The School of Psychology at Plymouth University is a member of the ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership.
There are no funded studentships available at the moment in the school. Self-financed candidates can apply at any time.
The school has a wide range of psychology research interests including cognition, learning, vision, music, developmental, emotion, health, clinical, social and neuroscience. Students have access to an extensive, modern and well-equipped laboratory facilities supported by a dedicated team of technical staff.
Successful applicants will be part of a large, vibrant, highly collaborative community of PhD students with good interdisciplinary links. Currently the school has around 50 students registered for a PhD, and over 30 students studying for a DClinPsy. Psychology PhD students automatically become members of both the Plymouth University Doctoral Training Centre in Social Sciences, which provides interdisciplinary training and networking opportunities for around 160 doctoral students, and the interdisciplinary Cognition Institute providing further opportunities for research, training and collaboration. The School is also part of the ESRC South West Doctoral Training Partnership.
How to apply
Candidates should submit a 1000-word research proposal with their application. Candidates are strongly encouraged to discuss their proposal/plans with their intended supervisor.
For details on how to apply, please see these Doctoral College pages.
Enquiries about PhD studies may be sent to Chris Mitchell, PhD tutor at email@example.com.
Potential PhD topics in Cognition
Strategic decisions in learning and memory Peter Jones
We are often faced with more information than we are able to learn. This is true for both real-world situations (e.g. studying for an exam) and laboratory experiments. A recent article (Murayama, Blake, Kerr, & Castel, 2015) examined the impact on learning of metacognitive decisions to stop studying new information in such situations. Two groups of participants were presented with a sequential list of words, and asked to remember as many as they could for subsequent recall. In one condition, the full list was presented; in the other, participants were able to stop the presentation of new words when they thought they would benefit from doing so. Typically, recall performance of participants in this latter condition was poorer than for participants who saw the full list. In other words, participants made an apparently maladaptive decision to stop studying new information. This project will attempt to shed more light on why participants behave in this way, and to explore the relevance of this behaviour for other learning situations, both in and out of the laboratory.
Navigation in real and virtual worlds Peter Jones and 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.
Prosody in speech perception and production Laurence White
Prosody, the melody and timing of speech, tells us about not only the structure and content of spoken interactions, but also the emotional state, attitudes and social origins of conversation partners. We know that our linguistic background can affect our interpretation of prosody, but how far are such perceptual biases determined by experience? Are there prosodic codes that are interpreted consistently by listeners whatever their linguistic background? What could universal cues tell us about the evolutionary origin and historical development of languages? Conversely, how is our use of prosody in talking and listening affected by individual differences in perception and cognition? Research projects addressing these and related themes lend themselves to a range of experimental approaches including: behavioural research, with adults and infants; articulatory analysis; computational modelling and evolutionary simulations; neuroscientific studies using electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
Category Learning 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 the theoretical work in this area.
Source errors in recall. 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.
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.
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-of-tune does the melody have 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.
Memory: Is forgetting an adaptive mechanism? 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 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 Human Neuroscience
Brain microstructural connectivity and the precursors to dementia. Matt Roser
This proposal builds on research by Roser (2012) investigating diffusion-tensor measures of brain microstructural connectivity and their relationship to cognitive processes and by Linnet and Roser (2012) into the behavioural effects of age on visuomotor integration. The project will investigate the precursors to dementia by examining how individual variation in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and the progression to dementia is mediated by individual differences in cortical microstructural connectivity assessed using diffusion-tensor imaging (DTI) and measures of brain regional volume. The proposed research will build on an existing dataset (Linnet, Roser, Bach) of (~24) high-resolution and DTI images from healthy older adults, with associated MCI and demographic data, and on the newly established Peninsula Dementia Brain Image Database (PDBID), a collaborative effort involving the School of Psychology, Plymouth Hospital NHS Trust Imaging Directorate, and many clinical services. PDBID has £5,000 of funding from the Alzheimer’s Research UK South West Network for the establishment of a brain-image database including data from all patients scanned for suspected dementia at Derriford Hospital and neurologically-normal controls.
Decoding the contents of memory and imagination in the human brain Haline Schendan
A long-standing goal of neuroscience is to read the contents of the mind. Brain imaging has advanced toward this goal, but few studies directly measured human brain activity in real time, as can be done best using electroencephalography (EEG). This project capitalises on a new method (Schendan and Ganis, 2008; 2012) to determine the contents and mechanisms of memory and mental imagery (i.e., imagining objects, people and places). Some experiments focus on semantic memory, meaning, and embodied cognition. Others focus on episodic simulation, which is mental imagery based on recollection of personally experienced events and a core function of episodic memory that is critical for future thinking. Additional methods available include functional magnetic resonance imaging, brain stimulation, neurocomputational modelling, eye tracking, and various data analysis techniques (e.g., signal processing). Findings will reveal what people are remembering and thinking and provide crucial information to advance theories of mental imagery and memory.
Brain mechanisms for perceptual constancy, generalization and specificity (or inflexibility) of human decision-making and memory Haline Schendan
People readily attribute meaning to what they see, even for highly novel objects, such as abstract art, inventions, impossible objects (e.g., Escher figures), and highly visually impoverished objects (e.g., when obscured through fog) (Voss, et al., 2010; Schendan, et al., 2009). Bottom-up processing along the ventral visual stream supports cognition with highly familiar, canonical, and prototypical objects, but fails with novel, unfamiliar or highly impoverished objects. Perceptual hypothesis testing theories, such as the multiple-state interactive account (Schendan & Ganis, 2015), propose that top-down processes from higher order processing areas (e.g., frontoparietal cortex) modulate lower order processing (e.g., occipitoemporal cortex), but detailed neural mechanisms are largely unknown. This project uses human brain imaging, especially electroencephalography, to determine these mechanisms. Findings will explain how people make decisions and remember even when current experience differs widely from the past and reveals limits of generalization by examining perceptually-specific neural responses.
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.
Early stages of vision William Simpson
The most fundamental process in vision is one of detection: Is something there or not? Studies of visual detection have revealed much about the early stages of vision. An important tool in understanding detection is noise--random variations in the image. Noise allows us to compare a real observer to an ideal one. An ideal observer will form a template of the pattern to be detected, and will compare the image on the screen to that. The recently developed method of Classification Images allows us to see this template used by real observers. Machine Learning techniques can also be used to do this. Mammography is a real world domain where the radiologist attempts to detect a signal (lesion) in noisy images. Classification Images can help show how these expert observers perform a detection task. Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy is a relatively new way to measure brain activity, and this can also be used as a tool in studying visual detection processes. The supervisor of this project has radiologist collaborators at Derriford Hospital.
Indecision-making 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.
Passing the Neuroscience of Tool use to Robots 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.
Potential PhD topics in Social Cognition
One step ahead: how predictions shape social perception 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.
Mind wandering, Imagination and Emotion 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.
Multi-modal approaches to social and moral judgements 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).
Potential PhD topics in Health and Applied Psychology
Face processing in Social Anxiety. Chris Longmore
The human face is a rich source of information about an individual including their emotional state and so on. Research has shown that people can accurately identify the expression of a face however there appears to be an advantage for angry faces such that they are identified faster than happy faces. This effect seems to particularly salient for those with Social Anxiety with an additional effect of the misinterpretation of certain emotions. This project can follow one of two paths on this topic. First, faces are usually encountered in static form and are instead in motion. The project could aim to advance our understanding of expression analysis in Social Anxiety by examining the effects of facial motion on expression analysis. Second, it could investigate whether the effects seen in Social Anxiety for expression analysis extends to other aspects of face processing such as unfamiliar face matching and familiar face recognition.
Understanding how people with complex mental health needs can take part in healthcare team decision making. 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.
The role of interactional practices in progressing or withdrawing potential living unspecified kidney donors. Tim Auburn & Annie Mitchell
Since 2006 it has been legally possible in the UK to make an altruistic donation of a kidney to a stranger (unspecified donation). However there remains some suspicion amongst professionals about the motivation and outcomes for such donation, despite emerging evidence that it is a positive act for all involved. Moreover, there are significant differences across UK centres in the number of unspecified kidney donations as well as differences in how potential donors are assessed. Currently there is no research on how the assessment process itself is undertaken. This project aims to examine this process using conversation analysis as a methodological framework. This project would undertake several case studies of donation assessment across a number of centres. Potential donors, once they have made an offer of living donation, are assessed by at least five key professionals (living donor nurse, clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, nephrologist, surgeon, independent assessor). This project intends to recruit donors and professionals and record these encounters. Conversation analysis will enable us to identify the institutional face-to-face practices involved in progressing or withdrawing a donor from the process. This project will be linked to a current 5 year NIHR funded project on unspecified living kidney donation. The successful applicant will be supported by a multidisciplinary research team, able to access through established links, a number of donor centres in the UK and the national charity Give a Kidney.
The Psychology of Environment and Health Sabine Pahl
This PhD project is located in Environmental Psychology, within the interdisciplinary topic of Environment and Health. Depending on student interest, the focus will be either 1) the effect different environments have on people, or 2)) the effects people have on environments. The first topic is based on a growing literature of psychological benefits of nature. Sample questions could be ‘how can we explain the benefits of nature exposure on psychological well-being?’, ‘how can we bring nature benefits indoors, e.g., to healthcare environments’? The second topic takes a risk perception and behaviour change approach and will be applied to one of two important societal challenges: Energy demand or Marine Litter. Questions here could centre on ‘using psychological principles to communicate energy use through smart meters’, linking digital tools and psychological theory, or ‘what mental models do experts and non-experts hold about influence factors and pathways of microplastics in the environment?’
Mental Imagery is increasingly being used in behaviour change methods, to enhance motivation towards intended actions and to make goals more concrete. This project will explore the ways in which a novel motivational technique, Functional Imagery Training, can be applied to a variety of behaviour change issues, such as sport (to enhance the resilience of competitors), abstinence (to help people resist temptation), or health (to enhance healthy behaviours). The project will build on existing pilot studies and could explore different modes of delivery, intensity or spacing of sessions, or obtaining insights from clients, or the student could develop their own ideas. There is scope to explore technological approaches to therapy, including design of smartphone apps, remote delivery, and use of robots as counsellors.
There has been very little research looking at the involvement of children in medical decision-making. Children with cleft lip and/or palate are a group who undergo multiple surgical procedures, dental work and speech therapy throughout their lives. Most procedures take place between the ages of six months and 20 years. Some of these procedures are not life-saving and may be viewed as optional, particularly ones aimed at "normalising" a child's appearance. This research project aims to identify the level of involvement these children have in making decisions about whether to undergo these procedures. Research has shown that parents are heavily involved in the decision-making process, but this does not necessarily mean the views of children are respected.
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 from aged 10 – 25.
The development of an intervention to support the social and community rehabilitation of Individuals with acquired brain injuries (ABI). 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 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 Developmental Psychology
False memories occur frequently and are usually harmless. For example, we see an advert for apple juice on TV and might misremember it as having been for orange juice. These type of false memories can either reflect a perceptual error or a semantic one. In this PhD it will be examined how the focus on perceptual and semantic relations will influence the formation of false memories in 5- to 11-year-old children and adults.
The development of political attitudes in children 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.
It is well established that acquiring a second language is much easier in early childhood than during the teenage years, and that language learning benefits from having access to a speaker with native competency. Key to learning a second language are regular exposure and face-to-face interactions, and it is exactly this that can be offered by educational robots. However, we still do not know what the best conditions are for children to acquire a second language with such artificial interlocutors? Building on past Babylab research on word learning in infancy, and the CRNS (Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems) L2TOR project, this project offers an exciting opportunity to embark on cross-disciplinary research linking developmental psychology and robotics, paving the way for a career in academia or in the vibrant robotics industry.
Bilingual children typically develop their two languages a bit slower than monolingual ones, but how much slower can be considered as normal? How can professionals distinguish between a normal bilingual-based delay and a serious language development disorder? This project aims at examining the language development for bilingual toddlers who learn English and an Additional Language. This project will contribute to the development of new assessment vocabulary tools for young bilinguals.