Psychology students receive a head-start in research

The University of Western Sydney’s ‘Summer Vacation Research Internship’ has given undergraduate students the opportunity to experience a career in research, and to contribute to our understanding of a number of interesting topics.

A place in the elite five-week Internship Program was offered to four high-achieving Bachelor of Psychology students. Each student was assigned a short sample study, as well as a UWS researcher to act as their mentor.

Cassandra Masters from North Parramatta tested Charles Darwin’s theory that opposite emotions are communicated by opposite bodily expressions – such as smiles for happiness and frowns for sadness.

“Using computer technology, I morphed facial expressions to create their exact mathematical opposites. The results indicated that only some of the expressions could be rated as opposites, while others appeared to be more neutral or expressionless,” says Cassandra.

“For example, true to Darwin’s theory the anti-expression of happy looks sad. However, the opposite of angry was most commonly rated as looking neutral. This means that Darwin may only be partly correct – only some basic facial expressions have clear opposites.”

Lauren Carter from Dulwich Hill worked on a project that explored how forms of addiction can flourish in an anonymous, online environment.

“A few years ago, we assumed that the Internet would be used as a hide-out for introverted people. However, what my study indicated is that the web has now become the domain of extroverts,” says Lauren.

“There was a strong positive correlation between internet abuse and social adjustment scores – in other words, the assumption had the internet detracts from our ability to function in a normal, social way, could be incorrect.”

Kristy Dawson, also from Dulwich Hill, undertook a project that related to the theory that it is easier for your brain to quickly and accurately identify a person or object if it is seen in the right context.

“I was working from the assumption that it is easier to recognise a priest if he is seen in a church, rather than a football field. The right context sets up expectations in our mind, which allows us to identify objects quicker,” says Kristy.

“What I discovered is that these visual cues are most helpful whether they are presented in the same place each time you see them or if they are presented in a different place. Visual cues are stored, helping us to find objects quickly, without us even being aware that this information has been committed to memory.”

Finally, Jasper Duineveld, an International student from the Netherlands, living in Bankstown, worked on a project that explored how changes in view can affect our ability to recognise people’s faces.

“By looking at faces from different viewpoints, it became clear that our ability to recognise people is dependent on the angle that we see their face,” says Jasper.

“My role was to assess the ways that adults recognise faces, and the study will be extended to also explore how this compares with children. The findings may help us to understand how our brain processes, and our ability to recognise people, changes as we get older.”

Dr Tamara Watson from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology says many students enrol in Psychology programs without realising that research is an important element of the profession.

“All over the world, humans are getting more and more interested in having evidence to back up everything we do. Psychology is one just one area where it is important to be able to learn how to generate and evaluate this evidence,” says Dr Watson.

“For psychology students, the Internship provides a unique opportunity to develop the research skills that will be essential for a successful career. It demonstrates to the students first-hand how the theoretical elements of their degree have real-world implications, and how research can their understanding of their profession.”

Dr Watson says the exciting thing about research is the outcomes are rarely what you expect.

“I’m sure when Cassandra started the Internship she would never have expected to form evidence that is contrary to one of Charles Darwin’s theories. Just as Jasper would have never expected that he would be contributing to our understanding of how brain processes mature with age,” says Dr Watson.

“Of course these are only short, five-week long studies. Much more investigation needs to be undertaken before the results can be considered water-tight. But for the students this is an important learning experience – the internship has taken them through the process of conducting a research project from beginning to end, and has allowed them to develop an important skill that will be integral to their future careers.”


10 April 2012

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer