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PhDs in the Behavioural Science Group

We welcome applications from students interested in all areas of cognitive and behavioural science.

Some PhD studentships are funded by the Department, the University, and the Economic and Social Research Council. Direct entry into PhD training is possible after a bachelor's degree in a relevant discipline (which need not be psychology) although many of our applicants have MScs.
Some specific research projects for which supervisors wish to recruit a PhD student are listed below. We also welcome applicants who have plans for their own research projects, providing these fit with the research interests of a potential supervisor within the group.

More information on PhD / MPhil / MSc degrees by research in Psychology

Examples of possible PhD projects
Understanding cognitive search

Cognitive search can be defined as search for resources or information at an unknown location in space, memory, social networks, problem environments, or any other kind of literal or abstract space. These kinds of search are suspected to involve both automatic and effortful processing. Because of this, how people control search has provided deep insights into the evolution of cognition, the role of executive/cognitive control, the structure of memory, and the role of age and working memory on cognitive control. Recent work is extending this research to real-world applications, such as providing insight into age-related cognitive decline and attention-hyperactivity disorder, study-time allocation in educational settings, organizational behavior and group problem-solving, and consumer choice. Research in this area often uses network analyses to represent and understand search environments, computational models to formally test hypotheses, and experimental studies -- any or all of which could provide valuable contributions to a PhD and the developing literature on search. If you're interested in discussing this idea further, please contact Thomas Hills.

Key Publication:

Todd, P. M., Hills, T. T., & Robbins T. (2012). Cognitive Search: Evolution, Algorithms, and the Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Deciding when something is there: Time-based visual selection and search

Given the limits of visual processing, there is a need for us to select and prioritise only the most relevant information at a given moment in time, if our decisions, judgements and behaviours are to be adaptive, efficient and safe. This line of research examines how we select newly appearing visual information and ignore or suppress old information that is no longer of relevance to us. Exploring the basic properties of such mechanisms is vital for developing theories of how the visual attention system works, and predicting and accounting for success and failures of visual awareness and the influence of old information on the decisions we make in everyday tasks and situations. There remain many outstanding questions related to how we ignore distracting information and the future consequences for such ignored material; at a perceptual level but also in terms of our valuation and future decisions biases regarding such stimuli. For more information, please contact Derrick Watson.

Example Publications

Watson, D.G., & Kunar, M.A. (2012). Determining the capacity of time-based selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 38, 350-366.

Watson, D.G., & Kunar, M.A. (2010). Visual marking and change blindness: Moving occluders and transient masks neutralize shape changes to ignored objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 36, 1391-1405.

Watson, D.G., Braithwaite, J.J. & Humphreys, G.W. (2008). Resisting change: The influence of luminance changes on visual marking and the preview benefit. Perception & Psychophysics, 70, 1526-1539.

Watson, D.G. & Inglis, M. (2007). Eye movements and time-based selection: Where do the eyes go in preview search? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 852-857.

Watson, D.G. & Humphreys, G.W. (2005). Visual Marking: The effects of irrelevant changes on preview search. Perception & Psychophysics, 67, 418-434.

Watson, D.G., Humphreys, G.W., & Olivers, C.N.L. (2003). Visual marking: Using time in visual selection. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 180-186.


Dealing with multiple sources of information

In real world situations we often have to focus our attention on more than one source of information at a time. For example, when driving we might need to attend to traffic signals, pedestrians and other vehicles at the same time. This research examines our ability to deal with multiple items depending upon the characteristics of the stimuli and their similarity to other distracting information. I am also interested in how old age affects our ability to select single objects compared with multiple objects, the role that eye movements play in these processes, and the influence of emotion on these processes. For more information, please contact Derrick Watson.

Example publications

Watson, D.G., Maylor, E.A., & Bruce, L.A.M. (2007). The role of eye movements in subitizing and counting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 33, 1389-1399.

Watson, D. G., Maylor, E. A., Allen, G., & Bruce, L. A. M. (2007). Early Visual Tagging: Effects of Target-Distractor Similarity and Old Age on Search, Subitization, and Counting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 33, 549-569.

Watson, D.G., & Maylor, E.A. (2006). Effects of color heterogeneity on subitization. Perception & Psychophysics, 68, 319-326.

Watson, D.G., Maylor, E.A., & Bruce, L.A.M. (2005). The Efficiency of Feature-Based Subitization and Counting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 31, 1449-1462.


Effects of emotion on attention

It is well known that the ease with which we can find information in cluttered displays or scenes depends upon the physical similarity (e.g., colour, luminance) of that information to other distracting information also in the scene. More recently, researchers have found that the emotion carried by a stimulus can also help or hinder the ease with which it can be found. This research examines what effect emotional valence has on finding and deciding whether something is present in a scene or not, and the extent to which we can ignore or suppress stimuli which display different types of emotion. For more information, please contact Derrick Watson.

Example publications

Watson, D.G., & Blagrove, E. (2012). Tagging multiple emotional stimuli: Negative valence has little benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 38, 785-803.

Watson, D.G., Blagrove, E., Evans, C., & Moore, L. (2012). Negative triangles: Simple geometric shapes convey emotional valence. Emotion, 12, 18-22.

Watson, D.G., Blagrove, E., & Selwood, S. (2011). Emotional triangles: A test of emotion-based attentional capture by simple geometric shapes. Cognition & Emotion, 25, 1149-1164.

Blagrove, E. & Watson, D.G. (2010). Visual marking and facial affect: Can an emotional face be ignored? Emotion, 10, 147-168.


The role of attention and emotion in decision making, judgements and road safety

This line of research aims to bridge the areas of visual attention and behavioural economics. The goal is to determine how selective attention and emotion influence current and future decisions that we take. For example, what is the relationship between a dimension and a feature as defined in the attentional literature to the same concepts in high level decision making? How do framing processes in decision making and perception relate and/or interact? Do people show similar biases in perception and decision making? How do we combine and separate value information across temporal, spatial and featureal domains? Can visual attentional theory be used to educate drivers? Can nudging be used to help improve the effectiveness road safety messages? A current project related to the latter two questions is funded by collaborative ESRC PhD award to investigate the effects of driver distraction and how road safety education can be improved (in Collaboration with Dorset Police). For more information, please contact Derrick Watson.


Use of Electrodermal Activity (EDA) to measure emotional response

Emotional responses and orienting can have a huge impact on how people respond to and process information. However people’s emotional states and reactions are often determined using relatively simple and subjective self-report questionnaire type measures. Our lab has recently been equipped with state-of-the-art EDA equipment (based around the Biopac MP36R system) which allows us to measure people’s emotional responses to stimuli, choices and decisions via a direct measure based on skin conductance responses (both tonic and phasic). This line of research aims to test and develop theories of decision making, judgement, risk and threat processing using such direct and online measures of processing. Being a multi-channel system, allows us to record the responses of up to four people simultaneously in order to examine ‘multiple player’ decision and bargaining scenarios. The approach will provide a much more valid and fine-grained analysis of the effects of personality and emotional factors in perception and decision making than possible using self-report type measures. For more information, please contact Derrick Watson.


Detecting deceptive behaviour

The early detection of potential threats to society has become ever important in recent years. The aim of this research is to try to determine if there are important behavioural ‘signatures’ that indicate when a person is attempting to conceal an item of high value. The project represents a new collaborative venture by the Departments of Psychology and Computer Science with funding from a University of Warwick IAS impact and URSS award. For more information, please contact Derrick Watson or Kimberely Wade.

Explaining irrational behaviour as approximations to ideal solutions

The ideal solutions to real-world tasks are often unobtainable, because they are too complex to compute. For example, when trying to figure out which of fifteen items are the same and which are different, there are more than one billion possible answers. As a result, psychologists have proposed many heuristics as a way for the brain to approximate the ideal solutions and also to explain why people deviate from these solutions. However, these heuristics often make poor approximations. In contrast, researchers in statistics have developed approximations that are aimed to maximize accuracy with limited computational resources. As the brain is also attempting to solve the difficult problem of how to choose the best action with limited resources, these algorithms from statistics are exciting candidates for how this might be done. Applying these statistical algorithms to categorisation and reasoning tasks to see if they show the same biases that people do is a great testbed for this approach. For more information, please contact Adam Sanborn.

Example Papers
Griffiths, T. L., Vul, E., & Sanborn, A. N. (2012). Bridging levels of analysis for probabilistic models of cognition. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 263-268.
Sanborn, A. N., Griffiths, T. L., & Navarro, D. J. (2010). Rational approximations to rational models: Alternative algorithms for category learning. Psychological Review, 117, 1144-1167.

Learning about people's preferences

We wish to understand how people's preference for real-world options, but the high complexity real-world options makes this task very difficult. As a result, we tend to model people's preferences using linear models without complex interactions. Interesting interactions, such as a pen with ink being highly preferred but a pen or ink alone not being considered useless, might be missed. To explore the structure of real-world preferences, a method for searching through a large space of options is needed. I have worked to develop an experimental design based on the statistical technique of Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC). Using a correspondence between MCMC and standard models of human decision making, this algorithm can be used to efficiently explore people's preferences. It is currently being applied to a wide range of tasks including understanding what makes a happy or sad face, how people value economic gambles, and what makes for a good night of sleep. For more information, please contact Adam Sanborn.

Example Papers

Martin, J. B., Griffiths, T. L., & Sanborn, A. N. (2012). Testing the efficiency of Markov Chain Monte Carlo with People using facial affect categories. Cognitive Science, 36, 150-162.

Sanborn, A. N., Griffiths, T. L., & Shiffrin, R. M. (2010). Uncovering mental representations with Markov chain Monte Carlo. Cognitive Psychology, 60, 63-106.

Noguchi, T., Sanborn, A. N., & Stewart, N. (2013). Non-parametric estimation of the individual’s utility map. Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, (pp. 3145-3150).

How good are peoples’ intuitions about physics?

People intuitively interact with the physical world in a very competent way, yet their understanding is often found lacking in laboratory tasks. As an example, when presented with a curved tube experimental participants will say that a ball exiting the tube will (erroneously) follow a curved path. However, much of this research demonstrating fallacious judgements about the physical world assumes that people have complete and correct sensory information. Assuming that people deal with unavoidable sensory noise in a rational fashion can produce unexpected patterns of behaviour, patterns that reconcile people's everyday good performance with their performance in laboratory tasks. This project involves a combination of empirical work and mathematical modelling. For more information, please contact Adam Sanborn.

Example Papers

Sanborn, A. N., Mansinghka, V. K., & Griffiths, T. L. (2013). Reconciling intuitive physics and Newtonian mechanics for colliding objects. Psychological Review, 120, 411-437.

Sanborn, A. N. (2014). Testing Bayesian and heuristic predictions of mass judgments of colliding objects. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(938), 1-7.

Decision Making in Eyewitness Memory

Two broad classes of variables (system variables and estimator variables) affect the likelihood that guilty suspects are identified and innocent suspects are not mistakenly identified. System variables are related to law enforcement procedures. Thus, decisions made by law enforcement personnel carry great weight (e.g., what type of lineup procedure to use; what fillers to choose when a suspect has distinctive features). Estimator variables are related to the circumstances surrounding the crime. Thus, decisions made by the eyewitnesses or suspects carry great weight (e.g., the impact of false memories on identification or false confession; whether a weapon was involved). The aim of our research program is to gain a better understanding of these variables so that more guilty (and less innocent) suspects are convicted.

Example Publications

Wade, K. A., Green, S., & Nash, R. A. (2010). Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 899-908.

Zarkadi, T., Wade, K. A., & Stewart, N. (2009). Creating fair lineups for suspects with distinctive features. Psychological Science, 20, 1448-1453.

Nash, R. A., Wade, K. A., & Lindsay, D. S. (2009). Digitally manipulating memory: Effects of doctored videos and imagination in distorting beliefs and memories. Memory & Cognition, 37, 414-424.

Mickes, L., Flowe, H. D., & Wixted, J. T. (2012). Receiver operating characteristic analysis of eyewitness memory: Comparing the diagnostic accuracy of simultaneous vs. sequential lineups. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18, 361-376.

Wixted, J. T. & Mickes, L. (2012). The field of eyewitness memory should abandon probative value and embrace Receiver Operating Characteristic analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 275-278.

Estrus and extended sexuality

Women have a dual sexuality: estrus and extended sexualities. Estrus is that which occurs when women are within their fertile phase of the ovarian cycle and is associated with heightened interest in features of males that are associated with genetic quality. Extended sexuality is sexual behaviour that occurs outside of the fertile window of the ovarian cycle. Extended sexuality seems to function in part to garner investment from male partners. While a great deal has been learned about estrus very little has been learned about the function of extended sexuality. In one recent study Grebe et al. (2013) reported on a study of heterosexual couples that women initiated non-fertile sexual encounters more often when they perceived their partner's investment in the relationship to lag behind their own. There is quite a lot that can be done to further investigate the function of extended sexuality. Contact Corey Fincher if interested in pursuing research along these lines.

Example Papers

R. Thornhill and S.W. Gangestad. 2008. The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

N.M. Grebe, S.W. Gangestad, C.E. Garver-Apgar, and R. Thornhill. 2013. Women’s luteal-phase sexual proceptivity and the functions of extended sexuality. Psychological Science, 24, 2106-2010.

Parasite-Driven-Wedge model of ethnogenesis

The parasite-driven-wedge model provides a mechanism of ethnogenesis. Regionally localized coevolutionary races between parasites and their hosts result in three locally adaptive antiparasite behaviors: mating and other social preference for local conspecifics, avoidance of nonlocal conspecifics and limited dispersal. These three behaviors comprise behavioral immunity. They become linked within individuals through linkage disequilibrium. Genetic immunity to local parasites also links through the same genetic mechanism with the traits of behavioral immunity. These linked traits are mutually reinforcing in that as any one increases in frequency due to its adaptiveness, the others do as well. Also, preference for locals is self-reinforcing because both the locals preferred and those preferring them have the same preference. These events create a wedge and associated boundaries that effectively fractionate and diversify the original range of a culture, leading to the genesis of contiguous multiple cultures from one. The higher the parasite stress in a region, the greater the frequency and intensity of the parasite-driven wedge in splitting cultures. Empirical tests support this model. However, it needs further testing at cross-cultural and individual levels. Contact Corey Fincher if interested in pursuing research along these lines.

Example Papers

C.L. Fincher and R. Thornhill. 2008. Assortive sociality, limited dispersal, infectious disease, and the genesis of global pattern of religious diversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 275:2587-2594.

C.L. Fincher and R. Thornhill. 2008. A parasite-driven wedge: Infectious diseases may explain language and other biodiversity. Oikos 117:1289-1297.

R. Thornhill and C.L. Fincher. 2013. The parasite-driven-wedge model of parapatric speciation. Journal of Zoology 291:23-33.

Behavioural immune system

Infectious diseases present many problems. One is how to avoid catching diseases. Another is how to cope with an infection once it occurs. The behaviours that function to cope with these problems have become known collectively as the behavioural immune system and include features such as xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and disgust. People vary in how they display such behaviours. While much has been learned about the existence of this variation very little is known about how this variation develops. Contact Corey Fincher if interested in pursuing research along these lines.

Example Papers

Stevenson, R. J., Oaten, M. J., Case, T. I., Repacholi, B. M., & Wagland, P. (2010). Children’s response to adult disgust elicitors: Development and acquisition. Developmental psychology, 46(1), 165.

Stevenson, R. J., Case, T. I., & Oaten, M. J. (2009). Frequency and recency of infection and their relationship with disgust and contamination sensitivity. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(5), 363-368.