Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Getting Social at UoN

 Record numbers of social psychologists from Australia, New Zealand, and the rest of the world have submitted presentations to the Annual Meeting of the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists, which will be hosted by academics from the University of Newcastle in April this year. High profile international researchers include keynote speaker Professor John Dixon from the Open University in the UK.

Speaking about the unprecedented interest, conference organiser Dr Stefania Paolini said, “Australia has always punched above its weight in the area of social psychology, and it is great to see Newcastle taking an active role in supporting this important area.”

Social psychology is currently enjoying a great deal of success at Newcastle. Dr Paolini was recently awarded an Australian Research Council Discovery Project to investigate the social psychological bases of people’s interest in approaching versus avoiding social diversity. The University has also strengthened its commitment to the field, with the School of Psychology establishing a new Social and Organisational Psychology Research Group and appointing new staff in the area. The School is also currently recruiting high profile candidates for a Chair in Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

A stochastic adventure in RT modeling: From random walks to nonlinear dynamics. A talk by Dr. Rachel Heath in the Cognitive Research Group

On Thursday 19th March, 12-1pm, the Cognitive Research Group will host a talk by Dr. Rachel Heath. Dr. Heath has been at the forefront of cognitive science in Australia for 40 years, studying diverse topics from simple decision making to complex cognition.

TITLE: A stochastic adventure in RT modeling: From random walks to nonlinear dynamics.

WHERE: Keats room, AVLG17, v/c to Ourimbah Science Offices.

ABSTRACTIn a broad summary of RT modeling since 1975, I first discuss the basic premises of Relative Judgment Theory and show how this relatively simple sequential sampling model can explain many important features of RT data in a variety of psychological contexts. Next I present a general nonstationary stochastic extension that includes the drift diffusion model and the Ornstein-Uhlenbeck model as special cases. I show how this complex model can be simplified by a tandem random walk decision process, which serves as a useful approximation for tasks involving brief stimuli. The talk concludes with evidence of nonlinear dynamics in sequential RT data using conventional techniques and multifractal spectra.

See also: 
Link, S.W. & Heath, R.A. (1975). A sequential theory of psychological discrimination. Psychometrika, 40, 77-105.
Heath, R.A. (1981). A tandem random walk model for psychological discrimination. British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology, 34, 76-92.
Heath, R.A. (1992). Nonstationary diffusion models for two-choice decision making. Mathematical Social Sciences, 23, 283-309.
Link, S.W. (1992). The wave theory of difference and similarity. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.
Heath, R.A. (2000). Nonlinear dynamics: Techniques and applications in psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.
Kelly, A., Heathcote, A., Heath, R., & Longstaff, M. (2001).Response-time dynamics: Evidence for linear and low-dimensional nonlinear structure in human choice sequences. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 805-840.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

JUST PUBLISHED! Cognitive aging and workload capacity: how do older people process information from multiple sources?

The modern world bombards us with multiple sources of information. Our ability to cope with increasing amounts of information and behave adaptively in this complex environment is sometimes referred to as ‘workload capacity’. A recent article in the open-access journal PLoS-ONE tests whether this ability changes over the life span. More specifically, the study tested how young and old adults differ in the ability to process multiple visual signals.

In laboratory studies of simple decisions older adults tend to be slower than younger participants. However, the reason for this performance detriment is not entirely clear: Are older people genuinely worse, or simply more cautious? Or, could they be more sensitive to interference from contextual factors? Dr. Ami Eidels from the School of Psychology at the University of Newcastle, along with co-authors Dr. Boaz Ben David (IDC) and Dr. Chris Donkin (UNSW), compared performance of young adults (mean age = 22 years) and older adults (mean age = 72) in a visual detection task. Participants in the study were presented with one target signal (‘X’) or multiple signals. In another condition, distractors (‘O’) could also be presented for view but the participants had to ignore the distracting items and look for target signals.

Overall, older adults were slower to detect a target by about 15%, compared with their younger counterparts. Both groups were highly accurate (more than 98% correct), so a caution explanation is not very likely. Namely, if the elderly were slower only because they were sacrificing speed for accuracy, they should have been more accurate.  Ben David, Eidels, and Donkin used cognitive modeling techniques that employ both response-times and accuracy data to separate the effects of perceptual ability, caution, and the effects of distractors. They found that the major difference between the young and old was the inability of the latter to ignore distractor information. Put bluntly, in a complex and cluttered environment older adults may not be as efficient at blocking irrelevant information. These results have important implications concerning the way we design displays and interfaces for Australia’s aging population.

The paper is available  via Ami’s website,, or directly (and for free) via PLoS-ONE: 

Ben-David B.M., Eidels A., Donkin C. (2014). Effects of Aging and Distractors on Detection of Redundant Visual Targets and Capacity: Do Older Adults Integrate Visual Targets Differently than Younger Adults? PLoS ONE, 9(12): e113551. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113551

Acknowledgment: the study was partially supported by the Keats Endowment Research Fund to A.E.

For more details or feedback please feel free to contact me directly at

Friday, 20 February 2015

Health and Clinical Psychology Research Group Seminar

Please come and join us celebrate Tanya Hollier’s DPsych completion.

When: Monday, 2nd March 12-1pm
Where: Keats Reading Room, Psychology Building, Callaghan (Video link to Ourimbah Science Meeting Rooms)
What: Tanya Hollier’s Doctor of Psychology Completion Seminar 

The impact of therapeutic engagement on mental health outcomes in a short stay mental health unit.

Objective: To investigate the contribution of recovery-focused engagement and interventions in a 6 week stay non-acute inpatient unit for people with serious mental illness (SMI). More specifically, to investigate patterns of change for measures of clinical and personal recovery, and observe whether patterns of change are sustained at 6 month follow-up. A subsequent evaluation was conducted to investigate the association between change indices of therapeutic engagement, mental health outcomes and other key mental health measures. Methods: Twenty-seven people with SMI completed three self-report measures, one collaborative recovery measure and five clinician rated measures 2-3 days post-admission. Measures were repeated at discharge, 3 and 6-month follow-up. Twenty-three and 20 people respectively completed measures at the final two follow-up points. Results: Regression analysis found significant linear improvements in therapeutic engagement, symptomatology, functionality, self-determination and collaboratively determined recovery. A subcomponent of the recovery measure, social connectedness, also demonstrated linear improvement across follow-up periods with a large magnitude of change recorded. Therapeutic engagement and the initial change for the MHRS total score also showed conventionally large effect sizes (greater than 1). An association between therapeutic engagement and mental health outcomes; and mental health outcomes and functioning were also found. Conclusions: Although the study design incorporated limitations, the findings suggest that higher levels of wellness, self-determination and connectedness are achievable in a recovery-focused inpatient setting. The study also showed that these improvements were sustained at 6 month follow-up. However, given the limitations of this study, further work is required to explore the factors that overcome stigma and develop and sustain individual levels of hope in recovery.

Discovering the structure of cognitive processes - a guest presentation by Dr. Joe Houpt (Indiana University).

The Cognitive Research Group is proud to host a talk by Dr. Joe Houpt (Indiana), who is visiting us for a few weeks. The talk will take place 12-1pm on Thursday 26th February in AVLG17 (a/v link to Ourimbah Science Offices).

Title: Quantifying Configural Superiority with the Capacity Coefficient.

Abstract: Inform
ally, configural superiority refers to situations in which perception is better with certain contextual information, beyond what would be expected from the informativeness of the context.  The nature of these effects are an important component of our understanding of visual perception of many types of stimuli and can be used diagnose privileged perceptual dimensions and potentially specialty perceptual systems.  We propose the capacity coefficient as common framework for measuring configural superiority across a wide range of stimulus types. This measure has a number of advantages. The coefficient is based on a comparison of responses to the configuration with a baseline of unlimited-capacity, independent, parallel processing of each of the parts. Response times for processing the parts in isolation are used to estimate that baseline performance. Better than baseline performance, or better than unlimited-capacity, independent parallel processing, of a configuration of parts, indicates configural superiority. Furthermore, because the capacity coefficient accounts for the difficulty of processing each part, the capacity coefficient for one type of configuration can be compared to the capacity coefficient of another configuration, even if the parts are not exactly the same. We applied the capacity coefficient to three domains in which configural superiority effects have been previously demonstrated: the orientation of a pair of dots, words, and faces. We found that participants had better than baseline performance for detecting differences in the location of dots relative to reference points if there was also a difference in the orientation. The capacity coefficient was much higher than when there was not a difference in orientation; in fact, when there was no difference in orientation, the capacity coefficient indicated worse than baseline performance. Likewise, we found that participants performed better than baseline with words. Participants’ capacity coefficients were higher for words than random consonant sequences, which tended to have equal to or worse than baseline capacity coefficients. Finally, we found that participants had better than baseline performance with aligned upper and lower face halves, but lower capacity coefficients with misaligned face halves, usually below baseline.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Semester 2 Highlights

Academic Promotions 

Congratulations to Scott Brown (Level E) and Darren Burke (Level D) on their recently awarded academic promotions.

Congratulations to Dr Lousie Houlcroft.
Under the authority of the University Council, Louise was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the School of Psychology on 9 December. A great effort and well within RTS time. Congratulations also to Louise’s supervisors: Miles Bore and Don Munro.

2015 ARC Funding Recipients - an excellent outcome for the School of Psychology
  • Professor Simon Dennis, Professor Andrew Heathcote and Associate Professor Vladimir Sloutsky (Ohio State University) were awarded $757,800 for a project that aims to develop a model of episodic memory, the category of memory that allows people to recall specific experiences, events and times. Professor Dennis' project will apply the model to both adult and child development data, enhancing understanding of when episodic memory develops in children and young adults. This grant was the largest given for Psychology or Cognitive Science in the 2015 round, and was the second largest grant obtained by UON.
  • Dr Stefania Paolini, Professor Jake Harwood, Associate Professor David Neumann and Professor Miles Hewstone received $293,400 for their research into intergroup contact (face-to-face interactions between people of opposing groups).
Academic Promotions
Congratulations to Scott Brown (Level E) and Darren Burke (Level D) on their recently awarded academic promotions.

13th Australian Conference on Personality and Individual Differences
Miles Bore and Don Munro organised the 13th Australian Conference on Personality and Individual Differences (ACPID) held at the Newcastle Travelodge 27 and 28 November. The conference, officially opened by HoS Prof Simon Denis,  was attended by 80 delegates from around Australia and included keynote addresses, symposia,  individual papers and a rapid poster presentation sessions (much like the 3 minute thesis format).

Three Minute Thesis Finalist
Kate Bartlem  presented her research "Changing Practice: Addressing Physical Health in Mental Health Services" at the Faculty Heat of the Three Minute Thesis Competition. Kate was one of three Faculty finalists to go through to the University Final held in July. Well done Kate!