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Departmental Studentships: Potential Projects and Supervisors

Departmental Studentships: Potential Projects and Supervisors

The deadline for applications is 5 pm on Monday 6th January 2021

If applying for a Psychology Department studentship, applicants must apply for one of the projects listed below through the College application process, in collaboration with the named supervisor(s). If an applicant wishes, they may apply for a project other than those listed (again this must be in collaboration with a supervisor), which could be considered for the SeNSS ESRC DTP or other schemes. Note that if unsuccessful in these, the student would not be automatically considered for a Psychology Department Studentship.

Please note that interviews will likely take place in late January 2021 for short-listed candidates.

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).

Extant research shows that 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 sexual orientation and social class. Adult perceivers moreover show above-chance accuracy in making such categorisations, but it is unclear when in development people begin to categorise others by such groups and when they begin to show accuracy. This project will therefore explore the perception of perceptually ambiguous group membership across development. Using face photographs validated in previous research using adult perceivers, we will ask children and adolescents to categorise faces by group memberships such as “rich” vs “poor” or “gay” vs “straight”. We will also assess participants’ understanding of these categories (e.g., stereotypes) and test the facial cues perceivers use to make their judgments (e.g., attractiveness, emotion, gender typicality). This research will reveal when in development accurate perception of such group memberships emerges and will clarify whether children and adolescents use similar facial cues as adults do to inform their judgments—helping to provide a more complete picture of the development of face-based first impressions.

In applied forensic contexts, official agents (e.g., in courtrooms, police) must weigh how much evidence is needed to take critical actions, even when they are faced with partial information and uncertainty. Thus, society has a pressing need to understand how much evidence people in such situations use to justify their decisions. In many forensic situations, people base decisions on visual information gathered from the faces of others. Assessment of facial information for decision making is crucial for contexts ranging from passport screening at airports, identification of missing or trafficked children and eyewitness lineup identification of suspects. Indeed, officials in these contexts often view facial photographs at one time (e.g., passport pictures) and must then identify the individuals from their faces “in the wild” – in real-world contexts where visual evidence is incomplete, variable, noisy, uncertain or costly to obtain. This PhD project will test hypotheses about how people make decisions about visual evidence (e.g., from a face) in settings resembling forensics contexts. Methods could include behavioural experimentation (e.g., on-line studies) and computational modelling. We also aim to innovate procedures that might be implemented in real-world contexts to improve evidence-based decisions.

The ‘textbook’ view of human hippocampal function is that it constitutes an exclusive memory system in the brain. Emerging theoretical models, however, suggest that the hippocampus forms flexible, spatial-relational representations that can be used, in a goal-directed manner, across multiple cognitive domains, including perception, navigation, and imagination (Duff and Brown-Schmidt, 2012; Murray et al., 2016; Zeidman and Maguire, 2016). What is less understood is whether these hippocampal representations contribute to our understanding and production of language. Recent neuroimaging and neuropsychological studies provide initial evidence that the hippocampus supports online language comprehension, particularly when demand in placed on relational processing (Blank et al., 2016). The aim of this PhD project is to apply advanced neuroimaging methods to better understand the precise role of the human hippocampal system in online language processing, as well as explore the interrelationship between episodic memory, navigation, and communication (Corballis, 2019). 

The student will be based at the Department of Psychology with access to its MRI facilities and support team. The Department provides an excellent training environment for PhD students, as well as bespoke courses on advanced MRI methods. The supervisory team also have strong expertise in the methods and approaches to be applied in this project, including cognitive experimental design, neuroimaging (fMRI, dMRI), and theoretical models of memory, language and spatial cognition.

Many birds learn their songs socially from adults early in life, providing a model system for exploring vocal learning and animal culture. Previous experimental work has shown that song learning can be disrupted by developmental stress early in life. In the real world, human activities may generate such stress through noise and chemical pollution. While such pollution has been shown to shape the structure of bird songs and also to affect other aspects of cognition. In this project, we will examine whether pollution interferes with song learning, and how it influences processes of cultural evolution. The project will involve recording song from different sites, subject to different patterns of pollution through road noise or agricultural pesticides. We will use bioacoustic analysis to identify cases of aberrant songs or poor learning quality. And we will apply cultural evolutionary models to examine how pollution might interfere with the generation of cultural traditions. Finally, we will use song playback techniques and/or operant conditioning to examine how poorly learned songs are perceived by other individuals. We expect to reveal whether or not poorly learned songs are more common and whether or not cultural traditions change more rapidly in polluted or noisy areas.

Social groups are a fundamental part of our lives. They can serve as a source of social influence; for example, knowing that one’s political party supports a particular law increases one’s support for that law. Previous work has suggested that social influence may be better understood as propagating via latent (or hidden) groups that we infer from the world, rather than through direct neighbours (e.g., friends or family). Do these latent groups also help uphold and maintain false beliefs and misinformation? Through a series of experimental studies and computational modelling, we will investigate how we can leverage social groups to exacerbate and attenuate people’s beliefs.

There are over 7000 languages in the world and they show great diversity in sounds, vocabulary, grammar and so forth. This project will investigate whether the reason certain languages have certain features and not others is due to the social structure of the community that speaks them (e.g., the community’s size, heterogeneity, interconnectivity). The project’s general approach is to see whether community structure influences the dynamics of information flow or the community’s social needs, and consequently the characteristics of the language that the community creates. We are open to any proposal that takes inspiration from the supervisory team’s research expertise but some potential questions include: Do languages spoken by more heterogeneous communities have more expressive language, including more expressive swear words? How does the structure of the community influence the spread of cultural trends and cultural evolution? Do languages spoken by more people categorise the physical and social world in a more fine-grained manner (e.g., have 10 colour words rather than 3, more specific social categories)? The project will rely mostly on group experiments where participants will create novel languages by playing communication games. Depending on the applicant’s skills, these can be complemented with computational simulations and analyses of cross-linguistic data.

Mental health conditions are often considered as discrete categories even though there is substantial overlap in symptoms. But what explains commonalities? Drawing on the complementary strengths of the academic supervisors, Dr Murphy (interoception) and Professor Watling (mental health, social-affective processes), this project examines whether interoception (the perception of the body’s internal state) underlies commonalities across disorders. An exciting collaboration with BioBeats Ltd (with supervision from Biobeats’ CEO Dr Plans) will enable us to use digital technologies to assess whether interoception explains relationships between domains of functioning (e.g., cognitive, affective, social) and explore the efficacy of interoceptive training to improve mental health.

Up to 50% of children in low-income countries leave school with poor literacy.  One potential barrier is that children frequently start school knowing their local language, but are taught to read in a different language that is regarded as having greater economic value.  Oral language skills are known to underpin reading development, but there has been little consideration of this situation in which children have typical language skills, but do not speak the language of reading instruction.  This project will investigate this issue by looking at the interaction between language and reading skills in children learning to read in English but who speak a different language in the home.  We will focus on both children from immigrant families in SE England and children learning to read in one of the World Bank’s client countries. This project offers the opportunity to contribute to enhancing life outcomes through superior literacy for thousands of children across the developing world. Proficiency in a language used in the developing world may be an advantage.

British children spend around two hours per day watching television.  Television programmes may therefore be an important aspect of children’s language experience.  This project will build a large-scale corpus of the language used in children’s television programmes. We will use corpus-based and computational modelling approaches to infer what children in different age bands may learn about the meanings of words and phrases from these programmes.  Finally, we will test the extent to which children’s language knowledge and behaviour mirror the language used in the television corpus.  This project offers the opportunity to delve into one of the most enduring questions of psychological science: how we acquire linguistic knowledge through incidental exposure to different types of language input.  There is considerable flexibility for the student to shape the project according to their own interests, although outstanding quantitative skills are required.

Recent curriculum changes mean that all children in English schools learn a modern foreign language from age 7. Yet, training and resources for teachers are lacking. Though teaching is variable, teachers tend to emphasise learning via written language. This PhD will explore how written language can be used to maximise foreign language learning. Bartolotti and Marian (2017) showed that adults find it easier to learn new words that show orthographic overlap with their native language and demonstrated the importance of learning the spelling (orthographic) regularities of the new language. Theoretically, this study has implications for our understanding of how orthographic and auditory (phonological) components of lexical representations from across languages interact during acquisition. It also provides a method for determining the role of statistical learning for foreign language learning. Practically, it suggests that emphasising orthographic overlap between known and new languages will benefit foreign language learning and that we should track how children learn the regularities of new languages. Further work by Murphy et al. (2015) shows that learning a second language at school is also beneficial for children’s first language abilities. A series of psycholinguistic experiments will investigate bi-directional interactions between first language knowledge and foreign language learning.

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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