Funded PhD Opportunity: Coordination in Context

Authors: Dr Merryn Constable, Dr Kris McCarty, Dr Nick Neave
  • Playing jump rope.
  • Holding the door open for the person behind you.
  • Dancing, singing, and being merry with your friends at a wedding.
  • Building an aeroplane that reduces carbon emissions.
  • Navigating a roundabout.
  • Performing life-saving medical assistance.

Humans face coordinative challenges every day. Some are mundane, some propel society toward new innovations, and others may be life or death situations. The human species has survived and thrived because of the strong drive toward collaboration (Boyd & Richerson, 2009; Tomasello, 2014).

Nevertheless, collaborating, coordinating and cooperating is not necessarily simple. Coordinative failures are common: Sometimes doors are closed in people’s faces, dance steps are missed and car crashes occur.

So, how do humans adapt to each other to achieve the best possible outcome? How do humans coordinate in a variety of situations? How can the frequency of coordinative failures be minimized?

This is the study of Joint Action!

Researchers who are interested in how human cognition supports collaboration, coordination and cooperation study what is called Joint Action (Sebanz & Knoblich, 2021).

To collaborate humans must develop a representation of the task. This representation will often include a predicted representation of the actions that each person will take to do the task.  Establishing such a representation might not require much effort. In fact, the required representation sometimes already exists, as in understanding the rules that one must abide by to navigate a roundabout.

If rules or conventions do not exist, the representation will be developed by more complex routes. Communication and negotiation are obvious means of aligning task representations, however, humans also use variety of ‘mindreading’ processes to align representations without direct communication.  

To illustrate: Around the roundabout we go….

Roundabouts are designed such that the cognitive resources of coordination are minimized. And in fact, the installation of roundabouts does tend to reduce car crashes that result in injuries and fatalities for those in cars (Elvik, 2003). This coordinative event relies upon road users (1) having knowledge of the rules and conventions associated with roundabout use, (2) abiding by those rules and conventions, and (3) trust in other road users to abide by those rules and conventions. Without trust, the traffic through the roundabout would not proceed smoothly.

Most often, traffic proceeds smoothly. Each individual aims to proceed past the roundabout, and can reach their goal by following the rules. They must monitor the progress of other cars in the roundabout but they can do so at a minimal level. Coordination manifests with little effort.

When it goes wrong….

Consider a rogue American driver on a British roundabout. They went anti-clockwise instead of clockwise! How can a crash be avoided?

Other drivers may begin to beep to communicate the error and (hopefully) get the rogue driver back on the right track. But the driver is oblivious and bopping away to some loud music; the communication has failed. Other drivers must begin to engage in more effortful action monitoring and prediction processes so they can adapt and avoid collision.

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

Using human movement analysis this project will explore the cognitive strategies that coordinative partners use to adapt to different task constraints. For example, task difficulty and task uncertainty.

This fundamental research aim will then be explored in terms of environmental context. Specifically, ‘How do factors present in the physical and social environment (e.g., physical constraints, hierarchical structures, partner familiarity) shape the coordinative strategy employed during a joint task?’ Answering these fundamental questions about how the human cognitive system works will provide theoretical direction to tackle the collaborative and coordinative challenges that humans face. From designing urban environments that promote free-flowing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, to implementing policies and workflows to optimise coordination within hospitals, the theory of joint action can assist.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who is enthusiastic about working across disciplines to contribute to the cumulative pursuit of knowledge within cognition and joint action.

You should be confident in quantitative research methods and have ambition to develop skills in human movement analysis. The applicant will be expected to engage with a wider group of academics interested in both fundamental and applied research aligned with the themes of coordination and teamwork.

Applicants should have a background in psychology, kinesiology (sports science) or a related discipline. The successful applicant will have a history of academic achievement as demonstrated by first-class, or upper second-class undergraduate honours degree and/or a masters degree (or equivalent).

About the supervisors

Merryn is a Senior Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow within the psychology department. She is committed to advancing the research profile of Northumbria and passionate about supporting young researchers. As such, she sits on the University’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee advocating for the interests of Early Career Researchers. Prior to the UK, she has held academic posts in Australia, Canada and Hungary, with her research networks extending to Austria and Italy.  Her research takes an interdisciplinary perspective as a result of her background in psychology, kinesiology, cognitive science and business communications. Most recently, Merryn has been translating her work on social cognition and joint action to comparative psychology, healthcare and robotics. Merryn also has a strong technical background, with a particular interest in using motion capture technologies to answer fundamental questions about human cognition.

Kris is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He is also the department’s technical lead and as a part of that role oversees the use of the specialist hardware and software that researchers use to conduct their research. With his expertise in Motion Capture, Eye-tracking, Body Scanning, virtual reality, and a variety of programming languages he provides assistance and training to staff and students in the technical aspects of experimental psychology. Kris has worked on an array of applied projects using motion capture including a collaboration with the European Space Agency and NASA investigating the effect of reduced gravity on muscle function and postural control.

Nick is a Professor within the Department of Psychology. He is the Director of the Hoarding Research Group, Faculty Director of Ethics, and Chair of the Faculty Research Ethics Committee. He has extensive experience of conducting high quality research and in managing research teams and supervising research students. He has a keen interest in motion capture technology and has conducted research using motion capture to explore human dance movements and how such movements may serve as ‘honest’ signals to reproductive quality.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Merryn Constable (merryn.constable@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post.

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Constable, M.D., Bayliss, A.P., Tipper, S.P., Spaniol, A.P., Pratt, J., & Welsh, T.N. (2016) Ownership status influences the degree of joint facilitatory behavior. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1371-1378. doi: 10.1177/0956797616661544

Constable, M.D., Elekes, F., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2019) Relevant for us? We-prioritisation in cognitive processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(12), 1549-1561. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000691

Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2021). Progress in Joint-Action Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0963721420984425. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420984425

Török, G., Pomiechowska, B., Csibra, G., & Sebanz, N. (2019). Rationality in Joint Action: Maximizing Coefficiency in Coordination. Psychological Science, 30(6), 930–941. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619842550

Funded PhD Opportunity: Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission

Authors: Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar and Dr Michael Craig

Background to the project

Effective public health communications are critical to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Internationally, government guidance and legislation have advocated and coerced evidence-based transmission preventive behaviours, such as physical distancing, good hygiene practices such as handwashing, and mask-wearing. Encouraging individual adherence to these behaviours is challenging, requiring input and evidence from psychology and behavioural science.

Research on the individual determinants of transmission preventive behaviours provides evidence of potentially modifiable targets for behaviour change interventions to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies have been shown to predict preventive behaviours of physical, handwashing and mask-wearing.

Information is better retained when health communications include visuals rather than text alone. Visual communications do not rely on language but use images and animations to tell the message narrative. In countries with multiple official languages, visual languageless communications can disseminate messages to the entire population.

The languageless visual messages (GIFs) that have been developed

The proposed project will extend previous work of a collaboration between the supervisory team at Northumbria University and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, Guatemala (http://www.odhag.org.gt/). The collaboration developed evidence-based, languageless, animated messages, in the form of GIFs, which have been disseminated via social media across Guatemala and on the national catholic TV channel. The GIFs can be seen here. Guatemala is an exemplar multilingual country with 25 official languages spoken (24 indigenous and Spanish).

The effect of exposure to the GIFs on behavioural beliefs about performing the preventive behaviours has been examined through an online experimental study of Guatemalan adults. The data demonstrated that exposure to the GIFs resulted in significant improvements in key determinants of preventive behaviours, namely intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies. These preliminary data suggest promise of the GIFs to have a positive impact on adherence to behaviours, however, this is yet to be determined.

The aim of this PhD project

To identify and explore how different features and potential mechanisms of action of languageless health messages (GIFs), promoting Covid-19 preventive behaviours, impact on their potential effectiveness. The project will include a consensus study to identify the behavioural science evidence base (including the behaviour change features) of the GIFs and a series of experimental studies to explore the effects of exposure to the existing GIFs and modified GIFs (i.e., with varying message features and mechanisms of action) on adherence to preventive behaviours in different Latin American and UK populations.     

The supervisory team

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Dr Michael Craig (Department of Psychology), and Ellie Land (Department of Arts). The supervisory team combines the complementary disciplinary, methodological and topic expertise required to fully support this research: Dr O’Brien is a Health Psychologist with expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions. Dr Vijaykumar is a health and risk communication scientist with expertise in public health, behavioural science and new media technologies.  Dr Michael Craig is an experimental psychologist with expertise in the investigation of human cognition and the effects of behavioural interventions. Ellie Land is an award-winning factual animation maker, director, educator and researcher with expertise in animated short, feature-length and interactive films.  

The skills and experience a candidate needs

We are looking for someone who is keen to develop the science of behaviour change within the context of languageless visual health messages. Candidates would be expected to have a background in psychology, public health, health communication or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent). An interest in design is desirable but not essential. Knowledge and experience of quantitative research methods are needed.  

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Nicki O’Brien (nicki.obrien@northumbria.ac.uk).

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Funded PhD Opportunity: Understanding the nature of sleep disturbances in caregivers for people with dementia with Lewy bodies

authors: Dr Greg Elder, Dr Daniel Rippon and Prof Jason Ellis

Project background

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is the second most common type of dementia. DLB is a complex and heterogenous disorder, which is characterised by a range of symptoms, including neuropsychiatric symptoms, visuoperceptual difficulties and visual hallucinations.

The challenging, complex and symptom profile of people with DLB can have a significant impact upon their caregivers. DLB places a significant level of burden upon caregivers, and DLB caregivers typically report greater levels of distress than the caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s dementia (AD), or other types of dementia, even when DLB patients have a similar level of cognitive impairment. This has been shown to relate to the presence and severity of patient symptoms.

Caregiver distress is extremely likely to result in DLB caregivers developing sleep disturbances and disorders. A wide range of studies have indicated that stress is associated with subjective and objective sleep disturbances, and that stressful events can predict future sleep disturbances. Indeed, work from dementia caregivers, considered as a whole, demonstrates this: relative to age-matched control non-caregiver adults, caregivers have significant reductions in sleep duration (equivalent to losing up to 3.5 hours of sleep per week) and sleep quality. Additionally, even professional dementia caregivers demonstrate increased levels of stress hormones.

To date, no studies have specifically assessed sleep in DLB caregivers, or the relationship with stress and patient neuropsychiatric symptoms. This is extremely important as given the complex and challenging symptom profile of DLB, DLB caregivers are likely to be at a high risk of developing sleep disturbances and disorders. This is likely to have a direct negative impact upon their health.

Taken together, it is important to understand the nature of sleep disturbances in DLB caregivers. In particular, it is necessary to identify patient events or stressors which may negatively impact upon specific aspects of caregiver subjective and objective sleep. This will allow for the development and testing of bespoke DLB caregiver sleep interventions. This is important as techniques which optimise sleep in this population will benefit individual caregivers, as well as potentially having wider economic and societal benefits.

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

The goals of this PhD project are to:

  1. to examine, quantify, and compare the nature of subjective and objective sleep disturbances in DLB and AD caregivers
  2. to examine the association between specific patient neuropsychiatric symptoms and DLB caregivers
  3. design a bespoke DLB-specific caregiver intervention to improve sleep, and pilot and test its feasibility and effectiveness

This proposed studentship is very closely aligned with Dr. Elder’s current research programme, which is primarily focussed on subjective and objective sleep in patients with dementia with Lewy bodies.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We are looking for an applicant who is passionate about clinically-applied sleep research. Given the novel nature of the project, you should demonstrate a high degree of professionalism and independence. You should possess a solid understanding of quantitative research methods and be willing to be trained in a variety of advanced sleep research methodologies (e.g. actigraphy, polysomnography).

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Dr. Greg Elder is Associate Director of Northumbria Sleep Research and is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He is an experienced sleep researcher with expertise in the design, conduct and management of sleep research studies, including overnight polysomnography. Dr. Elder also has a wide range of expertise in designing and managing research studies involving patients with dementia with Lewy bodies, including interventional studies and clinical trials; additionally, he has expertise in the role of stress in sleep disturbances and insomnia, and behavioural interventions in this context. Dr. Elder is a Chartered Psychologist.

Dr. Daniel Rippon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He has expertise in the design and conduct of research studies involving dementia caregivers. Dr. Rippon also has relevant clinical and research links with the Campus of Ageing and Vitality (Newcastle University), where he has developed a home-based service for supporting caregivers, and has clinical experience working within the NHS.

Professor Jason Ellis is Director of Northumbria Sleep Research and is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. Professor Ellis has a wide range of expertise in the development and testing of behavioural interventions for insomnia.

More information and how to apply

If you would like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor by email (Dr. Greg Elder: g.elder@northumbria.ac.uk).

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Rippon, D., McDonnell, A., Bristow, M., Smith, M., McCreadie, M. & Wetherell, M., (2021), Elevated Levels of Hair Cortisol Concentrations in Professional Dementia Caregivers, Stress.

Elder, G.J., Colloby, S.J., Firbank, M.J., McKeith, I.G., Taylor, J-P (2019). Consecutive sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation do not remediate visual hallucinations in Lewy body dementia: a randomised controlled trial. Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, 11 (1), 9.

Elder, G.J., Colloby, S.J., Rowan, E.N., Lett, D., O’Brien, J.T., Anderson, K.N., Burn, D.J., McKeith, I.G & Taylor, J-P (2016). Depressive symptoms are associated with daytime sleepiness and subjective sleep quality in dementia with Lewy bodies. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 31 (7), 765 – 70.

Funded PhD Opportunity: “Get offline and back in the kitchen” Understanding online misogyny’s causes and consequences

Authors: Genavee Brown, Jenny Paterson, and Lee Shepherd

Why is this research important?

In a 2021 BBC News Panorama report, Marianna Spring details the online abuse, including threats of violence, she receives daily on social media simply because she’s doing her job investigating online disinformation. She’s not the only one receiving abuse online. In fact, research shows that women are more than twice as likely as men to receive online abuse and it often targets their intersectional identities (gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation) (Sunden & Paasonen, 2018). Beyond being psychologically upsetting, online misogyny can silence women’s voices and create major barriers to women’s equal participation in public and political spheres by forcing women to leave the online sphere because of the threat posed to their emotional or physical safety. For example, in a recent poll 1/3 of women MPs said that they had considered leaving political office due to online abuse.

What is online misogyny?

Online misogyny is online media (e.g., videos, blogs, posts) that target and harm women due to the posters’ hatred of women. It can take many forms and range from insulting or belittling comments to doxing to threats of rape and death. One example, doxing, occurs when an internet user’s offline personal information is shared online. For example, some prominent activists have had their home addresses or telephone numbers shared. Experiencing online misogyny can result in feelings of emotional distress and some women even leave online platforms like Twitter to avoid receiving online abuse. Thus, online misogyny can lead to women’s voices being silenced. In some rare cases it has also led to real world violence. For example, several men who later engaged in mass shootings posted online manifestos which evoked misogynistic ideas that spurred them to real-world violence against women (Hoffman, Ware, & Shapiro, 2020).

What is the goal of the proposed PhD project?

Recent calls have been made for social psychologists to address the issue of online misogyny (Tileaga, 2019). In this PhD, we’ll be examining online misogyny through a social psychology lens. Research in social psychology shows that social media provides a unique environment in which misogyny can occur. First, the internet conveys some sense of anonymity, and this has been associated with a willingness to engage in online misogyny (Fox, Cruz, & Lee, 2015). Second, social media platforms allow users to garner large audiences which can result in feeling powerful (Brown & Merritt, 2020). Power has been associated with a wide range of anti-social behaviours because being powerful prevents taking the perspective of others. This is especially true for people who have a dominant personality (Kim & Guinote, 2021).

In this PhD project we’ll be examining the consequences for women who receive misogynistic comments online as research in this area is lacking. We’ll also examine the profiles of the men who engage in online misogyny, specifically examining their power and dominance. By determining who the most likely perpetrators are, we can try to intervene and reduce online misogyny.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

Successful candidates should have experience in psychology research including strong research methods and statistics knowledge. Independent and critical thinking and writing skills, passion for research, and self-motivation will also be necessary.

About the supervisors

Dr. Genavee Brown is a Lecturer and social psychology researcher at Northumbria University. She studies how technology intervenes in our relationships. Her previous work has focused on cultural differences in social media use, social capital online, and how mobile phones influence face-to-face relationships. Recent projects centre on the concept of online power and how this can help us understand antisocial behaviours online. She teaches Psychology of Intimacy and Quantitative Research Methods. She is also the host of The Big 5 podcast where she speaks to staff and students at Northumbria about their experience of studying psychology at Northumbria University.

Dr Jenny Paterson is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and has published widely on the impacts of hate crimes in which perpetrators target individuals because of a hatred towards the person’s characteristic, including gender. Within this research, she has worked closely with victims of prejudice to reveal the substantial and wide-ranging impacts that such prejudice can cause both in the online and offline realms. In addition to examining the impacts of hate, Jenny has a keen interest in developing and utilising prejudice reduction strategies to identify and nullify perpetrators of prejudice.  

Dr. Lee Shepherd is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Northumbria University. He undertakes research on the role of emotions on behaviour. These behaviours range from different health behaviours (e.g., health screenings) to people’s responses to discrimination.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Genavee Brown (genavee.brown@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Barker, K., & Jurasz, O. (2021). Text-Based (Sexual) Abuse and Online Violence Against Women: Toward Law Reform?. In The Emerald International Handbook of Technology Facilitated Violence and Abuse. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Tileagă, C. (2019). Communicating misogyny: An interdisciplinary research agenda for social psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass13(7), e12491.

Blake, K. R., O’Dean, S. M., Lian, J., & Denson, T. F. (2021). Misogynistic tweets correlate with violence against women. Psychological science32(3), 315-325.

Postgraduate Research Degrees in Psychology

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
AUTHORS: Libby Orme (Deputy Head of Psychology), Michael Smith (Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange), Crystal Haskell-Ramsay (Postgraduate Research LEAD)

In the psychology department, we have around 30 students studying for postgraduate research (PGR) degrees. The majority of these are working towards a PhD in Psychology

We are currently recruiting for some new funded PhD opportunities, and so have published this blog to give prospective PhD students an idea of what a PhD in the Psychology Department at Northumbria involves. At the end of the post, you’ll find links to more information about each funded opportunity currently advertised, and some details of other opportunities for postgraduate research

What is a PhD in Psychology?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme allow students to undertake an individual programme of original research in psychology, under the supervision of two or more academic staff. You can read about PGR courses at Northumbria in detail here

Each PhD is totally unique, but full-time a PhD lasts about three years and part-time it is typically five years. In this time, a typical doctorate normally involves

  • Carrying out a literature review
  • Conducting a series of original research projects
  • Producing a thesis that presents your conclusions
  • Defending your thesis in an oral viva voce exam

PhDs in Psychology typically start in October, and you would normally start the process by having initial meetings with your supervision team and starting to create a plan for your PhD. Within the first four months, you would then submit your plan, which would include your training needs, ethical considerations, funding and costs associates with your research and a detailed timeline showing the feasibility of your PhD plan.

Students then typically progress to carrying out their research projects, with the goal of producing different outputs throughout the course of the PhD. This might include journal articles, literature reviews and conference presentations. The goal is to make an original contribution to knowledge in your field.

Throughout the process, your supervisory team would keep track of your progress and give you regular guidance and advice. Each year, you will also have a formal panel, who will review your progress and confirm that you are still on track, review your training needs and revisit the timeline for your project completion.

At the end of the process, once your written thesis is ready and submitted, you will defend it through a formal oral discussion called a viva voce. This will include one or more experts in your field from another institution, along with an expert within Northumbria.

Training for PhD Students

The Graduate School at Northumbria provides a structured training programme with sessions on statistical analysis, bibliographic software, academic writing skills and ethics in research. Themed workshops are offered on things like ‘doctorate essentials’, ‘managing your research degree’, ‘giving your research impact’, and ‘life after your doctorate’. 

Taught research training modules within our Masters in Research programme are also available to PhD students, such as training in quantitative and qualitative methods, academic skills training (including sessions on dissemination of research, and grant application writing), training in specialist equipment (e.g. polysomnography), statistical analysis using R software and engagement with open science practices.

Part of the training for PhD students involves learning about all aspects of an academic role, including teaching and administration. We’ve previously published a blog about how academics learn to teach, this also forms part of the learning journey of a PhD student in the psychology department. We offer our PhD students the opportunity to develop their teaching experience by working as a Demonstrator, and support PhD students working as demonstrators to work towards Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

Being a PGR Student in the Northumbria Psychology Department

PGR students in psychology work in one of our dedicated PGR or reseach centres within the Department on our City Campus. As a consequence of a strong and supportive framework for PGR supervision and training, we perform well in the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (85% overall PGR satisfaction in 2019 versus a sector average of 82% for the discipline).

PGR students attend departmental research seminars and give presentations within their particular research groups. They are also encouraged to present at international and national conferences (with travel funds awarded on a competitive basis).

The success of our PGR programmes is evidenced by students who win national prizes, including those presented by the BPS Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group  and BPS PG thesis award.

Advice from our current PGRs

If you love research, and are considering a PhD, its important to take some time and think about whether a PhD is right for you. We asked our current PGRs to tell us a bit about their experience, and for some advise for people considering undertaking a PhD

Studying for a PhD within Psychology at Northumbria is great. There is loads of support available throughout the department, and plenty of opportunities to socialise, but there’s also the freedom to escape into your thoughts if you’re more of a lone-wolf worker (like me!).

The thing I enjoy most about studying for a PhD is having the opportunity to explore my own research ideas and to see them develop into detailed studies.  I chose to pursue a PhD because I wanted to invest time in an activity which required a lot of thought, which seems a rarity in life today.  

For people considering a PhD, I would recommend asking yourself two questions: 1) Does the prospect of spending 3 years of your life in research excite you? and 2) Is there an overall research topic that you feel you could happily sink your teeth into for 3 years? If you answer ‘no’ to either question, don’t do a PhD.

Richard Brown

I really enjoy being able to solely research a topic that I am extremely interested in. It not only provides me with the opportunity to explore a topic of such importance, childhood obesity, but in doing so allows me to meet and network with some many other people in the field. It is exciting to know that the research you are doing could have such a profound impact on health practices moving forward.

I chose to study a PhD, because I had experience of being a research assistant at NU and really enjoyed it and wanted to continue along the research path. Since starting my undergraduate degree at Northumbria, I have always been interested in eating disorders and body image research, so when the opportunity came up to be involved in developing an intervention for childhood obesity, I took it.

If you are considering a PhD, I would say do it! Be prepared that it is going to be hard work and there will be challenging days, but when you’re researching a topic that you are passionate about, it really helps. It will all be worth it in the end.

The PhD community at NU are very supportive, and everyone is always there for each other for both research and emotional support. The staff have a great level of expertise in their field of research, and there is always someone who can help.

Beth Ridley

Applying for a PhD Position in Psychology

PGR students are a central part of our research culture and the University provides a Research Development Fund offering fully funded studentships. This includes funding for the tuition plus a stipend to support your living costs. These are opportunities designed by a member of staff (or a team of staff), which have been reviewed within the department and selected through a competitive process. We then advertise these projects to prospective students, and then the candidate and the project are put forward to the university who make the final decision about whether the project will be funded.

In addition, staff often receive funding from other sources to support PhD programmes and these are then advertised via the university’s research degree opportunity pages.

Students are also able to self-fund research degrees, or contact relevant staff members to discuss applications for funding if you have particular ideas. We’d always recommend discussing it with a member of staff first, but details of how to apply for self-funded PhDs can be found here.

Read more about our current opportunities here

In the department of psychology, we currently have six funded PhD opportunities advertised with a deadline of 18th February 2022. We’ve created a blog for each one below. You can find more information about the application process here

Developing a Framework of Community Well-being in Universities (Supervised by Dr Alyson Dodd)

Misogyny Online: Why does it happen and how can we stop it? (Supervised by Dr Genavee Brown)

Understanding the nature of sleep disturbances in caregivers for people with dementia with Lewy bodies (Supervised by Dr Greg Elder)

Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission (Supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien)

Coordination in Context (Supervised by Dr Merryn Constable)

Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students (Supervised by Dr Angela Rodrigues)

Funded PhD Opportunity: Developing a framework of community well-being in universities

AUTHORS: Dr Alyson Dodd, Dr Libby Orme and Dr Lisa Thomas

In this post, you’ll be able to read a bit about the PhD programe we have advertised. We’ve included a brief video to introduce the project and the supervision team too

Several leading organisations in the UK Higher Education sector (Hughes & Spanner, 2019Thorley, 2017; Universities UK, 2020) advocate a ‘whole university approach’ that promotes student and staff mental health and well-being via facilitating healthy settings, learning approaches, and support provision.

The problem of the whole university approach 

Existing research has not captured well-being from a whole-university perspective. For example, our own research discusses how student well-being is typically measured by self-report questionnaires asking about subjective or psychological well-being completed by individuals. There is relatively scant research on the well-being of university staff (particularly in non-academic roles) compared to students, but a similar individual approach to conceptualising and measuring well-being is used in research on university staff well-being. 

Research has looked at student and staff well-being separately, often focusing on specific roles and factors underpinning well-being linked to these. While this is important, the sector also needs to develop an understanding of what ‘being well together’ means in universities. In addition, the notion of what community means in universities is not well-understood. For example, the National Student Survey asks students if they ‘feel part of a community of staff and students’, but this is not clearly defined. 

Understanding what community is to students and staff in universities can help shape an understanding of how to facilitate well-being in a university community.   

What is community well-being?

Community well-being is not the same as the sum of individual subjective or psychological well-being in a given community. In a conceptual review, What Works Well-being used the following working definition of community well-being as “the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential.”  

In order for universities to facilitate a sense of community well-being, first we have to understand what community means to students and staff in Higher Education. Then we can develop a framework for conceptualising and defining universitycommunity well-being, that will inform how we measure whole-university well-being from a whole-university perspective, and evaluate initiatives developed to improve this. 

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

In line with the What Works Well-being guidance for developing a framework of community well-being, this project aims to 

  1. develop a model of university community well-being, and
  2. develop an initial measure of university community well-being.  

We hope to do this through a combination of methods, such as qualitative interviews, Delphi surveys, psychometric research and online surveys

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about well-being in universities, and is keen to further our understanding.

You should possess a sound grounding in quantitative and qualitative research methods but have ambition to extend your skills into other research design methods

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Alyson is an Associate Professor in the psychology department and is on the leadership team of the UKRI-funded network SMaRteN, which focuses on student mental health and well-being.  Alyson has led a published scoping review (see further reading), UK-wide stakeholder consultation, and a forthcoming SMaRteN report on measuring well-being in a student population. She chairs a Special Interest Group on this topic. Alyson is also a partner on the Office for Students Challenge Competition project Brighter, which is evaluating student well-being interventions. 

Libby is an Associate Professor of learning and teaching and the deputy head of the psychology department at Northumbria. She has a strong interest in student community and well-being, the transition to university, the use of technology in Higher Education and academic staff development. Libby works across disciplines on projects related to student well-being, what community means, and how these feed into university strategy.

Lisa is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department, Associate Director of the Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Research Group, chair of the Psychology Department’s Athena Swan team, and Fellow of the HEA. Prior to her lectureship appointment, she was a Senior Researcher for three successive multidisciplinary EPSRC projects- one in particular, ReelLives, explored the ways in which individuals could take ownership of their digital identity. Her research interests lie within Psychology and Human Computer Interaction (HCI)- the role of technologies in life transitions, student community and well-being, self-presentation online and authenticity.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Alyson Dodd (Alyson.dodd@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Atkinson, S., Bagnall, A., Corcoran, R., & South, J. (2017). What is community well-being? Conceptual review.  

Dodd, A. L. (2021). Student mental health research: moving forwards with clear definitions. Journal of Mental Health, 30(3),273-275. 

Dodd, A. L., Priestley, M., Tyrrell, K., Cygan, S., Newell, C., & Byrom, N. C. (2021). University student well-being in the United Kingdom: a scoping review of its conceptualisation and measurement. Journal of Mental Health, 1-13.

The Big 5 Episode 6: Barbora Duskova “You get to know yourself, what you like, and what you want to do as your career.”

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Today is National Philanthropy Day, a time to reflect on how we can volunteer our time and money to help others. On this episode of the podcast, Northumbria Psychology student, Barbora Duskova tells us about her experience volunteering for the European Federation of Psychology Students Association and working in Dr. Katri Cornelisson’s lab as a research assistant. At the end of the episode, you’ll also hear about three psychology related volunteering opportunities. Details for these are in the show notes below.

Show notes:

Wanna join the European Federation of Psychology Students Association? Find out more here.

If you’d like to become a Nightline volunteer. Check out this student union page.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for other psychology students, please check out this page.

If you’d like to take part in the Volunteer Research Assistant scheme, you can contact michael2.craig@northumbria.ac.uk and look out for information about the scheme on your program level Blackboard site. (Please note that this scheme is only for current Northumbria students.)

A transcript of the podcast can be found here.

Sleeping longer than 6.5 hours a night associated with cognitive decline according to research – what’s really going on here?

Does too much sleep really increase your risk of cognitive decline? Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Dr Greg Elder, Northumbria University

A good night’s sleep is important for many reasons. It helps our body repair itself and function as it should, and is linked to better mental health and lower risk of many health conditions – including heart disease and diabetes. It’s also been shown that not getting enough sleep is linked to cognitive decline and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

But more isn’t always better, as one recent study found. Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine have published a paper that indicates that just like getting too little sleep, sleeping too much may also be linked with cognitive decline.

The research team wanted to know how much sleep was linked to cognitive impairment over time. To do this, they looked at 100 older adults in their mid-to-late-70s on average, and tracked them for between four and five years. At the time of their study, 88 people did not show any signs of dementia, while 12 showed signs of cognitive impairment (one with mild dementia and 11 with the pre-dementia stage of mild cognitive impairment).

Throughout the study, participants were asked to complete a range of commonplace cognitive and neuropsychological tests to look for signs of cognitive decline or dementia. Their scores from these tests were then combined into a single score, called the Preclinical Alzheimer Cognitive Composite (PACC) score. The higher the score, the better their cognition was over time.

Sleep was measured using a single-electrode encephalography (EEG) device, which participants wore on their forehead while sleeping, for a total of between four to six nights. This was done once, three years after people first completed their annual cognitive tests. This EEG allowed the researchers to accurately measure brain activity, which would tell them whether or not someone was asleep (and for how long), and how restful that sleep was.

Two examples of EEG devices on mannequin heads.
Participants would have worn a device similar to this to track their sleep. wideonet/ Shutterstock

Although sleep was only measured at one period during the study, this still gave the research team a good indication of participants’ normal sleep habits. While using an EEG to measure brain activity may be somewhat disruptive to sleep on the first night, as people get used to the equipment, sleep tends to return to normal the following night. This means that when sleep is tracked from the second night onwards it’s a good representation of a person’s normal sleep habits.

The researchers also took into account other factors that can affect cognitive decline – including age, genetics and whether a person had signs of the proteins beta-amyloid or tau, which are both linked to dementia.

Overall, the researchers found that sleeping less than 4.5 hours and more than 6.5 hours a night – alongside poor quality sleep – was associated with cognitive decline over time. Interestingly, the impact of sleep duration on cognitive function was similar to the effect of age, which is the greatest risk factor for developing cognitive decline.

A good night’s sleep

We know from previous research that lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. For example, one study showed that people who reported sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness, have a greater risk of developing dementia compared to people who don’t. Other research has shown that people who have short sleeping times have higher levels of beta-amyloid in their brain – which is commonly found in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers don’t know for certain why lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. One theory is that sleep helps our brain flush out harmful proteins that build up during the day. Some of these proteins – like beta-amyloid and tau – are thought to cause dementia. So interfering with sleep might interfere with our brain’s ability to get rid of these. Experimental evidence even supports this – showing that even just one night of sleep deprivation temporarily increases beta-amyloid levels in the brain of healthy people.

But it’s less clear why long sleep is linked with cognitive decline. Previous studies have also found a link between over-sleep and cognitive performance, but most relied upon participants self-reporting how long they sleep nightly – which means the data is less accurate than using an EEG to measure brain activity. This new study therefore adds weight to such findings.

What’s surprising about this study’s findings is that the optimal sleep duration is much shorter than that which previous studies have suggested are problematic. The study showed that sleeping longer than 6.5 hours was associated with cognitive decline over time – this is low when we consider that older adults are recommended to get between seven and eight hours of sleep every night.

It could be the case that it isn’t necessarily the length of the sleep that matters, but the quality of that sleep when it comes to risk of developing dementia. For instance, this study also showed that having less “slow-wave” sleep – restorative sleep – particularly affected cognitive impairment.

What we also cannot tell from this study is if long sleep durations can independently predict cognitive decline. Essentially, we can’t rule out that participants who slept longer than 6.5 hours every night might not have already had pre-existing cognitive problems of brain changes suggestive of dementia that weren’t picked up on the tests. And although the researchers were careful to adjust for dementia-related factors, longer sleepers may also have had other pre-existing conditions that might have contributed to their cognitive decline which weren’t taken into account. For example, this could include poor health, socioeconomic status or physical activity levels. All of these factors together may explain why longer sleep was linked to cognitive decline.

There are many factors which can impact on both our sleep quality, and whether we experience cognitive decline. While some factors aren’t preventable (such as genetic predisposition), there are many things we can do alongside getting a good night’s sleep to help reduce our likelihood of developing dementia – such as exercising and eating a healthy diet. But while the researchers of this study seem to suggest there’s an optimal sleep duration – between 4.5 and 6.5 hours every night – the occasional weekend lie-in is unlikely to do your brain any harm.

About the author

Greg Elder is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Northumrbia, Associate Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, and a member of the Cognition and Neuroscience Group. You can read more posts by the group over in our Cognition and Neuroscience Blog

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Understanding the harms of hate crime

Author: Dr Jenny Paterson, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University; Prof MArk Walters, School of law, plitics and sociology, university of sussex

After the England men’s football team reached their first major final in 55 years, the national headlines should have been celebrating their exceptional achievement. Instead, the focus quickly turned to the vile racist abuse targeted at three Black players: Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, and Jadon Sancho. These young men were subjected to widespread racist hatred and threats on social media platforms. The magnitude and ferocity of such incidents of hate is, regrettably, just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of hate crimes are reported across England and Wales every week, with the total number of cases officially recorded by the police doubling over the past ten years to over 100,000 incidents per year

A mural honouring the work of Marcus Rashford was defaced with racist abuse soon after the Euro 2020 Final (BBC).

Hate: a special category of crime

In England and Wales, hate crimes, such as those directed at the football players, are defined as any crime (e.g., threats of violence, harassment, vandalism, assault) that is perceived to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice towards five legally protected characteristics: an individual’s (i) race, (ii) religion, (iii) sexual orientation, (iv) transgender identity, or (v) disability. Importantly, when a crime is shown to demonstrate or be motivated by these prejudices, the courts ‘must’ apply a ‘sentence uplift’, meaning perpetrators receive an increased punishment for their crime. Thus, the distinction of hate crime has real, tangible effects for perpetrators. But why are hate crimes considered to be a ‘special’ category of offending?

The impacts of hate 

Critics of hate crime legislation have argued that such laws are prosecuting thoughts rather than actions, and that crimes, regardless of their underlying motivations, should be prosecuted in the same way. However, not only does this argument misinterpret the true nature and dynamics of hate crime, but it also fails to recognise that criminal responsibility must reflect both an offender’s level of culpability for committing an offence and the level of harm it is likely to cause. There is now considerable research that shows hate crimes are unique because the motivations underpinning such offences have additional traumatic effects both on individual victims and entire communities of people 

On the individual level, research shows that hate crime victims report feeling more anxious, fearful, and vulnerable than victims of comparable non-hate crimes. Hate crime victims are also more likely to suffer more violent attacks, resulting in substantial physical injuries and in turn extensive psychological trauma. Furthermore, as hate crimes specifically target individual’s core identities and beliefs, victims are more likely to feel ostracised and marginalised, forcing them to question their place and worth in society.

The impacts do not stop there. Hate crimes act as messages of intolerance to entire communities. By targeting one member, these crimes reverberate throughout communities who share the victim’s identity characteristic causing ‘waves of harm’, in which all members are shown (or reminded) that they are vulnerable to targeted violence because of who they are.

In our research which involved 20 separate studies with over 7000 individuals in England and Wales, we have consistently found that hate crimes have a significant impact on targeted community members’ perceptions of threat (against their physical safety and rights as equal citizens), which in turn has significant negative effects on their emotional wellbeing, and their behaviours. For example, when LGBT+ participants personally knew of, or read about, other LGBT+ individuals’ experiences of hate crimes, they reported feeling vulnerable, anxious, angry, and even ashamed. While many community members sought solace with fellow LGBT+ people and were more determined to fight injustice, many also chose to avert potential prejudice-based abuse by avoiding certain locations and people, restricting public displays of affections to their partners and were less likely to reveal their sexual orientation to others.   

These ‘social harms’ have significant implications for society in general, making it less open, less equal, and less diverse. In other words, hate crimes don’t just hurt those groups who are targeted, they hurt everyone who wants to live in a diverse and open society. In this sense, hate crime laws reflect the greater seriousness of such offences, not only acknowledging the enhanced harms they cause to those targeted, but they also recognise that they are a direct attack against liberal democracy’s commitment to fundamental principles including freedom and equality. Here we are reminded of the indelible words of Martin Luther King Jr who stated, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

Informing policy and practice

A central aim of our interdisciplinary research is to help combat and address the impacts of hate crimes. In doing so, we have worked with thousands of victims, multiple criminal justice agencies, and numerous charities, including Stonewall, Galop, Tell MAMA, and the Muslim Council of Britain, to ensure the research can be used to raise awareness of hate crimes and provide support to those who are affected.

Yet it is clear that much still needs to be done to prevent hate crimes and address the harms they cause. To this end, hate crime law reform consultations have been taking place across the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, Judge Desmond Marrinan recently published an extensive review in hate crime legislation, while the Law Commission for England and Wales have published a 516 page consultation paper on hate crime laws and will publish their final report  later this year. Both reviews are examining the use of restorative justice as an alternative intervention to address the rise in hate crime.

In its simplest terms, restorative justice helps victims and perpetrators to communicate with one another about the causes and harms of hate incidents in an effort to repair these harms and to prevent further offences. Central to the process is that those who are harmed are given a role in resolving their case, which can involve them explaining directly to the perpetrator how they have been affected and what needs to be done to assist their recover. Those who have harmed are asked to take responsibility by undertaking some form of reparation (such as financial compensation, written apologies, community or charitable work).

Although there has been initial policy resistance to its use for hate crime, our contributions to both reviews showed that restorative justice can be highly effective at reducing the emotional traumas caused by hate crime, while simultaneously preventing incidents from recurring. Perhaps almost as important is our newest research which showed that the use of restorative justice for hate crimes is supported by targeted communities and, thus, may not be seen as the “soft touch” commonly assumed by policy makers. The Northern Ireland review has in turn recommended the development of a new statutory scheme for adult restorative justice for hate crime. We hope that both Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK lead the way in instituting restorative justice practices as a means of addressing hate crime.

Another important proposal by both the Northern Ireland review and the Law Commission consultation is to broaden the scope of the current laws to include other protected characteristics, including gender and sex – a topic that has been receiving increasing support and media attention following the recent murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, pre-empting the work of the Commission and its final report the Prime Minister has stated that misogyny should not be made a hate crime. This is despite a wealth of research showing its existence as a social problem and its impact on women. It is clear that further research and, importantly, engagement with policymakers is needed to emphasise how hate-motivated attacks target individuals, threaten vast groups of people and, ultimately, undermine society. It is only by engaging with policymakers and practitioners that our research can truly help all those affected by these crimes.

Hate Crime Awareness Week

This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and This post has been written as part of Hate Crime Awareness Week which aims to highlight the prevalence and impact of hate crimes, and to provide support for all those who are affected. Please click on the following links if you would like to know more about hate crime, how to report it, and how to get support if you or someone you know has been a victim.  

If you are interested in conducting research on hate crimes, please contact jenny.paterson@northumbria.ac.uk.

About the authors

Dr Jenny Paterson is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, within the Social Research group in the Department of Psychology, Northumbria University. Prof. Mark Walters is a Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. Both have worked extensively with Prof. Rupert Brown at the University of Sussex on the Sussex Hate Crime Project.

Northumbria researchers win Prolific Grant Competition

Richard Brown and Dr Gillian Pepper’s research proposal was crowned the overall winner of  Prolific’s Grant Competition. This will provide valuable funding for Richard’s next PhD study, supervised by Gillian, which aims to investigate perceptions of control over risk.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Over 2000 users of the recruitment platform Prolific voted to select the top 5 proposals out of more than 100 entries from universities and research institutions from around the word. Prolific’s internal review panel then selected the Northumbria Psychology Department’s research duo as the overall winner. The proposal requested £4,700 to pay for future research costs and the winners were awarded this amount in full.

Their winning proposal was entitled “Die young, live fast? Does the feeling that you’ll die young, no matter what you do, encourage unhealthy behaviour and worsen health inequalities?” The study will aim to investigate what causes of death are widely believed to be uncontrollable and what information people use to assess personal risk. This looks to build on previous research conducted by Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University into the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis (1, 2).

The Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis

This suggests that people who believe they are likely to die due to factors beyond their control take less care of their health because they are less likely to live to see the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle. This is of particular relevance to social class differences in health behaviours. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are typically exposed to greater levels of uncontrollable risk. This may cause them to be less motivated to engage in preventative health behaviours, thus worsening existing health inequalities. To encapsulate the point, the proposal asks, “If you believed you were likely to be a victim of a stabbing before the age of 30, would eating your 5 a day seem very important?”

Little is known about what causes of death are thought to be beyond individual control, or why. By investigating perceptions of control over death, and identifying the informational sources of these perceptions, this study hopes to provide valuable insights for public health interventions. These insights may inform structural interventions aimed at reducing specific types of environmental risk, or help to produce targeted health messaging to influence perceived levels of control. Ultimately, the aim is to produce findings that help to understand health behaviours and how to reduce avoidable deaths.

Richard and Gillian are thrilled with the outcome of the competition and would like to thank everyone that helped and voted for their proposal. Time to get to work!

References

1.         Pepper GV, Nettle D. Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ. 2014;2:e459.

2.         Nettle D. Why are there social gradients in preventative health behavior? A perspective from behavioral ecology. PLoS One. 2010;5(10):e13371.

Want to learn more?

Head over to our Health and Wellbeing Blog