Current research projects

Studying our Master of Research (MRes) Science allows you to focus your research interests on one or two areas of science and work towards translating your learning into research related outputs – such as a submission for a peer-reviewed publication; a peer reviewed research/knowledge transfer grant application, or a presentation.

MRes Science can be studied either full time (1-year) or part time (2-years). You will develop a wide variety of skills, experience and competence on this course, and the MRes will provide a thorough grounding for students moving towards Doctoral (PhD) studies, or pursuing research related activities as a career.

Please note this list of projects is not exhaustive and you'll need to meet and discuss the project you're interested in with a member of research staff before you apply.

Epistemic trust: What is driving vaccine hesitancy?

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

Despite widespread concerns, the supporting evidence of the effectiveness, and consequences of online misinformation on vaccines hesitancy is, at best, mixed. Instead of focusing on the information content, this study will focus on the information source.

Epistemic trust refers to the willingness to consider a source of knowledge as trustworthy. It is commonly known to be influenced by three factors: expertise, integrity, benevolence.

This research would like to investigate how these factors could influence individuals’ epistemic trust towards the government, and the scientific community.

Motivational systems trade-offs (for example child care vs. disease avoidance)

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

From an evolutionary perspective, our different fundamental motives carry important roles such as self-protection, disease avoidance, affiliation, status seeking, mate seeking, mate retention, and kin care. However, considering the physiological and environmental situations we are in, trade-offs between fundamental motives must often be carried on.

This study aims to investigate the interaction between two fundamental motives: disease avoidance vs. kin care. It will aim to answer the following questions:

a) Whether our level of care and tenderness decreases when facing sick children?
b) Whether our level of disgust towards signals of disease decreases if they involve children?

The role of biological motion in priming empathetic responses

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

Empathy has been claimed to play an important role in increasing affiliation with others. Interestingly, humans can show empathy even in the absence of facial or verbal expressions.

In a first study, we will test whether point-light displays of biological motion would be enough to trigger empathy response in the observer (measured with EEG).

In a second study, we will test whether individual’s emotional reaction towards point-light displays would differ between a friendly action involving two actors (friendly touch), a violent action involving no victim (punching a ball), and a non-violent action involving one victim (tripping over).

This study would assess whether cues enhanced by biological motion can be sufficient for the individual to extrapolate the meaning and the emotional valence of a situation. Considering the role of biomotion as a possible enhancer for empathetic responses throughout development can improve our understanding of how we process emotions. the underlying learning mechanisms, and the resulting possible disorders.

The beneficial psychological effects of deliberative settings

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

Deliberative minipublics are popular tools to address the current crisis in democracy. However, the evidence for most spill-over effects on participants remains tentative because the relevant body of empirical evidence is still small. In this study, we'll use short deliberative processes and test the participants before and after on measures related to self-efficacy, social trust, and well-being.

Could the Memory Leitner system prove useful for pupils and children with difficulties?

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

In the last ten years, a clear consensus emerged among cognitive and educational psychologists regarding the most efficient learning techniques. Despite calls for evidence-based teaching, such important information is not making its way into the classroom as students keep using the two less effective and time-consuming methods: underlining and rereading.

The current intervention aims at using a Leitner box. This system based on memory flashcards is a well-known tool, easy to implement, designed to memorize a large amount of information. It makes use of learning strategies which have well-established positive effects on learning and motivation as they involve retrieval, distributed and interleaved practice.

The importance of visibility of the face and eyes for human-unique collaborative efficacy

Supervisor: Dr Sophie Milward

This project will be the first to directly compare the role of visibility of the face and eyes on cooperative efficacy in human children and chimpanzees. It will take an evolutionary perspective by comparing human children with one of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee, to test whether sensitivity to the eyes is a human-unique mechanism for collaboration.

We will test whether:

a) Visual access to a partner’s eyes improves performance on cooperative tasks in humans but not chimpanzees (Tomasello, Hare, Lehmann & Call, 2017; Kobayashi & Kohshima, 1997).
b) Visual access to the face as a whole (as opposed to the eye specifically) is sufficient to improve cooperative efficacy in humans and chimpanzees.

There is scope on this project to collect data with children and adults – data collection with chimpanzees in Uganda is possible in theory, but would require additional funding.

How do children and adults experience the stress of others? A behavioural and physiological exploration of stress transmission

Supervisor: Dr Sophie Milward

Children of stressed parents exhibit higher responses to stress themselves, and have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders. However, the underlying behavioural and cognitive mechanisms of such second-hand stress transmission is unknown.

Here, we will test whether children and adults are sensitive to the nonverbal behaviours associated with stress in adults. Using an experimental paradigm, we will measure children’s (aged 4-8 years) and adults’ perception and cognitive understanding of mild stress behaviours (e.g. scratching, face touching), as well as their physiological and emotional stress during exposure to these behaviours.

The findings will have important implications for the role of adult behaviour in the development of children’s health and wellbeing, and contribute to our understanding of the fundamental role of nonverbal behaviour in human social interaction. These preliminary data will be used to build a broader theoretical framework about the social transmission of stress.

Beyond the dyad: Task co-representation of multiple co-actors

Supervisor: Dr Sophie Milward

Cooperation is so deeply embedded in human psychology that we spontaneously track a partner’s task as well as our own when acting in a pair. This automatic ‘co-representation’ of a partner’s mental representation of their task has been argued to be key to the sophisticated social coordination we see in human adults. However, our day-to-day encounters are not limited to one-to-one interactions.

This will be the first study to investigate co-representation in groups, and whether there are limits on the number of people we can track at once. Further, we will test two competing theoretical accounts – the Co-representation Account and the Referential Coding Account – which make different predictions regarding tracking of group members who are physically closer or more distant from us.

This will provide key information about the limits of our capacity to keep others in mind, and the psychological underpinnings of how we do so.

Using network science to study facial expressions in macaques

Supervisor: Dr Jérôme Micheletta

In this project, we will combine the Facial Action Coding System (an anatomically based system designed to break-down facial expressions into their most basic observable units, the contraction of individual facial muscles) with Social Network Analysis (a method to measure relationships between units in a system) to study facial expressions in macaques.

Using NetFACS, facial expressions will be conceptualised as a network of facial muscles, interacting to produce communication, and compared across species and/or context to better understand the complexity of communication via the face.

Conservation education in Tangkoko Nature Reserve, Indonesia

Supervisor: Dr Jérôme Micheletta

Sulawesi is one of the biodiversity hotspots due to its location within the Wallacea region. The 7 endemic macaque species are of extraordinary importance for the understanding of primate evolution, but little is known about them from the wild. Due to habitat destruction and poaching, all are threatened by extinction with crested macaques being critically endangered.

The Macaca Nigra Project and its conservation education branch, Tangkoko Conservation Education are running interventions in schools around the Tangkoko Nature Reserve. This project would use long-term data to evaluate the efficacy of the project and provide recommendations for future activities.

The importance of visibility of the face and eyes for human-unique collaborative efficacy

Supervisor: Dr Jérôme Micheletta

Facial expressions are crucial to navigate our social world. However, very often they are studied in isolation from other sources of information such as body postures, gestures, or vocalisations, despite clear evidence that these can dramatically change how we perceive facial expressions and what information we gain from them.

This project will use experiments in which different facial expressions are paired with different body postures and/or different vocalisations to examine the importance of contextual information on the perception of facial expressions.

Alcohol and taste

Supervisor: Dr Lorenzo Stafford

The same amount of alcohol will have different effects depending on the speed at which it is consumed. Faster alcohol consumption leads to greater intoxication and therefore increases the risk of alcohol related accidents. With a notable increase in the alcohol content of many beverages, understanding the factors that influence this behaviour are more urgent now than ever. Determinants of consumption speed that have been proposed in the past include the detection of the bitter constituents of alcohol as a cue to alcohol strength and how accurately an individual perceives the behavioural effects of alcohol (such as drowsiness and sedation). There has been no systematic work examining these issues to date; this project will establish to what extent taste sensitivity controls speed of consumption, and how this interacts with the behavioural effects of alcohol.

Olfactory disorders

Supervisor: Dr Lorenzo Stafford

Research has shown that around 5 percent of individuals have lost their sense of smell (Anosmia). Although the associated consequences of this are less severe than those for loss of sight/hearing, they can have a significant impact on wellbeing. Effects can include impairments in appetite, personal hygiene, safety and sexual activity. This project will explore how the emotion of disgust (which relies heavily on the chemosensory system) changes in anosmic populations, among other things. 

 

Chimpanzee communication compared across three semi-wild communities 

Supervisor: Dr Marina Davila-Ross

This project will examine a central topic in language evolution research. It will assess to what extent the social communication of chimpanzees, humans’ closest extant relatives, is influenced by their social surrounding. The focus here will be on vocal communication as it represents the main modality in which humans communicate. Vocalizations across three semi-wild chimpanzee colonies living in Zambia will be compared. Because the colonies live in the same environment (in the same miombo forest) and are genetically comparable, the research setting is ideal for studying rudimentary forms of culture. While the recordings necessary for this study have already been obtained throughout a series field studies over the past seven years at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, which has the world's largest outdoor enclosure for chimpanzees, it is possible to add a field study to this research project. 

Laughter in great apes

Supervisor: Dr Marina Davila-Ross

Humans are thought to notably differ from nonhuman primates through the way we positively interact and communicate with each other. Laughter and smiles are the strongest nonverbal communicative indicators of positive emotional states, but these expressions also represent pervasive tools of social communication in humans. This project aims to help reconstruct the evolution of laughter in great apes and humans by assessing the form the use of these positive expressions during great ape social play.

Collaborative inhibition - a new method to investigate it and a new way to overcome it

Supervisor: Dr Hartmut Blank

Collaborative inhibition is a form of social influence on memory – specifically, when people who jointly remember  information perform worse than the same number of individually remembering people put together. Traditionally, it is investigated using word lists, but this study aims like to test a new, more parsimonious method that relies on people’s already acquired general knowledge (e.g. recalling all the US states). Moreover, this project aims to test a division-of-memory-labour intervention to overcome collaborative inhibition. A pilot study including both innovations was very promising but this needs to be explored more systematically, involving two or three experiments.

Political beliefs and reality

Supervisor: Dr Ed Morrison

Evidence from the USA suggests that people of all political persuasions underestimate the actual inequality in society, and would even prefer a much more equitable distribution. Another source of disagreement between people of different political beliefs is about how public money should be spent. But do the general public actually know the relative expenditure of money, and if not, do they systematically overestimate or underestimate expenditure in particular categories? This project will explore how accurate people’s estimates of government expenditure are, and whether the errors are biased in a particular direction. These biases can also then be compared against individual measures of political belief.

Movement and social perception

Supervisor: Dr Ed Morrison

The kinds of automatic judgements we make about others on simply seeing them can be reduced to a few basic dimensions. However most previous research on this topic relies on static stimuli such as photographs or computer-generated faces. Real people move - and movement itself may be an important source of information about physical condition, quality, or intentions and disposition. Dynamic cues like these can be isolated using methods such as motion-capture and motion-tracking. This project will try to quantify the importance of movement and static cues in social perceptions such as attractiveness, dominance, and valence.

Which students choose to take work placements?

Supervisors: Dr Julie Udell, Dr Mark Turner

Psychology is one of the most popular degree choices with over 100,000 applications made annually to study the subject at UK universities (UCAS, 2015). However, psychology graduates take longer to develop professional careers following university (Van Laar & Udell, 2008; Coulthard, 2013) and less than 20% are thought to progress to become professional psychologists (Trapp et al, 2011). Surveys of employers suggest a belief that graduates often do not possess key employability skills required in the workplace (e.g. Docherty & Fernandez, 2014), with students who have some form of work experience being more likely to find employment (High Flyers Research, 2013). It is therefore a growing concern within higher education to encourage students to gain work-related skills and experience during their degree (QAA, 2014), and to include professional development as a core standard within undergraduate psychology curricula (BPS, 2014). However not all psychology students choose to take up opportunities to undertake work-based or placement learning when these are offered as part of their course, whilst other students seek out multiple opportunities both inside and outside their studies to gain experience.

The aim of this project will be explore individual differences in student motivation to gain work experience whilst studying. For example what situational factors or personality characteristics contribute to students decision-making and success at finding placements? Why do some students persist in seeking placements or undertake multiple placements when others do not? These and similar questions have important consequences for the advice and guidance provided to students and will form a solid basis for an MRes project.

How environmental factors affect physical and social exploration in infants

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

Exploration is a crucial driver in learning about our physical and social environment. It is a part of a repeating process where attention influences exploration, and the resulting learning guides subsequent attention. However, the literature investigating attention in infancy is tainted by contradictory observations. Although we know how important novelty/familiarity is to drive infants’ exploration, a comprehensive multi-faceted model explaining and predicting novelty/familiarity preferences still needs to be developed. In particular the determinants of such preferences have often been overlooked, as scientists have general ignore the interaction between stimulus and context characteristics as well as infants' cognitive resources. This project uses an original experimental approach by controlling the contextual novelty and priming effects (i.e. promoting "sensation" or "safety" seeking), as well as using an infants' cognitive resources. This project will also have a broader relevance for developmental conditions such as social, eating or attention deficit disorders.

How context may affect engagement or boredom when exposed to visual and auditory stimuli? 

Supervisor: Dr Erik Gustafsson

We know how important complexity is to drive our attention. Despite this, the determinants of our preferences have been overlooked in the past when scientists have (generally) ignored the interaction between the stimulus and the context in which it is encountered. This project uses an original experimental approach by controlling for the contextual priming effects (i.e. promoting "complexity" or "simplicity" seeking). In addition to rating diverse stimuli, an eye-tracking tool will be used to measure looking time and pupil dilation as a proxy for cognitive processing and emotional arousal.

Do dogs know what others know?

Supervisor: Dr Juliane Kaminski

This project will question whether dogs understand anything about another individual’s perspective. We will ask to what extend domestic dogs understand what others have (or have not) seen. Dogs will compete with another individual over food and will have an advantage if they understand what their competitor can/cannot see or has/has not seen. This will help us understand if domestic dogs understand others as having certain psychological states. The participating dogs will be normal family dogs with a background typical for a family dog. They will be recruited through the University of Portsmouth dog study register and the work will be conducted at the Dog Cognition Centre Portsmouth.

Other Research Projects

Find out more about current research projects in science and health:

Please note, this list is not exhaustive and you'll need to meet and discuss the project you're interested in with a member of research staff before you apply.