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Departmental Studentships: Potential Projects and Supervisors

Departmental Studentships: Potential Projects and Supervisors

Thinking of applying for a PhD? To apply to the Department of Psychology PhD programme, you must first identify a research supervisor who you would like to work with, and they must agree to supervise you. To help with this, below is information provided by supervisors who are looking to recruit PhD applicants for our programme. You will find a list of proposed projects from supervisory teams and information for staff who are open to students’ contacting them with their own project ideas. Please get in touch directly with the staff members with whom you would like to work; contact details can be found here.

When launching the UK Loneliness Strategy in late 2018, Theresa May called loneliness one of the greatest public health challenges, on par with smoking and obesity. Loneliness affects people across the spectrum of age, race, and socioeconomic status and has grave consequences for mental and physical health. Most of the research has focused on loneliness in older people. However, young people may be even more affected. For instance, epidemiological research indicates an increase of over 60% in adolescent loneliness between 1991 and 2014. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we increasingly understand the negative impact of loneliness, we know a lot less about the mechanisms that explain why some people struggle to overcome loneliness. We are open to any project ideas that aim to explain persistent loneliness in childhood or adolescence. Potential questions include: Is persistent loneliness associated with lower Theory of Mind or a bias to detect social threats? Do the mechanisms differ between children and adolescents? Does early experience predict persistent loneliness? The project will be based on cognitive tasks, questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews. Depending on the applicant's interests, this can be complemented by neuroimaging investigations (EEG, fMRI, structural MRI).


Dr Bathelt is also happy to discuss ideas for student-led projects, particularly in the area of developmental cognitive neuroscience, atypical development, and transdiagnostic developmental research. Potential projects can include neuroimaging and/or EEG. Please see the following pages for more information: PURE page, website.

People are quick to categorise others by their social group memberships using only facial appearance. This applies not only to group memberships that are perceptually obvious (i.e., age, gender, ethnicity), but also to group memberships that are perceptually ambiguous, such as social class. Adults make these judgments very rapidly and employ culturally-engrained stereotypes associating high social class with attractive appearance and positive emotion to inform their judgments. Children also form impressions of others’ social class, but it remains unclear when they begin to use the same stereotypes as adults to form these judgments. This project will therefore explore the perception of social class from faces across development, focusing on the role of attractiveness and emotion in driving these perceptions. Using face photographs of both children and adults, we will ask children and adolescents to categorise faces by social class (e.g., “rich” vs “poor”). The faces will vary in their emotion expression and/or attractiveness, allowing us to test how these facial cues affect children’s categorisations. We will also explore whether social class stereotypes of attractiveness and emotion are reflected in media aimed at children. This research will thus provide insight into how children learn these particular stereotypes and reveal when in development they begin to inform perceptions of others’ social class standing.

Dr Bjornsdottir is also happy to accept student-led ideas on topics related to social perception, intergroup relations, and inequality. Further information is available on the lab page and the PURE page.

As understanding of causality and explanation develops, profound limits on what is ascertainable using predominantly data-driven approaches are becoming apparent that cannot be surmounted merely by making that data “bigger.” A reckoning along these lines will be welcomed most at the “small data” end of the spectrum, in contexts such as healthcare provision where care delivery is necessarily an individual endeavour. Research in psychology that purports to further treatment solutions needs to provide specific answers for how it promotes the bridging of the nomothetic-idiographic divide. In the anticipated project, we would implement an approach to clinical measurement that focuses on psychological constructs rather than symptoms and is anchored in a development cycle that continually feeds information reciprocally from the bottom-up and top-down, drawing on methodological advances in such areas as network psychometrics, natural language processing, small N experimentation and data aggregation, and theoretical understandings about the propositional nature of learning and cognitive processes underlying self-report. This would be firmly anchored in clinical practice through a standardised approach to clinical formulation viewed from the standpoint of abductive reasoning that systematically implements functional analysis through a diagrammatic representation framework that links conceptually to formal therapy models.

Dr Brown is also happy to discuss ideas for student-led projects, particularly in the areas of psychotherapy mechanism research, risk for emotional problems, and clinical psychology measurement. Please see Pure for more information.


The proposed project aims to investigate how visual attention can be modulated within virtual environments, and the effect this has on spatial exploration. To explore this, open-world environments will be built in which eye-tracking and spatial exploration measures will be collected. Through eye tracking we aim to see how attention distribution over space can be altered and if we can succeed in guiding attention to particular areas and objects in the scene.  Then we can make links with the associated exploratory behaviour such as the amount of time spent in certain locations and exploration entropy. We will also evaluate how effects in screen-based environments transfer to virtual reality.  By manipulating the task, such as allowing for free exploration or having to search for an object, we can gain some insight into how the brain builds up a representation of the environment in different learning situations. The key outcome of this project is developing methods for subtle attention guidance that leads to exploration. This will have potential impact for the games, immersive industries, and urban design.

Dr Durrant is willing to accept ideas along these lines with Carl Hodgetts as secondary supervisor

Keywords: visual perception and attention, eye movements, 3D space, movement

Please see Dr Durrant's Pure page.

Conversations through video call software (such as Zoom or Teams) are increasingly used in medical, educational, and legal settings. This technology changes how our faces, bodies, and voices appear, and often disrupts the normal timing cues in social interaction—all of which may adversely affect how participants perceive each other and develop a rapport. Groups who are digitally challenged or have communication deficits arising from mental health may be particularly disadvantaged.  This project investigates how video calls shape social interactions in 'official' contexts (e.g. legal or medical), by testing pairs of participants while they speak to one another in-person or online, and then measuring how well they coordinate their behaviour and establish rapport, and self and other perception. (For example, do people view each other as trustworthy and honest in online interactions? Do individuals establish rapport by aligning and mimicking each others’ behaviour to the same degree in online as offline interactions?) There is much room for flexibility in how the successful applicant shapes the project to fit their interests. Dr Jasmin’s expertise is in speech, language and social interaction. Prof Memon directs the Centre for the Study of Emotion & Law and is an expert in the social and cognitive psychology of police investigation and witness testimony.

The desire to learn, not just the capacity to do so, influences performance. The last decade of neuroscience studies has demonstrated that the drive to learn plays a crucial role in creating lasting memories. Such motivation may be intrinsically driven or be due to external incentives like money (reward). Surprisingly, the role played by reward and motivation systems in language learning is not well understood. This is theoretically significant - what are the cognitive and biological mechanisms that drive us to learn language? But this also has enormous practical value - understanding how reward and motivation contribute to language learning has the potential to improve intervention for children with neurodevelopmental disorders (such as autism and developmental language disorder). Work in my lab is currently focusing on intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and their effect on language learning. Potential questions could include whether those with neurodevelopmental disorders benefit in the same way from rewards, whether they are willing to put in the same effort to seek information as neurotypical controls, and the extent to which motivation can predict future language learning.

Dr Krishnan would also be happy to discuss other student-led ideas in the areas of language learning, motivation, and developmental language disorder. Projects might be behavioural or could include neuroimaging. For further information, please see the PURE page here or the lab website here.

Language has evolved to allow people to communicate with one another. For tens of thousands of years, humans communicated in spoken form. However, with the rise of the internet, written language has replaced spoken language as the primary mode of communication. The way we understand and produce language is different in the written and spoken modalities – what is easy to read or write is different from what is easy to say or hear. Therefore, the way that language has evolved to serve spoken communication may not be optimised for written communication. This PhD project will examine whether language is changing to become more optimal for written communication. The project will include a combination of experiments that test language evolution in the lab and analyses of language corpora. Computational skills are preferred but not required.

Further information is available on the PURE page.

Why do words sound the way they do? On the one hand, one of the hallmarks of language is that it’s arbitrary, that is, there’s no relation between the way a word sounds and its meaning. For example, there’s nothing about the sounds 'd', 'o', or 'g' that is related to the meaning of dog. At the same time, there are cases where the sounds of a word are not arbitrary. This is called sound symbolism. For example, itsy bitsy probably has many ‘i' sounds because this sound is associated with small size and atsa batsa would not sound as small. In this project, you will investigate whether words that express and regulate social dynamics (e.g., swear words, apology words, begging words) are sound symbolic, whether speakers exploit this sound symbolism in interaction, and whether the sound symbolism of the words influences behaviour.

Further information is available on the PURE page.

Theories of reading are typically based on a monolingual context in which children come to the classroom with a reasonable command of the spoken language. The goal of initial reading instruction is to help the child to map arbitrary visual symbols onto their spoken language knowledge. However, it is common practice in low- and middle-income countries for children to learn to read in a language that they do not understand. It is estimated that this practice affects nearly 40% of pupils in these countries – more than 250 million at present. Surprisingly, research is almost totally silent on the cognitive consequences of this practice, and very little consideration has been given to alternative practices in countries with great language diversity. This project will tackle these questions in a multi-method approach combining experimental studies with quantitative analyses of languages and writing systems. 

Further information is available on the PURE page.

There is wide agreement that a child’s spoken language abilities provide an essential foundation for learning to read. However, much less is known about whether and how learning to read shapes a child’s spoken language abilities. There are multiple ways in which this might occur. For example, while the words in continuous speech all run together, printed text typically includes spacing between words. Encounters with printed text may thus assist in speech segmentation and the learning of individual words.  Likewise, research suggests that books contain richer vocabulary and more complex syntax than spoken language. Thus, encounters with the language used in books may confer broad benefits to a child’s linguistic knowledge. This project will investigate the reciprocity between reading acquisition and spoken language abilities through a combination of laboratory research and behavioural research with young children. There will be considerable flexibility for the student to shape the project according to their own interests.

Further information is available on the PURE page.

The past few years have seen unbelievable advances in natural language applications such as Alexa and Siri. These applications are driven by powerful deep language models trained on vast text corpora to predict the next word in a sentence or passage.  The fact that these machines so closely mimic human language behaviour (at least on a superficial level) is intriguing.  However, thus far little research has asked whether and how the processes in these models map on to fine-grained human language behaviour.  This project will attempt to relate metrics derived from predictive natural language models to eye-movement behaviour as adults read. Our goal is to understand how certainty within the models relate to behaviours such as fixation location, duration, and regressions in different types of text. Understanding this mapping will open vast possibilities for research and application.  This project requires strong quantitative, coding, and visualisation skills.

Further information is available on the PURE page.

Making good choices requires learning how our actions relate to specific events in the external world. Yet, this learning process can be biased by how we make, and evaluate, our decisions. While such biases can be generally adaptive, understanding them could help improve decision making. Moreover, such interactions can give rise to, and maintain, maladaptive patterns of (meta)cognition linked to psychiatric symptoms, e.g. depression or compulsions. Given the high economic and societal costs of mental illness, the leading cause of disability in the UK, better treatment and prevention strategies are needed. Combining behavioural, computational and neuroimaging methods will improve our understanding of how learning and decision making interact with self-monitoring and attribution, in mental health and illness. Focusing on symptoms, over diagnostic categories, will serve to identify specific patterns of maladaptive cognition. This offers a unique opportunity to develop novel tools that may subsequently help to refine differential diagnosis and improve treatment selection, as well as provide a foundation for the development of novel psychological interventions.

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