Department of Psychology research project ideas
View a summary of proposed areas of research for prospective PhD students. You may be able to apply for funding to support your studies.
Understanding engagement with digital behaviour change
Germ Defence is a behavioural intervention website - funded by the UK government - that was developed in response to Covid-19 by scientists at Bath, Bristol and Southampton.
Behaviour change in individuals is varied and can depend on the way that users interact and engage with the website and the behaviours it suggests (such as handwashing, physical distancing).
This project will look to use mixed methods (qualitative data, website usage data, quantitative questionnaire data and regression modelling - depending on student preferences and expertise) to understand how people differently engage with digital behavioural interventions, and how they can be improved to maximise behaviour change.
Dr Ben Ainsworth, Lecturer
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Self and identity: Young people living with chronic pain
Whilst our sense of who we are is constantly evolving, the development of a sense of personal identity can be particularly challenging for young people during adolescence and young adulthood. This is particularly the case for those young people who face additional challenges such as living with ongoing (chronic) pain.
Through a series of key studies, the PhD will use a range of mixed methods to develop a detailed understanding of how young people perceive and think about identity in the context of living with ongoing (chronic) pain. The PhD project will use methods such as photo-elicitation and interviews to better understand how young people who live with chronic pain and pain-free young people think about the idea of developing their identity. This information will be used to develop a novel picture and language-based measure of identity formation which can be specifically used with young people with and without chronic pain. A subsequent study will involve using a think-aloud task to test the measure with young people with and without chronic pain
The project will build on existing research we have already conducted around the development of identity and will involve working with supervisors across academic and clinical organisations, such as Dr Jeremy Gauntlett-Gilbert and Dr Line Caes. If successful, you will be based in the Jordan Lab and will become a member of the Bath Centre for Pain Research.
Abbie Jordan, Senior Lecturer
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Modifiable psychological risk factors for psychosis in the young
Adverse early life events (such as trauma) are strongly implicated as causal factors in the later development of psychotic symptoms in adolescence. Psychological mechanisms (stress reactivity) may be modifiable risk factors, which can, in theory, be targeted and changed by psychological therapies.
This PhD will focus on the identification of such factors using advanced data science skills in analysing multiple, large-scale longitudinal datasets.
Dr Pamela Jacobsen, Lecturer
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Shared versus distinct changes in brain structure in disorders
This project will capitalise on data available through the ENIGMA (Enhancing NeuroImaging and Genetics through Meta-Analysis) consortium to examine whether there are common alterations in brain structure across externalising (ADHD, substance dependence, Conduct Disorder) and internalising (anxiety, mood) disorders and related dimensional phenotypes. It will also test whether there are disorder-specific alterations in brain structure.
The project will be part of a major international collaboration and you will learn advanced structural neuroimaging analysis and statistical methods. You will be trained to use FreeSurfer, FSL and R and will join the Neuroimaging and Brain Stimulation Group (Neurostim) research group at the University of Bath which includes over 15 staff, post-docs and PhD students. View more information about the research of the ENIGMA consortium.
Dr Graeme Fairchild, Reader
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VR to develop empathy in parents to reduce child maltreatment
Significant numbers of children are maltreated by their parents every year, with the attendant potential short- and long-term negative outcomes for children. Empathy deficits have long been associated with risk of physical and sexual offending.
The relationship between empathy and parenting difficulties is less widely researched but recognising and feeling a child’s emotions are both essential for sensitive parenting. Parents with low empathic awareness of their child’s needs often have difficulty meeting those needs. Empathy is an emotional/affective response that, arguably, requires a cognitive awareness of another’s state (perspective taking). Hence, developing perspective-taking/empathy in parenting has the potential to improve outcomes for children, particularly where there is risk of child maltreatment (CM). However, empathy is difficult to develop and is not routinely addressed by standard parenting programmes. A proof of concept study in Spain demonstrated that immersive virtual reality (IVR) can be used to increase maternal empathy in mothers when they are placed in the position of a child-avatar to enhance their understanding of being a child, i.e., perspective-taking. This study was recently replicated and extended in a UK population. However, this field of research remains in its infancy.
The aim of this PhD will be to extend this research in several ways, such as testing:
- a larger sample
- effect of the VR treatment on parent-child relation in real life
Dr Karin Petrini, Senior Lecturer
- Dr Daniel Finnegan, School of Computer Sciences and Informatics, Cardiff University
- Dr Domna Banakou, Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology, University of Barcelona
Remembering faces: Exposure, context and individual differences
The human face is a rich source of information from which we draw inferences such as how attractive, healthy, happy, or trustworthy a person is.
This project addresses two broad themes and aims to:
- Document relationships between face traits and perception.
- Examine individual variation in perception/memory of faces.
For aim 1, this would involve ratings or force-choice judgements of faces which vary in traits such as masculinity, symmetry, and emotion. For aim 2, this would involve relating individual variables, such as personality and relationship status, to the findings from aim 1. For aim 2, additional studies would examine context effects on the findings for aim 1, for example asking participants to imagine different scenarios for their ratings, such as long-term versus short-term relationship contexts for the judgement of attractiveness, or priming participants with contextual stimuli cues that may impact on their subsequent judgments/memory, such as happy or sad emotional faces.
Dr Anthony Little, Reader
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Cognitive and behavioural effects of alcohol hangover
Hangover is the most commonly reported negative consequence of alcohol use with significant health and economic implications. Alcohol hangover is characterised by physical and psychological symptoms and contributes to the £6.4 billion that heavy drinking costs the UK economy each year.
Anxiety is one of the most aversive and frequently reported consequences of alcohol hangover. However, at present, little research has examined the effects of the phenomenon dubbed 'Hangxiety': the impact of alcohol hangover on anxiety and low mood. Therefore, the true health and economic costs of alcohol hangover remain unknown.
This research aims to identify novel mechanisms underlying the relationship between alcohol consumption, hangover and anxiety, with the potential to find new therapeutic targets for interventions aimed at reducing alcohol consumption and/or anxiety.
Dr Sally Adams, Lecturer
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Sex differences in child and adolescent post-trauma mental health
Following trauma exposure children and young people are vulnerable to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological disorders. Sex differences exist in such responses, with girls being particularly vulnerable to PTSD.
Research by our Child Mental Health and Development research group has demonstrated that these differences in vulnerability by sex emerge particularly in adolescence and are not present in younger children. Very little is known about the reasons for the developmental emergence of sex differences in psychological vulnerability to trauma. This is an oversight, as trauma exposure is a major risk factor for poor mental health, and understanding why girls are more vulnerable following trauma than boys could help to explain wider sex differences in levels of emotional disorders. The proposed project could tackle this question through analysing existing national and international datasets, or through collection of new data, depending on student interests. This project would suit a student with an interest in developing excellent data analytic skills.
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Health information seeking in crisis situations
Missing guidance often leaves individuals feeling uncertain and ill-informed about their health and wellbeing during crisis situations, such as the current pandemic on the global level or the detection of a serious disease on the individual level. Pressure on the health system may limit time and ability of medical staff to adequately respond to each patients’ information needs and to adjust the communication to the patients’ capabilities. As trust and confidence in health professionals declines, individuals turn to online resources for medical advice where the sheer amount of information is overwhelming and misinformation widespread (WHO, 2020).
Typical paradigms for health communication are insufficient to accommodate the patients’ information needs in such dynamic and highly uncertain situations.
This PhD project combines approaches from health science, data science, and decision science to develop a new methodology for identifying health information needs on the individual level and design targeted health messages. A potential subproject may involve, for instance, developing adaptive questionnaires on patient literacy and test their effectiveness in identifying patients’ information needs and reducing their internet search.
We expect you to have a sound background in research methodology (questionnaire design) and basic statistical techniques.
We offer an interdisciplinary supervisory team involving data scientists, decision scientists, and rheumatologists from the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases. We will provide you with the opportunity to learn state-of-the methods to investigate information search, from decision science paradigms to adaptive design to machine learning techniques.
Dr Janina Hoffmann, Lecturer
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Open-mindedness and intellectual humility
When people are defensive and closed-minded about others' viewpoints this can increase polarisation and fuel ideological conflict. This project looks at various methods of increasing people's openness towards opposing viewpoints and of fostering greater intellectual humility.
We want to develop a tool that would train and motivate people to make deep and accurate (rather than shallow and inaccurate) judgments about the social world around them. Extended training using this method could potentially decrease people’s defensiveness and closed-minded behaviour and increase their ability to have civil discussions on heated political topics (such as university tuition fees).
If successful, you will be supervised by a strong team of internationally recognised researchers in the field who are experts in the psychology of open-mindedness (Goclowska), social values and intellectual humility (Maio), and judgment and decision making (Hoffman). You will conduct your PhD within the Understanding Values, Attitudes and Behaviour Lab (uVAB Lab) at the University of Bath. The project will use quantitative research methods (experimental and correlational designs) so a good understanding of statistics as well as personality and social experimental research is an essential requirement.
Dr Gosia Goclowska, Lecturer
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Interoceptive awareness as a susceptibility/sensitivity factor
Why do individuals differ so greatly with regards to the impact external events have on them? This question has been at the centre of scientific exploration in the social sciences for decades. Differential Susceptibility Theory and Biological Sensitivity to Context Theory both argue that individuals vary in their developmental plasticity and susceptibility to environmental influences, such that susceptible individuals are most negatively affected by stressors and also profit the most from environmental support and enrichment.
The current project sets forth predictions that have been substantiated for a wide range of variables and populations. We suggest an extension of these models, adding susceptibility to internal stress. Using the special case of parenthood, we will examine whether reactivity to internal and external stimuli has an impact on the stress-parenting link.
Iris Lavi, Lecturer
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Positive outcomes for those with Developmental Language Disorder
Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a common but under-researched childhood developmental disorder that affects approximately 7.6% of the population. DLD is associated with a wide range of long-term outcomes, including increased rates of conduct problems in childhood, emotional difficulties, and peer problems. However, there is substantial variability in the likelihood that any of these outcomes will occur for any one individual.
Very little research has investigated either the strengths that might co-occur with DLD or what kind resilience factors might protect individuals with DLD from these longer-term maladaptive outcomes. This PhD will seek to address both of these areas, firstly looking for specific areas of strength that might occur with language difficulties, such as enhanced creativity. Secondly, we will look for DLD-specific resilience factors that might help children with DLD to avoid negative long-term outcomes. Thirdly, we will look at the role of general resilience factors in moderating the long-term outcome of children with DLD.
This PhD will utilise secondary data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) as well as the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). This methodology allows us to both identify children who likely have DLD and investigate both their early life as well as looking at their long-term outcomes. Methods may include latent class analysis to determine unique clustering of outcomes (both strengths and maladaptive outcomes) and resilience factors. Latent Class Growth Analysis may be utilised to identify subgroups of children with DLD who have positive trajectories.
Dr Michelle St Clair, Senior Lecturer
Dr Rachel Hiller, Lecturer
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The role of gender on the perception and expression of pain
This proposed PhD project will focus on the role that gender has on the perception and expression of pain. There is good evidence for differences between men and women in the perception and experience of pain. Generally, women report a greater sensitivity to pain and more regular pain compared to men. Psychosocial factors help explain this variation, and often includes reference to gender constructs. Here, most of the work conducted to date focuses on the role that gender-based beliefs and stereotypical expectations have on pain. For example, traditional views of masculinity relate to being stoic and are thought to impact on how pain is expressed, especially to others. However, gender is a complex, multi-faceted construct, and there is scope to consider this more widely within the context of pain.
The focus of this PhD project will therefore aim to build on existing gender concepts and investigate further the different ways in which gender constructs might impact on pain and how it is expressed. Potential areas of focus could include gender identity and gender roles, and whether these constructs impact on the way pain is expressed through verbal and non-verbal behaviours. There is also scope to explore the role that gender has in the detection of pain in others, including gender-based attentional biases to pain expressions.
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Investigating eating disorder recovery and relapse prevention
Eating disorders are severe conditions that significantly impact health and well-being. Research has shown modest recovery rates from available treatments, with a high risk of relapse. We need greater understanding of factors that are associated with maintained benefit following treatment, as well as development and evaluation of targeted interventions to prevent relapse and aid recovery.
Broadly, this PhD project proposes to conduct longitudinal and experimental research to explore relapse and recovery following treatment of an eating disorder, with a particular focus on adaptive psychological factors and related intervention strategies (such as positive body image, metacognitive awareness and acceptance, psychological flexibility, intuitive eating). Findings will be used to inform the development and piloting of a digital intervention, with capacity to match intervention strategies to individuals.
It is intended that this project will primarily use quantitative research methods and analysis, although there is scope for a mixed-methods approach. You will be supported by the primary supervisor, Dr Melissa Atkinson, and the Bath Centre for Mindfulness and Compassion.
Dr Melissa Atkinson, Lecturer
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