Monday, 27 April 2015

School’s social psychologist helps bridging Australasia and North America into the future

On April 7th, 2015, Dr Stefania Paolini from UON School of Psychology had the pleasure to officially inaugurate a new small group conference series jointly sponsored by the Society for Australasian Social Psychologists (SASP) and the largest professional society of social scientists in the world, (American-led) Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (or SPSSI). The small group meeting is aimed at facilitating research cross-pollination and research training around areas of mutual interest of the two societies. It is expected to gather 20-30 senior and junior scholars from Australasia and North America and take place yearly in alternate geographical locations.

The inaugural SASP-SPSSI small group conference meeting was held in Brisbane on the topic of ‘Collective harmdoing’. It gathered prominent social psychologists: John Dixon (Open University, UK) and Daniel Bar-Tal (Tel-Aviv University, Israel), Jolanda Jetten, and Alex Haslam (UQ, Australia). Stefania, as co-chair of SPSSI internationalisation committee and SASP representative, has been the main driver in the establishment of this new scheme. Her opening words were nicely complemented by a video message to the conference delegates by SPSSI President, Alice Eagly, and the 15+ people SPSSI council.

Stefania was also asked to open the scientific program of the meeting with an overview of her programmatic work on valence asymmetry in intergroup relations. This line of research indicates that, while positive interactions between members of opposing groups bring about positive outcomes (less prejudice, more trust etc.), negative interactions have a disproportionately larger (detrimental) impact—the so called ‘negative valence asymmetry’. Her presentation included recently published findings suggesting that individuals’ positive and diverse histories of contact with members of opposing groups can lessen the impact of these negative asymmetries even in conflict-ridden settings, like Cyprus or Northern Ireland. These asymmetries are further diluted by the greater prevalence of positive (vs. negative) contact in most people’s ordinary life experiences. If you want to know more about these findings, see: Paolini, Harwood, Rubin, Husnu, Joyce, & Hewstone here  and Graf, Paolini, & Rubin here.  

Negative valence asymmetries: A case of negative being louder than positive in intergroup relations

Friday, 24 April 2015

UON 50 Year Anniversary Graduate Parade

I had the great pleasure of taking part in the graduation parade and ceremony held on Thursday 16th April. There was a parade through town and the graduation ceremony in the Civic Theatre to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of UoN. I was very happy  to take part in the academic procession and I got to wear the Doctorate of Clinical Psychology gown from UoN which matched our students' gowns. We had the Doctorate of Clinical and Doctorate of Clinical and Health Psychology students receiving their degrees. They, and the University Medal winners, were also the only graduates who were in the academic procession with the staff, VC and Chancellor and also got to sit on the stage. It was a lovely day and the DPSYC students felt very special. It was such a big turn out during the parade and the civic theatre was full.
Happy Days - Congratulations!!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Predicting responses from MEG-recorded brain activity: A talk by Tijl Grootswagers, J. Brendan Ritchie, and Thomas Carlson (from Macquarie University).

The Cognitive Research Group is proud to host a talk by our visitors from Macquarie University:

Predicting Reaction Times from the Emerging Representation of Degraded Visual Objects.

Tijl Grootswagers, J. Brendan Ritchie, and Thomas Carlson
Macquarie University

ABSTRACT: Object recognition is fast and reliable, and works even when our eyes are focused elsewhere. The aim of our study was to examine how the visual system compensates for degraded inputs in object recognition by looking at the time course of the brain's processing of naturally degraded visual object stimuli. In Experiment 1, we degraded the images by varying the simulated focus so that each image was equally recognizable. In Experiment 2, subjects categorized intact and degraded images, while their brain activity was recorded using magnetoencephalography (MEG). As expected, reaction times for the task were slower for the degraded object stimuli. We assessed several neurally-based models to explain this reaction time difference, including distance-based models, which predict reaction times using distance from a decision bound through neural activation space. We found that the distance-based models were the best predictors, which we also related to the linear ballistic accumulator (LBA) model of choice and reaction time behaviour.

WHEN: Thursday 16th April, 12-1pm.

WHERE: Aviation Building, room AVLG17, with audiovisual link to Ourimbah Science Offices.

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.