UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Research, Projects and Collaborations

Are surprises the active ingredient of successful treatments? A neurocomputational study of prediction errors in psychotherapy. 

Cognitive therapy for social anxiety disorder leads to substantial improvements in social anxiety symptoms, but also co-occurring symptoms of depression.  This programme of research is devoted to understanding what behavioural, neural and computational mechanisms underlie this improvement and how the benefits can be maximised for everyone individually.  Our core hypothesis is that improvement of social anxiety and depressive symptoms in young people relies on the positive surprises during social interactions; that is, young people experience social interactions that are better than they expected. The study is funded by The Wellcome Trust and is a collaboration with colleagues at UCL (Professors Sarah Garfinkel and Professor Quetin Huys), and at the University of Oxford (Dr Eleanor Leigh and Professor Ilina Singh). Our team will collaborate with young people to understand whether the mechanisms of the intervention and their use for treatment are meaningful and ethically acceptable.

Is a resting mind an unquiet mind? A study of how our mood drifts over time and computational modelling of opportunity cost.

Mood drift over time is a highly replicable phenomenon that was recently discovered and modelled in a large study that we recently published in Nature Human Behaviour (Jangraw et al. 2023). It describes an average linear decrease in the momentary mood of participants during rest, simple tasks and gambling tasks. So far, this decline seems to be independent of boredom or mind wandering and disappears during freely chosen activities. The discovery of mood drift has important implications for the fields of computational psychiatry and psychology: the addition of this parameter could reduce unexplained variability and error in current models where there is an assumption of mood stability and the neutrality of rest or basic psychological tasks. Many psychiatric disorders involve mood symptoms, and affective disorders in particular could benefit from a deeper understanding of why patients' moods tend to decline 'naturally' over time in certain circumstances. The AIM Lab is working to better validate and model this phenomenon, as well as to test different hypotheses of its origins, using experimental designs, MEG data analysis and computational modelling.

What are your preferred emotions? How do people rank their emotions?  

Emotion regulation is defined as changing the existing emotion to a desired one to achieve certain goals (Tamir, 2016). It has been linked to well-being, mental health, cognitive functioning, and social relationships (Gross, 2014). Whilst there has been substantial research into how people regulate their emotions and recent research has explored the motivations preceding emotion regulation, less research has examined how people feel about, value, and view their emotions. In this project, we will use a novel paired comparison tool to explore how people feel about and value their emotions, particularly sadness, and how this varies by age and depression-status.

Epidemiology of body dysmorphic disorder

Little is known about the epidemiology of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) in young people, including its prevalence, patterns of psychiatric comorbidity, and associated impairment. We are addressing these questions using data from the Mental Health of Children and Young People (MHCYP) 2017 survey. This survey was conducted by the UK’s Office for National Statistics and is the first of its kind to assess BDD in a representative, population-based sample of young people. The study is a collaboration with Professor Tamsin Ford at the University of Cambridge, who led the MHCYP survey.

Detection, diagnosis, and treatment of body dysmorphic disorder in youth

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) usually develops during teenage years but often goes undetected, undiagnosed and untreated. Without effective treatment, symptoms tend to persist and can lead to a number of secondary problems. Our goal is to improve the detection of BDD in young people, for example by better understanding the phenomenology of the disorder and by validating brief assessment tools for use in routine clinical practice. We also aim to improve knowledge of treatment outcomes and factors that may impede a positive treatment response, in order to inform further development of treatment protocols. Much of this research is being done in collaboration with Dr Amita Jassi and colleagues at the Maudsley Hospital in London, and Professor David Mataix-Cols and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Genetic and environmental influences on emotional problems in young people

It is well-established that emotional problems result from a complex interplay between genetic factors and environmental experiences. We are interested in better understanding these genetic and environmental influences on the development and outcomes of emotional problems, such as body dysmorphic disorder and anxiety. We are particularly interested in using genetically-informative approaches (primarily twin model fitting) to isolate environmental factors, some of which may be modifiable and offer an opportunity for intervention. This research is a collaboration with Professor Thalia Eley and her team at King’s College London, and Professor David Mataix-Cols and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.