “social lubricant” or as a means of showing our superiority to others. Despite its ubiquity, our understanding on the role of different kinds (or styles) of humour in social relationships is yet poorly understood. This project contributes to a more holistic description and explanation of the role that humour plays in different types of social relationships (e.g., romantic partners, friends, family, colleagues and supervisors). This includes perspectives from both the sender and receiver of the humorous communication, which can be assessed using different methods (e.g., self- and other-reports, behaviour observations, ecological momentary assessment and daily diaries). This project would suit a student who has an interest in social psychology, individual differences or positive psychology.

Long-term health conditions in children  Dr Alyson Norman & 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.

Bereavement in families Dr Jacqui Stedmon

  • 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.

The role of environmental imagery in potentially strengthening nature connectedness Dr Kayleigh Wyles, Professor Jackie Andrade, Dr Isabel Richter

  • We are relying on our eyes to make sense of the world. Visualisations are a powerful tool used for persuasion and to encourage behaviour change. In this project, we would like to investigate if/how the power of visualisation can be used for environmental conservation, for example, can it strengthen a person’s connectedness to the natural world and/or reduce the psychological distance between the spectator (the individual) and the victim (wildlife and/or natural environments), and in turn, does this influence our behaviour? Via news outlets, TV and social media, we are confronted with environmental imagery daily. What we do not know so far, is how these images affect our feeling and perceptions about the natural world (i.e. nature connectedness, a concept measuring people’s emotional connection to the natural world) and our overall behaviour. Potential pathways this PhD can take are: 1) exploring the effects and potential differences between physical (in form of prints or screen based) and mental imagery (evoked by audio or text prompts) of nature and wildlife on nature connectedness, behaviour, and behavioural intentions; mainly focusing on the dimension of imagery and messaging; 2) exploring the effects and potential differences between tropical species vs. familiar species, tropical regions vs. regions close to home on nature connectedness, behaviour, and behavioural intentions; integration of the dimension of psychological distance; 3) exploring the effects and potential differences between a video-based experience with wildlife on nature connectedness, behaviour, and behavioural intentions compared to a real-life touristic wildlife experience (e.g. whale watching or seal safari); integration of the dimension of wildlife tourism. This project will investigate one of the above mentioned topics (or an alteration/combination of them) using both experimental and explorative designs (i.e. use of qualitative and quantitative methods like interviews or questionnaire surveys).

 

Potential PhD topics in Human Neuroscience

Corticostriatal circuits in mental health  Dr Elsa Fouragnan

  • Approximately 1 in 5 people suffers from a psychiatric illness. This changes a patient’s brain and behaviour, but we cannot currently infer from a person’s behavioural impairments what goes wrong in their brain. As a consequence, treatments are prescribed by trial-and-error, rather than targeted to the individual, which significantly delays treatment responses. By combining large-scale brain connectivity and behaviour (from the Human Connectome Project) with smaller-scale neuroimaging and focal disruptions of the neural circuits affected in psychiatric disorders, the work proposed here will begin to bridge the gap between large-scale transdiagnostic and smaller-scale computational neuroscience approaches to examine how specific brain circuits affect decision behaviours relevant for psychiatric disease.

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

  • 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.

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.

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

  • A change in atmospheric pressure, for example during deep-sea-diving, produces a range of cognitive and behavioural effects. Similarly, conditions of high or low oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gasses, result 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: www.plymouth.ac.uk/BRIC) and the Diving Diseases Research charity (DDRC Healthcare).

Investigating neural and perceptual correlates of virtual reality-induced analgesia in human surrogate pain models. Dr Sam Hughes and Dr Elsa Fouragnan

  • Exposure to immersive 360° virtual reality (VR) environments has been shown to produce analgesic effects in both experimental and clinical pain states. However, the top-down analgesic mechanisms are still poorly understood. Our most recent research has shown that activity within endogenous pain modulation systems underpins VR-induced analgesia, which may help to reduce altered nociceptive processing seen during chronic pain states. This PhD project will expand on these findings; you will use a combination of human surrogate pain models, neurophysiology, quantitative sensory testing (QST) and electroencephalography (EEG) to dissect neural and perceptual correlates of VR-induced analgesia during different pain states (e.g. acute, tonic and sensitised pain processing). This research will be carried out at the new Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC) in the School of Psychology and will provide further mechanism-driven evidence on how best to use VR in chronic pain patients. Experience in neurophysiological techniques and programming would be an advantage. 

Pain and mental health: a multimodal investigation into the effects of anxiety on central pain processing Dr Sam Hughes and Professor Stephen Hall

  • Under normal conditions, pain is associated with both a sensory (i.e. how much something hurts) and an emotional (i.e. how unpleasant something is) component. However, when pain becomes chronic, the emotional responses to persistent pain can result in comorbidities (e.g. anxiety) which exacerbates the condition. Treatments for chronic pain patients are poor; often targeting a generic set of symptoms and neglecting the impact of comorbidities on the chronic pain state. Understanding the relationship between anxiety and pain processing in the brain will help to identify novel treatment approaches which target the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms, opposed to a purely symptom-based approach. We will use a combination of psychophysical and neuroimaging techniques alongside human surrogate models of chronic pain and the CO­2model of anxiety in healthy volunteers. Using this multimodal approach, we will aim to dissect the role of anxiety on central pain modulation and sensitisation processes with a view to develop novel mechanism-driven analgesic therapies for chronic pain patients.

How to apply for the ESRC PhD studentships

Please read the Plymouth SWDTP page and apply here: 

How to apply for the School PhD studentships

To apply please use the online application form, simply search for MPhil/PhD Psychology, then clearly state that you are applying for a PhD studentship within the School of Psychology and name the project the top of your personal statement. Take a look at the Doctoral College's general information on applying for a research degree.

You will need to submit a completed application form, a 750 word project proposal, a 1-page CV, certificates/transcripts of academic qualifications and names of two academic referees. You will also need evidence of English language ability if English is not your first language and a copy of the information page of your passport if you are an international candidate.

For inquiries about the application process, please contact Catherine McCoulough (Catherine.mccoulough@plymouth.ac.uk).

For queries about the studentships, please contact Dr Patricia Kanngiesser at patricia.kanngiesser@plymouth.ac.uk

 


Potential PhD topics in Cognition and Social Cognition

Developmental trajectories of social comparison and competitive attitudes Dr. Nadège Bault, Dr Elsa Fouragnanand Dr Patricia Kanngiesser

  • A rich research tradition in sociology, social psychology and economics has demonstrated how concern for status strongly motivates human behaviour. Happiness and well-being are strongly affected by the comparison between the individual’s own income and the income of others. Individuals in dominant position use their status to secure privileged access to resources, such as food and mates. Therefore, social comparison is important for monitoring one’s social status and might emerge early during development. Recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests that counterfactual and social comparison rely on different brain mechanisms and that the latter induces competition. Emotional responses elicited by social comparison (envy and gloating) engage the reward system as well as social cognition areas more than their private counterparts (regret and relief). We propose to investigate the developmental trajectory of social comparison and competitive behaviour. You will use monetary tasks/games, combined with neuroimaging methods to link interindividual differences in cortical development with attitudes toward social comparison and cooperative/competitive behaviour. Some experience with, or at least strong willingness to learn, computer programming (e.g. matlab, R, Python) is essential for this project. The use of computational models of decision making will be possible (and supported) depending on the student’s interest. You will have access to the school lab and to the brand new state-of-the-art human neuroimaging facility (Brain Research & Imaging Centre) of the university.

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.

The cognitive representation of non-speech audio Professor Judy Edworthy

  • 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

  • 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.

The role of the self in cognition Dr Marius Golubickis

  • As far as essential psychological constructs go, the self occupies a position near the top of the list. Pervading core aspects of daily life, it guides cognition, shapes behavioural elicitation, and provides coherence and continuity to the flux of subjective experience. The message that emerges from decades of research on this topic is clear — the self exerts a potent influence on information processing (i.e., egocentric-like predisposition). Recent research has highlighted the beneficial effects of self-referential processing on decision-making (i.e., the self-prioritization effect; a tendency to make judgements in favour of oneself). However, the extent and origin of this self-prioritization effect is unclear. Accordingly, this project will focus on 1) identifying the conditions under which self-relevance influences information processing and the mechanisms that underpin self-prioritization using computational modelling techniques, 2) explore how the task performance (i.e., decision-making, learning) is influenced by prior knowledge and sensory experiences and 3) identify the aspects of personality (e.g., altruism, narcissism, neuroticism) that would modulate the self-bias.

The curious effect of pre-testing on memory Prof Tim Hollins, Prof Chris Mitchell, Dr Giorgio Ganis & Prof Stephen Hall

  • The aim of this PhD project is to bring together two recent research strands in human memory, both of which have involved memory for the answers to general knowledge questions. One strand has shown that attempting to answer an unfamiliar general knowledge question before learning the answer leads to better memory than just studying the question and answer together (the pre-testing effect). The other strand has investigated the effects of curiosity for different general knowledge facts. People have better memory for the answers to questions that elicit high curiosity (relative to low), regardless of the rewards associated with learning the facts (the curiosity effect). Moreover, this work shows that a state of curiosity: a) is associated with activation in brain regions associated with memory and reward, and b) can also lead to better memory of incidentally encountered material that has nothing to do with the general knowledge fact. This PhD will explore whether the pre-testing effect arises through the mechanism of curiosity, using both behavioural and neuroscientific methods. It will use techniques such as fMRI, EEG and TMS to determine whether pre-testing engages the same regions and patterns of brain activity associated with curiosity, and whether it shows the same incidental memory benefits.

 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.

Theory protection in learning Dr Peter Jones

  • When one event precedes another, we learn this relationship so that we can behave appropriately. A common assumption is that this learning is caused by prediction error, or the difference between our expectations and reality, with more prediction error resulting in more learning. However, recent data from experiments conducted in our lab cast doubt on this idea. In our experiments we changed the outcomes that followed certain cues. According to prediction error, learning should be greatest for cues whose outcomes changed the most. However, we observed the opposite result. Our results are more consistent with the idea of stubbornness, or ‘theory protection’, than with prediction error. We propose that, once participants learn what follows a cue, they are resistant to changing their beliefs. They therefore attribute unexpected outcomes to the cues that are most consistent with those outcomes, even though these will often be the cues that have the smallest prediction error. This project will examine this theory protection principle, to discover the circumstances in which it applies. This work is expected to have implications for a wide range of fields that use prediction error to explain how we understand the world.

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, habits sometimes to lead to errors, such as picking up a chocolate bar in the Newsagent when trying to lose weight. 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. This project would suit a student who has an interest in learning, memory or attention.
Autism, spatial navigation in real and virtual built environments, and brain connectivity. Dr Matt Roser, Dr Alejandro Reyes (Architecture), Dr. Alastair Smith 
  • Autism spectrum conditions have been associated with a constellation of strengths and weaknesses within the visuospatial domain. One component that has received relatively little scientific attention is the difficulty that many individuals can have with everyday spatial navigation. Some empirical reports have identified the potential cognitive bases of these individual differences, although they have generally been based on relatively simple screen-based virtual environments. In this project, we will use state-of-the-art Immersive Media technologies to comprehensively explore navigation in autism. The work will focus on the documentation of realistic models of the built environment, including models from actual buildings and spaces constructed using long-range 3D scanning technologies. These environments will not only be used to provide a realistic and valid platform to experimentally characterise the range of abilities that contribute to differences in daily navigation, but also to test more applied questions of whether learning in realistic immersive environments can transfer to the real world. This will carry important ramifications for supporting difficulty and improving quality of life for some individuals. The project will also make use of brand-new facilities in Plymouth’s flagship Brain Research and Imaging Centre to examine neural connectivity (include diffusion imaging and white-matter tractography) in relation to navigational performance.

Getting lost in a virtual world Dr. Alastair Smith & Professor Chris Mitchell

  • Our health and wellbeing are dependent on our ability to set goals for ourselves, and to achieve those goals. For example, suppose you have secured a new job that is in a different part of town from where you have worked for the last 5 years. It is important that you are able to navigate your way efficiently to that new workplace on the first day. One way in which this might go wrong is that (anxious and distracted on your first day) you may accidentally drive to your old workplace. That is, a habit that has developed over 5 years might undermine your goal. We have recently developed a procedure to produce habitual behaviour of this kind in the laboratory. The current project is to extend the examination of these habitual “action slips” to the domain of navigation. Students will create virtual computer-based environments through which participants will be required to navigate to achieve certain goals. The research will examine when and why we are sometimes not in control of our behaviour, as a consequence of learned habits. The project will also relate navigational errors to the contents of the environment (e.g. landmarks, boundaries) in order to examine whether some environments or routes are more likely to engender habitual errors than others. This will have implications for the treatment of navigational impairments found in typical (e.g. ageing) and atypical (e.g. dementia, developmental conditions) populations.

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

  • 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.

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 methodology now present exciting opportunities to create controlled three-dimensional search spaces for participants to explore, and this project will examine the psychological factors that support efficient environmental search 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). Experiments could make use of Plymouth’s world-class environmental simulation capabilities, and 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.

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.

Imagination and Lying Dr Clare Walsh

  • When we think about past events, we often reflect on how things might have happened differently, for example, if I had left home earlier, I might have caught the train. This mental simulation of alternatives to the past is known as counterfactual thinking. The aim of this project is to examine the idea that this process may also be an important part of how people generate lies. Like counterfactual thinking, lying involves making minimal changes to past events and these changes should be consistent with other events that have happened. Lying therefore also requires keeping in mind what the listener knows to be true. The project will examine the processes underlying the generation of lies and whether as a result, some lies are easier than others to generate.

Imagination, Judgements and Emotions Dr Clare Walsh

  • When we reflect on past events, we frequently reflect on how things might have happened differently. We might imagine that things could have turned out better, for example, if I had been paying attention, I wouldn’t have tripped or instead that they could have turned out worse, e.g., I am lucky that I didn’t break my arm. These alternatives shape how we feel about events that have happened and the judgements that we make about them, for example, where we place responsibility or blame. They can also influence decisions about how to behave in the future. This project will therefore examine the types of thoughts that people imagine and their consequences.

Learning object categories in biological and non-biological machines Professor Andy Wills

  • Since around 2014, there have been substantial advances in Artificial Intelligence, with cutting-edge machines now able to classify objects with a level of accuracy that some engineers describe as 'human like'. How well founded are these claims of human-level performance on such tasks? And to what extent are these machines - whose designs are often inspired by neuroscience - good models of human behaviour? Some experience with, or at least strong willingness to learn, computer programming (e.g. R, Python, or C++) is essential for this project. Use of neuroscience methodologies (e.g. eye-tracking, EEG, fMRI) may be possible, depending on your interests.

Exploring Experimental Ethics Dr. Jan K. Woike

  • Many of the decisions we make and the actions we take or fail to take impact others directly or indirectly. Whether intended or not, our actions may help or harm others and have the potential for shaping reactions and even complex chain reactions. How do we navigate complex social environments, how do we motivate and justify decisions with consequences for others? Experimental ethics in this project combines empirical methods from experimental economics and experimental philosophy to study decision making and interaction with moral implications. Possible topics include: consequences of cooperation and competition, distributive justice, honesty and cheating, promises and threats, social dilemmas, collective action, rivalry, negotiation and conflict escalation. Programming skills would be an asset, and the project would be ideal for students with an interest in (1) developing and analyzing interactive online games and experiments and (2) engaging with literature across different disciplines (psychology, philosophy, and economics) .