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Research in the Department of Psychology

Strong research ethos

In the QS World University Rankings by Subject, the Department of Psychology at Otago has been ranked in the top 40 internationally since 2013.

Furthermore, in the latest Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) rating exercise, the Department of Psychology received the country’s highest score for any nominated academic unit in any discipline,

Being rated the top department at the University of Otago in the same exercise confirms the research ethos employed by academic staff, research staff, and postgraduate students. We are proud of the national and international success our researchers receive.

“I am very proud to be a member of this outstanding department. We have an incredible international reputation, and we have achieved that reputation through the hard and dedicated work of our academic staff, research staff, and senior students, as well as an amazing support staff that keep our research machine ticking along."

Mike Colombo, HoD of Psychology, 2014-present

Research facilities

Research in neuroscience, psychopharmacology, psychophysiology, and behavioural processes is supported by specialised laboratories, and neurophysiological apparatus.

Clinical, developmental, and social psychology laboratories include interview rooms, computer recording facilities for coding behaviour, and audio-visual recording equipment. Research in cognition and perception includes equipment for recording evoked potentials, for measuring eye movements, for investigating hemisphere asymmetry, and a flight simulator.

The technical and administrative staff of the Department provide enthusiastic and skilled assistance over a wide range of areas of research.

Interdisciplinary research with other disciplines

Interdisciplinary approaches are encouraged and there are well-established links with other university departments in the Division of Sciences, the Division of Humanities, and in the Division of Health Sciences.

Graduate research

The academic staff of the Department of Psychology supervise graduate research in a wide range of areas of experimental and applied psychology, including behavioural processes, clinical psychology, cognition, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, human factors, memory, neuropsychology, perception, psychobiology, psychopharmacology, psychophysiology, and social psychology.

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Staff Research

  • Professor Cliff Abraham
    Neural mechanisms of learning and memory, cellular and molecular events underlying nervous system plasticity and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Dr Brent Alsop 
    Experimental analysis of human and animal behaviour in detection and choice procedures.
  • Professor David Bilkey
    Biological basis of memory and learning. Spatial memory and navigation. Hippocampal function in schizophrenia.
  • Professor Mike Colombo
    Neural basis of memory and learning, effects of brain damage on behaviour, comparative animal cognition.
  • Dr Tamlin Conner
    Emotional and physical well-being, happiness, nutrition, genetics, mobile-phone based experience sampling methods.
  • Professor Liz Franz
    Planning, attention, and memory processes of complex actions in neurologically-normal and impaired individuals, with a specific focus on bimanual skills.
  • Professor Jamin Halberstadt
    Interaction of emotion and cognition, intuition and reasoning in decision making, social cognition.
  • Professor Harlene Hayne
    Memory development in infants and children, childhood amnesia, the development of children’s drawing skills, interviewing children in clinical and legal contexts, risk-taking by adolescents.
  • Dr Dione Healey
    Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, temperament and psychopathology, neuropsychological development in childhood.
  • Dr Kristin Hillman
    Neural basis of decision-making and motivation, effects of training/drugs/brain stimulation on goal-directed behaviour.
  • Associate Professor Jackie Hunter
    Social identity, self-esteem, prejudice, intergroup relations.
  • Dr Richard Linscott
    Schizophrenia and risk for psychosis; ethics and informed consent; taxometrics.
  • Dr Liana Machado
    Neuropsychology, visual attention, automaticity, and control.
  • Professor Neil McNaughton
    The neural basis of anxiety and its disorders; the Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of human personality; neuroeconomics; the contribution of theta rhythm to these various aspects of mental processing.
  • Professor Jeff Miller
    Cognitive psychology and psychophysiology, visual perception and attention, mathematical and statistical models and methods.
  • Associate Professor Janice Murray
    Visual cognition, face and object recognition, face perception and aging, visual attention.
  • Professor David O’Hare
    Cognitive ergonomics, human factors, aviation psychology, expertise and decision-making.
  • Professor Richie Poulton
    Developmental psychopathology, gene X environment prediction of complex disorders, and psychosocial determinants of chronic physical disease.
  • Professor Elaine Reese
    Autobiographical memory development; language and literacy development; social influences on cognitive development.
  • Professor Ted Ruffman
    Social understanding in infants, children, older adults, and dogs.
  • Dr Damian Scarf
    Comparative animal cognition; eg, testing the ability of pigeons to learn novel sequences and solve problems. Developmental psychology; eg, testing the ability of 3- and 4-year-old children to plan for the future and delay gratification.
  • Associate Professor Martin Sellbom
    Integration of personality and psychopathology; personality disorders; paychopathy; personality assessment; foresnic psychology.
  • Dr Elizabeth Schaughency
    How to promote evidence-based practices and decision-making to bridge the research-to-practice gap in professional practice with children.
  • Dr Mele Taumoepeau
    Children’s social understanding, parent-child conversations about mental states, culture and social understanding.
  • Dr Gareth Treharne
    Psychosocial influences on the experience of illness, treatment decisions and constructions of health in the media.
  • Dr Ryan Ward
    Neurobiology of motivation, cognition, and their interaction, temporal information processing and learning.
  • Dr Rachel Zajac
    Psychology and the law, eyewitness testimony, legal/investigative procedures for witnesses.

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Postgraduate research within Psychology

Psychology at Otago is a leading research department both nationally and internationally and we are proud of our talented students who work tirelessly to achieve the impressive results of their various research topics. They are mentored and encouraged throughout this process by their equally hard-working academic supervisors.

Here are a few examples of postgraduate topics being undertaken in the Department:

  • Identifying whether a deficiency in the reward system precedes the onset of schizophrenia; or whether the symptom occurs after the onset of the illness.
  • Examining the physiological and psychological experiences that children, with and without ADHD have, when processing and responding to emotional and socially relevant information.
  • Looking at how whānau talk with their children about experiences that are in line with who they are and where they come from.
  • Looking at how forensic decision-makers can be swayed by more than just the evidence in front of them.
  • An interdisciplinary study to examine the relation between circulating vitamin D status and wellbeing, as well as examining genes related to vitamin D function and wellbeing.
  • Finding a blood test that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease at an early stage.
  • Investigating whether domestic dogs understand human emotional cues.
  • Looking at whether infants as young as 6-months old possess an innate moral compass that allows them to evaluate individuals as good or bad.
  • Developing measures that can be used in the laboratory to assess real-life behaviours, e.g., adolescent risk-taking, parent-child conflict.

Psycolloquy

Each year, in November, the department holds Psycolloquy, a presentation day for students' research. This is well attended by our postgraduate students, staff and members of the public.

Learn more about Psycolloquy

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Psychology Research Labs & Centres

A number of research groups maintain their own webpages, and some have contact information for potential participants in their research.

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Related Multidisciplinary Research

Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research

AWCBR is New Zealand's premier neuroscience gathering. It encourages a multidisciplinary approach to neuroscience and is structured to leave participants' days free for interaction with other participants while enjoying the pleasures of New Zealand's most popular winter resort.

Visit the Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research website

Brain Health Research Centre

The mission of the Brain Health Research Centre is to undertake internationally excellent research aimed at understanding the mechanisms of brain health, disease and repair, to develop new treatments for neurological disorders, to provide international quality training for the next generation of neuroscientists, and to develop active links with relevant community groups and individuals.

Visit the Brain Health Research Centre website

Brain Research New Zealand (Rangahau Roro Aotearoa) - A  Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE)

BRNZ brings together 67 research groups spread all over New Zealand. Our collaborative community-focused approach is unprecedented for research in New Zealand. We are striving to unlock the secrets of the ageing brain and producing a seismic shift in how researchers, clinicians and community groups partner together. Find out more about our interventions and treatments for neurodegenerative disorders of the ageing brain; such as Dementia, Stroke, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease and Huntington's Disease. When we share and collaborate in order to improve health outcomes for older people, the outcome is a healthier and happier New Zealand.

Visit the BRNZ website

Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit (Dunedin Study)

The Research Unit runs the ongoing Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (also known as the Dunedin Study) which is a detailed study of human health, development and behaviour, founded by Dr Phil A. Silva. The Dunedin Study has followed the lives of 1037 babies born between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973 Queen Mary Maternity Hospital, Dunedin, New Zealand, since their birth. The Study is now in its fifth decade and has produced over 1150 publications and reports, many of which have influenced or helped inform policy makers in New Zealand and overseas.

Visit the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study website