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Psychology research

Psychology at Heriot-Watt University bridges the gaps that are often found between theory and real-word application.

Our research activities are focused on two research groups concerning Lifespan Cognitive and Social Development, and  Attention, Perception and Action.

In addition to the research that has been funded by research councils, much of our research is carried out in collaboration with external bodies from the public and private sectors such as the NHS, the Scottish Executive, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Transport and Road Research Laboratory.

Research areas   

  • Social development in childhood
  • Early numeracy
  • Estimating and our mental representations of number   
  • Adult development and ageing
  • Personality and behaviour
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Technologies for children, especially with autism
  • Reciprocal social interaction
  • Social learning and cultural transmission 
  • Perception of visual texture
  • Psychosocial influences on health & safety in small businesses  
  • Driving behaviour

Social development in childhood

The ability to learn from adults in social situations is key to children's development.  In a collaborative project with the University of St Andrews, we are trying to determine whether children faithfully copy everything that they see an adult do, even when it is not the most efficient way to solve the task.  Contact Dr Nicola McGuigan for more information.

Early numeracy

The human cognitive system appears to be equipped to deal with number from a very early age. Yet children’s formative numerical skills appear to offer several paradoxes. Mastery of procedures like counting and sharing, and sophisticated insights into the precise nature of quantity, sit alongside sometimes exasperating reluctance by children to draw legitimate conclusions about numerical relationships. Just how do children come to recognize that six is more than seven? And what exactly does ‘eight’ mean? Contact Dr Kevin Muldoon for more information.

Estimating and our mental representations of number

This project is funded by a grant awarded by ESRC to Dr Kevin Muldoon and Dr John Towse  (Lancaster University). Professor Guoan Yue at Nankai University Tianjin will be managing data collection with Chinese children. Dr Victoria Burns and Victoria Simms work as Research Associates on this project. Find out more about the project on Estimating and our mental representations of number.

Adult development and ageing

The UK older population is projected to increase by 60% over the next thirty years (compared to 10% for the general population), and the fastest growing group 'the oldest old' is expected to more than double.  Finding ways to maintain and enhance the abilities and quality of life for older people is therefore now more pertinent than ever.  We are particularly interested in how cognitive ageing impacts the control and regulation of action in everyday tasks, how relationships between perception and action change with age to impact everyday functional ability, and how participation and functional ability are influenced by social-cognitive factors such as attitudes and beliefs. Our aim is to apply research on ageing to the development of new interventions, assessment tools, and the design of everyday objects and environments in a way that will help to maintain and enhance everyday functioning across the whole adult lifespan. Contact Dr Lauren Potter for more information.

Personality and behaviour

The relationships between personality and behaviour are of interest to psychologists and psychiatrists. Is a particular personality trait related to whether an individual will become depressed or be happy; or to how an individual performs within a team or on a particular task? Furthermore, does our neurochemistry explain these relationships? We at Heriot-Watt, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, investigate the relationships between factors such as personality, language, emotion, and mood. Contact Dr Mary Stewart for more information.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by severe impairments in social, communicative and imaginative activities, affecting up to 1% of children in the UK. Recently researchers have been investigating whether people with ASD think in a different way from "typically developing individuals" (the term applied to those without ASD). We at Heriot-Watt, along with colleagues from Queen Margaret College, the University of Edinburgh, and Newcastle University are interested in whether thinking styles (specifically a bias towards local information processing) are responsible for the impairments seen in ASD. Contact Dr Mary Stewart for more information.

Technologies for children, especially with autism

Children with autism seem to have an affinity for Information and Computing Technology (ICT). This provides a unique opportunity to both understand and treat autism. Also, technology research in developmental disorders offers a window to understanding the typical population better, as well as develop better technologies for everyone. Contact Dr Thusha Rajendran for more information.

Reciprocal social interaction

Whether through gestural or linguistic imitation, or understanding the nature of friendships, reciprocity seems a natural part of human social development. However, when there is a disruption in development (either through a developmental disorder such as autism, or child maltreatment) then this important social ability can be studies and possibly treated. Contact Dr Thusha Rajendran for more information.

Social learning and cultural transmission

Current research projects are broadly focused around the 'who', the 'what', the 'when' and the 'how' of social learning. One particular research stream has focused on the phenomenon of 'over-imitation', that is, copying another individual to the extent that task efficiency is actually reduced. Under what circumstances does this phenomenon occur? More recent research collaborations are exploring presociality in young children and capuchin monkeys. Contact Dr Nicola McGuigan for more information.

Perception of visual texture

Almost all natural and artificial surfaces are textured in some way, but little is known about the processing of texture patterns by the human visual system. We collaborate with computer scientists in the Heriot-Watt Texture Lab to explore how people make perceptual judgments about natural and synthetic visual textures, and how people search for targets in visual textures. Results are applied to problems in computer vision such as retrieving digital representations of surface textures from databases and detecting surface deficits. Contact Professor Patrick Green for more information.

Psychosocial influences on health and safety in small businesses

Health and safety at work may entail activities such as risk assessment, in areas ranging from physical hazards to psychological stress. Despite its importance, health and safety engagement is often seen as problematic for the small business. Employing both qualitative and quantitative research methods, this project investigates the nature of the behaviours which small businesses undertake. We then examine psychological and social processes influencing such behaviour.  Contact Dr Terry Lansdown for more information.