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Congratulations to the 2017 School of Psychology Award Winners!

Posted 15 May 2017

Congratulations to all award winners at this year's annual School of Psychology Student Awards Night held on Thursday 5 May 2016. Winners are listed below:

The Australian Psychological Society Prize
For the best performance in PSYC4053/PSYC4063 Psychology Stage 4 Honours

Behavioural Neuroscience Honours Thesis Prize
For the best performance in an Honours thesis in behavioural neuroscience research with non-human animals
The Forensic Psychology Postgraduate Student Prize
For demonstrated outstanding performance in research and clinical practice in Forensic Psychology in the Master of Psychology program

The Combined PhD/Clinical Masters Thesis Prize 
For the most outstanding PhD thesis by a student in course 1404 (combined PhD/Clinical Masters Degree)

Te Joseph P Forgas Third Year Prize
For the best performance in PSYC3121 Social Psychology

The Joseph P Forgas Honours Prize
For the best performance in an honours empirical thesis in an area of social psychology

The Prize for the Best Thesis in Organisational Change or Development 
For the best thesis in Organisational Change or Development
The Paxinos Neuroscience Prize
For the best PhD thesis in the area of Neuroscience.

The Stephanie J Moylan Memorial Prize
For the best performance in an Organisational Masters thesis

The Psychology Staff Prize
For the best performance in Year 2 Psychology.

The Staff Prize for First Year Psychology
For the highest average performance in PSYC1001 Psychology 1A and PSYC1011 Psychology 1B.

The Staff Prize for Second Year Psychology
For the highest average performance in PSYC2001 Research Methods 2 and three other Psychology Level 2 courses completed within a single year by a student proceeding to any degree at UNSW
The Staff Prize for Third Year Psychology
For the highest average performance in PSYC3001 Research Methods 3A and five other Psychology Level 3 courses completed within a single year.

The Syd Lovibond Prize for Psychology Honours
For meritorious performance in Psychology Honours in the Bachelor of Psychology program.

The Undergraduate Behavioural Neuroscience Prize
For the highest mark in PSYC2081 (Learning and Physiological Psychology) and, completed in the current year, either PSYC3241 or PSYC3051

The CEB SHL Talent Measurement Solution Prize
For the best performance in highest average across PSYC7000 Research Methods and PSYC7002 Psychological Assessment 2

To view photos from the evening visit the School of Psychology Facebook page!

Why bad moods are good for you: the surprising benefits of sadness

Posted 15 May 2017

OPINION: Homo sapiens is a very moody species. Even though sadness and bad moods have always been part of the human experience, we now live in an age that ignores or devalues these feelings. The Conversation

In our culture, normal human emotions like temporary sadness are often treated as disorders. Manipulative advertising, marketing and self-help industries claim happiness should be ours for the asking. Yet bad moods remain an essential part of the normal range of moods we regularly experience.

Despite the near-universal cult of happiness and unprecedented material wealth, happiness and life satisfaction in Western societies has not improved for decades.

It’s time to re-assess the role of bad moods in our lives. We should recognise they are a normal, and even a useful and adaptive part of being human, helping us cope with many everyday situations and challenges.

A short history of sadness

In earlier historical times, short spells of feeling sad or moody (known as mild dysphoria) have always been accepted as a normal part of everyday life. In fact, many of the greatest achievements of the human spirit deal with evoking, rehearsing and even cultivating negative feelings.

Greek tragedies exposed and trained audiences to accept and deal with inevitable misfortune as a normal part of human life. Shakespeare’s tragedies are classics because they echo this theme. And the works of many great artists such as Beethoven and Chopin in music, or Chekhov and Ibsen in literature explore the landscape of sadness, a theme long recognised as instructive and valuable.

Ancient philosophers have also believed accepting bad moods is essential to living a full life. Even hedonist philosophers like Epicurus recognised living well involves exercising wise judgement, restraint, self-control and accepting inevitable adversity.

Other philosophers like the stoics also highlighted the importance of learning to anticipate and accept misfortunes, such as loss, sorrow or injustice.

What is the point of sadness?

Psychologists who study how our feelings and behaviours have evolved over time maintain all our affective states (such as moods and emotions) have a useful role: they alert us to states of the world we need to respond to.

In fact, the range of human emotions includes many more negative than positive feelings. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, shame or disgust are helpful because they help us recognise, avoid and overcome threatening or dangerous situations.

But what is the point of sadness, perhaps the most common negative emotion, and one most practising psychologists deal with?

Intense and enduring sadness, such as depression, is obviously a serious and debilitating disorder. However, mild, temporary bad moods may serve an important and useful adaptive purpose, by helping us to cope with everyday challenges and difficult situations. They also act as a social signal that communicates disengagement, withdrawal from competition and provides a protective cover. When we appear sad or in a bad mood, people often are concerned and are inclined to help.

When we’re sad, other people show concern and want to help. Joshua Clay/Unsplash

Some negative moods, such as melancholia and nostalgia (a longing for the past) may even be pleasant and seem to provide useful information to guide future plans and motivation.

Sadness can also enhance empathy, compassion, connectedness and moral and aesthetic sensibility. And sadness has long been a trigger for artistic creativity.

Recent scientific experiments document the benefits of mild bad moods, which often work as automatic, unconscious alarm signals, promoting a more attentive and detailed thinking style. In other words, bad moods help us to be more attentive and focused in difficult situations.

In contrast, positive mood (like feeling happy) typically serves as a signal indicating familiar and safe situations and results in a less detailed and attentive processing style.

Psychological benefits of sadness

There is now growing evidence that negative moods, like sadness, has psychological benefits.

To demonstrate this, researchers first manipulate people’s mood (by showing happy or sad films, for example), then measure changes in performance in various cognitive and behavioural tasks.

Feeling sad or in a bad mood produces a number of benefits:

  • better memory In one study, a bad mood (caused by bad weather) resulted in people better remembering the details of a shop they just left. Bad mood can also improve eyewitness memories by reducing the effects of various distractions, like irrelevant, false or misleading information.

  • more accurate judgements A mild bad mood also reduces some biases and distortions in how people form impressions. For instance, slightly sad judges formed more accurate and reliable impressions about others because they processed details more effectively. We found that bad moods also reduced gullibility and increased scepticism when evaluating urban myths and rumours, and even improved people’s ability to more accurately detect deception. People in a mild bad mood are also less likely to rely on simplistic stereotypes.

  • motivation Other experiments found that when happy and sad participants were asked to perform a difficult mental task, those in a bad mood tried harder and persevered more. They spent more time on the task, attempted more questions and produced more correct answers.

  • better communication The more attentive and detailed thinking style promoted by a bad mood can also improve communication. We found people in a sad mood used more effective persuasive arguments to convince others, were better at understanding ambiguous sentences and better communicated when talking.

  • increased fairness Other experiments found that a mild bad mood caused people to pay greater attention to social expectations and norms, and they treated others less selfishly and more fairly.

Counteracting the cult of happiness

By extolling happiness and denying the virtues of sadness, we set an unachievable goal for ourselves. We may also be causing more disappointment, some say even depression.

It is also increasingly recognised that being in a good mood, despite some advantages, is not universally desirable.

Feeling sad or in a bad mood helps us to better focus on the situation we find ourselves in, and so increases our ability to monitor and successfully respond to more demanding situations.

These findings suggest the unrelenting pursuit of happiness may often be self-defeating. A more balanced assessment of the costs and benefits of good and bad moods is long overdue.

If feelings of sadness persist, contact your GP, Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 22 4636 or SANE Australia 1800 18 7263.

Joseph Paul Forgas is Scientia Professor of Psychology at UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

International and National Rankings see UNSW Psychology ranked #1 in Australia for Research and Teaching

Posted 3 May 2017

Psychology at UNSW is now the leading school in Australia for Psychology, according to the 2017 QS World University Rankings and the recently released national Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT).

The QS World Rankings by subject* saw UNSW Psychology listed at number 18, the highest ranked Australian university and the highest ranked university in the southern hemisphere.

Measures of teaching performance making up this year’s QILT dataset also ranked UNSW Psychology as the top performing school in the country for teaching across undergraduate and postgraduate levels**.

* Now in their seventh year, the QS World University Rankings by Subject is based on the expert opinion of almost 75,000 academics and more than 41,000 employers, alongside the analysis of 28.5 million research papers and over 113 million citations sourced from the Scopus/Elsevier bibliometric database. For the full results, click here.

** The QILT dataset is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training and results are based on average rankings of indicators drawn from the Student Experience Survey, the Course Experience Questionnaire, the Graduate Outcomes Survey, and the Graduate Destinations Survey across UG and PG studies. For more information, click here.

5 Ways Sadness is Good for You

Posted 1 May 2017

By Joseph Forgas and Steve Hickman | April 25, 2017

Sadness is not usually valued in our current culture. Self-help books promote the benefits of positive thinking, positive attitude, and positive behaviors, labeling sadness as a “problem emotion” that needs to be kept at bay or eliminated.

Evolution must have had something else in mind, though, or sadness wouldn’t still be with us. Being sad from time to time serves some kind of purpose in helping our species to survive. Yet, while other so-called “negative emotions,” like fear, anger, and disgust, seem clearly adaptive—preparing our species for flight, fight, or avoidance, respectively—the evolutionary benefits of sadness have been harder to understand…until recently, that is.

With the advent of fMRI imaging and the proliferation of brain research, scientists have begun to find out more about how sadness works in the brain and influences our thoughts and behavior. Though happiness is still desirable in many situations, there are others in which a mild sad mood confers important advantages.

Findings from my own research suggest that sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.

Here are some of the ways sadness can be a beneficial emotion:

1) It can improve your memory. On rainy, unpleasant days that produce a blue mood, people have a much better recollection of details of objects. On bright, sunny days when people feel happy, their memory is far less accurate. It seems positive mood impairs, and negative mood improves attention and memory for incidental details in our environment.

2) It improves your judgment. People are more likely to make social misjudgments due to biases when they’re happy. But sad moods reduce common judgmental biases, such as attributing intentionality to others’ behavior while ignoring situational factors, and assuming that a person having some positive feature—such as a handsome face—is likely to have others, such as kindness or intelligence.

3) It’s motivating. Happiness signals to us that we are in a safe, familiar situation, and that little effort is needed to change anything. Sadness, on the other hand, operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering more effort and motivation to deal with a challenge. In other words, a sad mood can increase and happy mood can reduce perseverance with difficult tasks.

Sadness operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering more effort and motivation to deal with a challenge.

4) It might improve your interactions. Sad people are more focused on external cues and don’t rely solely on their first impressions to formulate the most appropriate communication strategy in uncertain social circumstances. Happy people, on the other hand, are more inclined to trust their first impressions.

5) It can make you nicer. People in sad moods are more concerned with fairness, and after taking longer to decide, give significantly more to others than do happy people. This suggests that they pay greater attention to the needs of others and are more attentive and thoughtful in making their decisions.

Mindfulness Practice: Scan Your Body for Sadness

There is a bit of a cliché that “If you feel it, you can heal it.” Thoughts are fast moving, elusive, and hard to pin down. Sensations, though, are different. They are ponderous and slow moving, which means we can target them with our attention and tend to them with kindness and compassion. Locating the arising of sadness in the body (it is different in everyone) gives us a kind of steady place to direct our kind attention and begin to alter our relationship with sadness. Follow this sequence.

Locating the arising of sadness in the body (it is different in everyone) gives us a kind of steady place to direct our kind attention and begin to alter our relationship with sadness.

1) Ask yourself: How does sadness actually feel in my body? This makes it less of an abstract concept or purely mental event and more of an all-body-and-mind experience.

2) See if you can locate a place where sadness is most noticeable. Take your time with it. It might be in your head or face or in your heart; maybe it feels like a weight on your shoulders, or an ache in your belly.

3) Try mentally “breathing” into that location (visualizing that you are ventilating it with fresh air), touch it warmly with your hand, or simply incline your attention toward it like you would incline toward a sleeping infant.

4) Let go of the need to make the feeling go away. Let it be there moment by moment and allow it to do what it does. Perhaps it is simply saying, in its own way, “This moment is not what you wanted, but it’s the only one you’ve got.”

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Mindful magazine alongside a feature titled, “A Time to Be Sad.” “5 Ways Sadness Can Be Good for You” was adapted from Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. View the original article.


Parkinson's Scientific Art: An Exhibition Showcasing Scientific Developments in Parkinson's Research

Posted 26 April 2017

Parkinson’s Scientific Art! Call out now open!

Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, with approximately 32 Australians being diagnosed daily. Organisers of Parkinson's Scientific Art are looking for interested scientists and clinicians who are currently working on Parkinson’s research to contribute scientific images of their work.

Selected artworks will be exhibited in August 2017 - August 2018 with the primary vision to increase awareness of Parkinson’s Disease.


  • Raise awareness of Parkinson’s Disease.
  • Celebrate the scientific developments in Parkinsons research
  • Provide a platform for artists and scientists to collaborate.
  • Encourage engagement between community, science and art.


Call out closes: 30th May 2017.
Panel meets to select work: 15th June 2017
Selected contributors will be requested to provide a brief caption describing image.
Preparation for exhibition and website development: 15th June 2017-10th August
Exhibition sites: Sydney Science Week Exhibition: 12 August 2017- 20th August 2017
Randwick library, North Rydye library, Australian Neuroscience Society Conference, Parkinsons NSW.

More information on how to submit images can be found here.

Please email images to
Interested sponsors, scientists and volunteers please contact: Dr Asheeta Prasad

Science Majors Expo 2017

27 April 2017 - 12:30pm – 27 April 2017 - 2:30pm  |  Hilmer Building Foyer, (Map ref E10)

Are you still undecided on your Science major? With over 25 different majors to choose from, we understand your dilemma!

The Science Majors Expo is your chance to explore options and plan your degree, before re-enrolment opens for Semester 2, 2017.

Come and talk to professors, student advisors and current students from each of the Science Schools. Among other things, you can find out:

  • What you actually study in the advanced stages of the major
  • What’s required to complete a major or double major
  • What career opportunities are available for students with a major in…
  • How to get some research or industry experience before you graduate

This event is open to all new and continuing UNSW students.

Register your attendance:

Arachnophobia researchers want to know why women are more likely to be terrified of spiders

Posted 11 April 2017

How close would you get to a big hairy huntsman?

Most of us would stay well away if we could, but for 5 per cent of the population the fear of an encounter with a spider is so pervasive that it has a disruptive effect on their daily life.

The majority of genuine arachnophobes are women, with some studies suggesting as many as 90 per cent of arachnophobes are female.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales think female sex hormones could be behind that imbalance.

They are investigating whether women are more likely to develop a fear of spiders and less likely to respond to treatment for their anxiety at times in their menstrual cycle when their level of sex hormones is lowest.

Briana Clifford is one of around 90 women who have been taking part in the UNSW study into the role hormones play in arachnophobia.

Briana cannot remember a time when she was not afraid of spiders.

"I just thought it was a normal response to be that scared of spiders all the time," she said.

"My dad is not afraid of spiders and I always thought it was super weird that he used to get rid of spiders for us and touch them and all that sort of thing.

"I make myself sound a bit like a crazy person but I always have a bit of a countdown of how long it's been since I've had any encounter with a spider.

"I feel like the longer between having an incident, the greater the chance of me coming into contact with a spider."

Ms Clifford is trying to stop herself engaging in excessive avoidance behaviours, where she fears that next encounter so much that she has to check under her bed and in every nook and cranny of her car before getting in.

"I know that most spiders are not poisonous, I know that and they are probably no going to hurt me but it's more the anticipation and anxiety of having a spider touch me or crawl on me," she said.

She has also been doing exposure therapy with the clinical psychologists at UNSW.

The therapy involves first talking about what exactly the patient fears will happen if they encounter a spider.

Dr Bronwyn Graham, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, said that information was crucial.

"Because rather than expose people just to spiders we want to expose them to the possibility that they fear," she said.

The exposure session for Ms Clifford involved first observing a St Andrews Cross spider, then picking it up using a postcard and a cup, then touching it, and finally letting it crawl on her hand.

She frequently leans back in her chair, jumps and squeals a few times, and shakes as she holds the spider in the cup.

Video: Watch Barbara Miller's report on arachnophobia and exposure therapy (Lateline)

No escape, no calling the spider disgusting

Clinical psychologist Dr Sophie Li said there were are a couple of rules for the session.

"One is no escape, which includes leaning back, and the second is no describing the spider as disgusting," she said.

The psychologists said a session like this, which can end in the patient going as far as touching a huntsman spider, can go a long way to curing someone of arachnophobia.

But up to 40 per cent of people experience no reduction in anxiety after exposure therapy and the researchers hope to show that the poorer results in women are linked to lower levels of sex hormones.

If that is proven, treatments could be scheduled at times in a women's cycle when their sex hormone levels are higher.

For women with low levels of oestradiol who have gone through menopause, hormones could be administered before the therapy session.

"If we demonstrate that there are fluctuations in treatment response due to hormone levels it would certainly have big implications for how we should be treating women in the future," Dr Bronwyn Graham said.

For Ellen Fawcett, another participant in the UNSW study, a two-hour exposure therapy session has had amazing results.

The social work student progressed from being hardly able to look at a spider, to letting one crawl on her hands.

"I feel like I have conquered the world," she said.

The researchers will also run a workshop for arachnophobes on May 13 at the Australian Museum.

This article by Barbara Miller appeared on ABC News. View the full article here:

Worried about shark attacks or terrorism? Here's how to think about the real risk of rare events

Posted 5 April 2017

How risky is it to swim? 

Ben Newell, UNSW
Chris Donkin, UNSW
Dan Navarro, UNSW

Statistics is a useful tool for understanding the patterns in the world around us. But our intuition often lets us down when it comes to interpreting those patterns. In this series we look at some of the common mistakes we make and how to avoid them when thinking about statistics, probability and risk. The Conversation

The world can feel like a scary place.

Today, Australia’s National Terrorism Threat Level is “Probable”. Shark attacks are on the rise; the number of people attacked by sharks in 2000-2009 has almost doubled since 1990-1999. Travellers are at a high risk of getting the Zika virus in places where the disease is present, such as Brazil and Mexico.

However, despite their tragic outcomes, these events are all extremely rare.

Since 1996, only eight people have been killed by terrorism attacks in Australia. There have been 186 shark attacks in the 20 years from 1990 to 2009. Best estimates indicate that only 1.8 people for each million tourists would have contracted Zika at the Rio Olympics.

To be fair, it is extremely difficult to judge the incidence of rare events. So how should we think about these risks?

Default to safe

Decision scientists study rare events by bringing people into the lab and asking them to make choices. For example, in their Nobel Prize-winning work, researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky had people make choices between two options: one safe, one risky.

A typical choice might involve a safe option where you’d walk away with $5, guaranteed. Alternatively, you could choose to take a gamble and receive $15 with 90% probability. However, if you lost the gamble, you would have to pay $35.

If you’d just take the $5, then you’re not alone. Despite the gamble being clearly better than taking $5, in terms of what you would win on average (0.9 x $15 – 0.1 x $35 = $10), the loss of $35 looms so large in the mind that many of us tend to choose the safe option.

In this scenario, the loss of $35 is a relatively rare event: it will only occur 10% of the time. Yet we treat the rare event as if it were much more likely to occur than in reality. Kahneman and Tversky termed this the “overweighting” of small probabilities.

Of course, real-world rare events, such as disease control, shark attacks and terrorism threats, are much more complex than this fictitious gamble. But from a purely statistical point of view, it may be that we are disproportionately worried about such events, given their rarity.

For example, a poll conducted by Chapman University in the United States suggests that 38.5% of people were “afraid” or “very afraid” of being a victim of terrorism. This is despite the fact that only 71 people in the US were killed by terrorism between 2005 and 2015. To put that into perspective, PolitiFact reports that 301,797 people have died from gun violence in the US over a similar period.

So is it fear that drives us to believe that rare events are likely to happen?

According to David Landy, a researcher at Indiana University, who spoke on this very issue at the 2016 meeting of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, the answer is no.

One question in Landy’s survey asked people to estimate the proportion of the US population that was Muslim. The true proportion is slightly less than 1%. People’s estimates tended to be higher, at around 10%.

It is typically the case that people overestimate the population of Muslims in the US. The overestimate is often interpreted in terms of fear. The idea is that people are more likely to pay attention to things that scare them, and this leads them to believe they are more common than they really are.

The “fear” explanation is intuitively plausible, but it may not be true. In a critical comparison, Landy also asked about the probability of other events that also had a small probability, but would be unlikely to make people scared (such as what proportion of the US population had served in the military).

It turned out that people also overestimated the probability of these rare but uninteresting events. In fact, the degree to which they overestimated these other events was practically identical to how much they overestimated the population of Muslims.

Landy’s result suggests that we simply have trouble in thinking about small probabilities, regardless of the topic. It may not be that some people overestimate the proportion of Muslims out of fear. Rather, it seems that we will overestimate the incidence of any rare event.

Are you worried about getting struck? Wikimedia

How to think about rare events

So how should we think about and respond to rare events?

One remedy might be to use what some researchers refer to as “metacognitive awareness”. This is being aware of how cognitive processes, like memory, work when we try to think about and estimate the frequency with which things happen.

One metacognitive cue you might use is how easy it is to remember a particular event, such as hearing about shark attacks. But simply reading-off the ease of recall is likely to be misleading. This is because your memory is biased by positive instances: going swimming and not being attacked by sharks is not surprising so it is not particularly memorable.

This failure of memory to deliver representative samples of evidence suggests a need to think carefully, not only about the bias in memory retrieval, but also in the samples available to us in the world.

Perversely, it suggests that when you want to work out how rare an event is (and an appropriate response), you should try to think about all the times it didn’t happen (negative instances) rather than those when it did!

So next time you are at the beach and contemplating taking a dip, just think of the millions of swimmers who have never been attacked by a shark, and not the relatively few who have.

Ben Newell, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, UNSW; Chris Donkin, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, UNSW, and Dan Navarro, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2017 School of Psychology Awards Night

11 May 2017 - 6:00pm – 11 May 2017 - 8:00pm  |  ASB Lounge, Level 6, Deans Unit, UNSW Business School

Connect, engage and mingle at the annual Psychology Awards Night and Cocktail Evening.

This annual event for Psychology staff and students is a chance to catch up and connect with your colleagues and UNSW staff. We will also be celebrating the achievements of our high performing undergraduate and postgraduate students with a brief Awards ceremony.

Thursday 11 May 2017
6.00PM – 8.00PM
ASB Lounge, Level 6
Deans Unit, UNSW Business School
Map Ref: E12

Canapés and drinks will be provided.

Invitation only. Registration for this event is essential as places are limited.

RSVP by Monday 1 May to with subject title: School Awards Night.

Brain Sciences UNSW Colloquia 2017 - Brain, Mind and Addiction

28 March 2017 - 4:00pm – 28 March 2017 - 5:00pm  |  Black Dog Institute Lecture Theatre G39, Hospital Road, Prince of Wales Hospital

The first in the series of Brain Sciences UNSW Colloquia 2017

Brain, mind and addiction

Dr Louise Mewton (NDARC), “Alcohol and its effects on the adolescent brain: An overview”; Dr Janette Smith (NDARC), “Can a new form of inhibitory training reduce heavy drinking?”; Dr Kelly Clemens (UNSW School of Psychology), “Epigenetic regulation of nicotine seeking”. Chairperson – Professor Michael Farrell (NDARC)

Tuesday 28 March, 4 – 5 pm; followed by refreshments.

Black Dog Institute Lecture Theatre G39, Hospital Road, Prince of Wales Hospital.

All welcome.