PhD Projects 2018-19

Funded projects

Auditory stimulation and animal welfare

Supervisor: Dr Deborah L. Wells (

Aims:  Recent attention has been directed towards the value of auditory stimulation for animals, notably those housed in captivity, with positive short-term results.  The specific effects that this type of stimulation actually has on an animal’s functioning, however, is still largely unknown, despite the widespread belief that it is inherently enriching and now of commonplace use in captive, and other, settings.  This PhD will explore the effect of different types of auditory stimulation on the psychological functioning and well-being of animals.  Whilst the project will focus primarily on the domestic dog, a species routinely exposed to stressors that jeopardise its welfare, there may be score for expansion of the research to other animals, both domestic and exotic.

Understanding and reducing gender inequalities in academic settings

Supervisor: Dr Ioana Latu (

Aims: Despite important progress in gender equality, there are many issues that still need to be addressed in order to create a sustainable climate for inclusion in academic settings. The successful student will investigate issues such as the underrepresentation of male students in psychology, the role and reduction of implicit gender biases in gender inequalities in academia, as well as attitudes towards diversity initiatives in academia.

The current project will complement and enhance the gender equality initiatives developed by Athena SWAN, by providing empirical evidence that is relevant to these initiatives.

Healthy ageing and walking in the real world: Assessing walkability of city streets from a human perspective

Supervisor: Dr Mihalis Doumas (

In collaboration with School of Natural and Built Environment (Prof G Ellis)

Aims:  The human lifespan in the western world has risen dramatically over the last decades reaching the age of 81, however, the average health span is only 63 years. This means that older adults spend a large part of their retirement years in poor health or caring for a family member, making this issue critical for society and healthcare systems. Several ways have been proposed to extend the health span including preventative health care, cognitive engagement, social interaction, but according to neuroscientific evidence the best way to maintain physical and cognitive health is physical activity.

On the basis of this evidence, it is important to make physical activity a part of people’s daily lives especially in middle (50+) and older age (65+). This would entail discouraging the use of motorised transport and increasing the time people walk, because walking is a critical part of daily life and a key index of health and mobility. In order to encourage walking in older adults, cities need to be designed and adapted in a way that they facilitate physical activity. Physical activity is undertaken in a number of domains (work, recreation, transport etc), each influenced by complex socio-ecological factors. Walking for recreation and transport is a key potential area for intervention as this has society-wide benefits and accessible to almost the entire population. It has been shown that a range of attributes of the built environment can influence the level and patterns of how people walk in urban areas. In this study we aim, for the first time, to bring together two key research areas assessing the factors influencing an older adult’s walking behaviour.

The first research area is the study of posture and gait, which assesses walking in the controlled environment of the laboratory primarily from a physiological perspective, and drawing on insights from psychology. This approach provides important insights about movement kinematics, speed, step symmetry and variability, and changes in these aspects of walking with age. However, this approach suffers from a lack of ecological validity. The walking surface is flat, there are no obstacles, no other people walking and sometimes participants wear a harness to enhance safety and prevent fall incidents. Thus, it is difficult to generalise the outcomes of this research to real-life walking in a city street. The second aspect focuses on research on the influence of different design and morphological attributes of the built environment that define how ‘walkable’ a city may be for older adults, drawing on insights from city planning and public health studies. These studies primarily use survey methods, asking participants to either subjectively rate their local area based on a set of criteria (access to services, quality of the urban realm etc) or objectively by GPS tracking overlain by GIS analysis of urban features.

Action Intelligence: A new framework for understanding action based decision-making and designing intelligent mobile systems

Supervisor: Prof Cathy Craig (

In collaboration with School of Maths and Physics (Prof A Marshall)

Overview and Aims:   A tennis player smashing a winning volley or a child deciding when to cross a road are all making decisions about action. This project proposes that this ability to act in the right place, at the right time and in the right way can be classed as Action Intelligence. By using technology to measure how the brain makes action-based decisions that underpin action intelligence, this proposal will help develop a new psychological framework for improving action based decision-making that can also be applied to the design and construction of intelligent systems.

By explaining how our ability to tune into relevant perceptual variables along with our different individual action capabilities influence decision-making, we can develop new ways to improve or augment our ability to act intelligently, leading to a healthier more mobile population (e.g. healthy ageing, rehabilitation). Furthermore, with the explosion in computing and sensor technology the race to design more intelligent mobile machines (e.g. self-driving cars), is on. By applying the psychological principles that underpin how the human mind makes decisions about action and combining it with new ways of analysing data generated through sensor technology, we can help design more intelligent mobile systems.

Projects eligible for funding

The development of a diagnostic instrument and an intervention programme for young children with maths difficulties

Supervisor: Dr Kinga Morsanyi (

Success in maths is very important because it is a powerful predictor of overall educational achievement. Moreover, numeracy is not only linked to educational success, but it is also strongly linked to financial and health outcomes later in life. For these reasons, it is crucial to be able to identify pupils who struggle with maths very early, and to offer intervention programmes, based on robust evidence, to support the development of formal mathematics skills. The aim of this project is to develop a screening instrument and an early intervention programme, with a focus on order processing skills. Order processing involves remembering and manipulating information about the order in which things occur (e.g., the order of a list, or the typical order of daily events). This project is based on recent evidence that order processing abilities at the start of school are strongly related to numeracy skills. Indeed, early non-numerical ordering abilities have been found to be more strongly related to the development of mathematics skills than a range of numerical tasks that have been traditionally linked to early mathematics development. The novelty of this project lies in the fact that no screening instrument or intervention programme so far has specifically focussed on early order processing skills. Additionally, because children acquire basic order processing abilities before they start to develop formal maths skills, our approach could make it possible to help prevent the development of maths difficulties, instead of trying to remedy maths problems once they have become apparent.

Confidence in contact: A new approach to understanding and improving cross-group friendship among children and adolescents 

Supervisors: Professor Rhiannon Turner ( and Dr Dani Blaylock (

Extensive research has shown that children with more cross-group friendships are not only less prejudiced, but also have higher self-esteem, well-being and resilience, and perform better academically. Unfortunately, research has also shown that even when young people have the opportunity to form cross-group friendships, such relationships are rare, and decline with age. The aim of this project would be test a new theoretical model that focuses on the predictors of cross-group friendship, the factors which make children confident in engaging in intergroup contact (Turner & Cameron, 2016). Studies may involve (a) developing a questionnaire measure of Confidence in Contact (CIC), a state of readiness whereby children have the necessary confidence, skills, and experience for successful intergroup interactions (b) identifying what factors predict CIC, (c) identify whether CIC does indeed affects friendship development, and (d) examining whether existing or new interventions can enhance CIC. The project would primarily involve survey and longitudinal questionnaire research, and potentially experimental tests of interventions.

Cross-cultural differences in children’s mathematical development

Supervisor: Dr Judith Wylie (

There are marked differences in the performance levels of countries on international assessments of maths, with East Asian countries tending to score significantly higher than other nations. Variations in how number is represented in languages have been investigated as one source of these differences between countries.  Research strongly suggests, however, that structural differences in language are unlikely to be the only factors that contribute to the Chinese advantage in mathematics. Young Chinese students who are taught in English have superior mathematical ability to their UK age-matched peers, indicating that cultural factors other than language structure differences are also important.  Recent research on children’s early mathematical performance not only highlighted the need to explore the nature of differences between children from different cultures but recognised the potential contribution of other cultural factors such as home numeracy environment, parental expectations, students' views and a range of teacher-related factors.  Building on existing collaborations with researchers in Canada and Hong Kong, this project will explore the consequences of mathematics learning in a second language when the majority of home-based and cultural experience with numbers occurs largely, if not entirely, in the first language. 

Beyond good and evil: Exploring associations between non-cognitive traits and academic performance

Supervisor: Dr Kostas Papageorgiou (

There is increasing interest in studying the role of non-cognitive traits in contributing to variation in academic performance.  In educational contexts, personality traits may be stronger predictors of academic performance in higher education in comparison to lower levels of education. This is because university samples tend to exhibit less individual variation in intellectual ability, as a result of students being selected on the basis of similar academic performance at high school.  The Beyond Good and Evil project aims at assessing longitudinally (two assessment waves per year for the next three years starting in 2017) undergraduate students’ personality traits such as, the Big Five, Mental Toughness and the Dark Triad of personality traits.  Cognitive data (e.g. IQ and measures of attention using eye-tracking) and additional data on symptoms of psychopathology and motivation will also be collected.  This rich dataset will be analysed in relation to the students’ academic performance (accessed via the university’s assessment records) during the three years of their degree.  It is expected that the project will involve a large number of students, who will be enrolled in a variety of courses at Queen’s University Belfast, offering the opportunity to explore direct, mediated and moderated associations between non-cognitive and cognitive factors with academic performance.  Plans have already been made to expand the project, using identical assessment protocols, in other universities across the UK; and to conduct experimental work to investigate how individuals with different personality profiles perform in cognitive tests during various levels of stress.

The successful candidate will become a member of the InteRRaCt lab (