Humans are highly dependent on vision, and experimental psychologists very often use “visual stimuli” to study perception, learning and other psychological processes. However, until recently we have not routinely been able to track how experimental participants actually look for visual information. New technology  for “eye tracking” is now available to do this allows researchers to accurately measure and investigate more subtle human responses than was previously possible (Palmer, 2010).

This eye tracking technology opens up the possibility of addressing important theoretical and applied research questions. These include:

1.Is looking at a target (e.g., within a complex visual display) a basic skill learnt through operant conditioning principles that underpins much of our learnt behaviour?

2.Is choice of visual targets and visual scanning behaviour a characteristic of various behavioural problems, and if so can this be remedied by teaching people to scan more accurately?

The equipment to be used within this research is the SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI) RED (Remote Eye Detection), a video-based eye tracking system which uses infrared light to measure corneal reflections to determine eye movements and fixations towards on-screen stimuli.  This enables data to be recorded regarding the frequency and duration which a participant looks at stimuli.  These data are stored on the dedicated experimental laptop that is connected to the participant’s Visual Display Unit (VDU).  Importantly, it also allows us to arrange consequences for looking at a particular target.

For operant conditioning purposes the target stimulus is covered in an Area of Interest (AOI) Dwell Time Trigger which can only be seen by the experimenter. When the participant fixates on said stimulus for 1000 ms the behaviour is followed by a pop up screen, reading “Well Done!”, and other reinforcing consequences can be arranged. Data are recorded as to how long it takes for the participant to trigger the mechanism and how often this occurs.

Traditionally, eye tracking equipment has been used to assess group differences in gaze behaviour; for example the differences between those with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and their neuro-typical counterparts in assessing social situations (Boraston & Blakemore, 2007). Another type of assessment focuses on differences in gaze behaviour in pre- and post-training performance. For example, Kundel et al. (2007) reported faster and more accurate identification of tissue anomalies in mammograms following staff training in more effective scan-patterns.

However, to this point eye tracking equipment has not been used as the actual training tool to shape gaze and fixation behaviour. The applications for this methodology are almost limitless, e.g., from training medical professionals to efficiently look at medical scans, to teaching young people with ASD to look at non-verbal cues, to teaching people to learn computer user interfaces. However, it is important to establish the basis on which this type of visual learning occurs.

Methods to be used:

Most of the studies will use the SMI RED video-based eye tracking system described above in a laboratory setting. Participants are simply seated in front a conventional visual display screen and asked to carry out visual search tasks. No restraints are required (i.e., no electrode’s attachments or use of a chin rest) and programs will be written to present some of the tasks as computer games to make them more attractive. A mobile version of the system in real-world settings may also be used.

Objectives of the Research:

In initial experimental studies, we have shown that participants can learn to track targets in simple and complex visual arrays. The research programme will involve devising and implementing tasks intended to show that this type of visual learning may occur unconsciously (i.e., not mediated by explicit and self-created verbal rules).

Research questions are:

1.Does success in a visual tracking task follow the principles of operant conditioning, including  extinction and discrimination learning?

2.Is performance on a  task systematically affected by the presence of “distractors, i.e., other stimuli which the person has previously tracked?

Initial phases of the research will involve learning to use the software that controls the eye tracking system and developing suitable stimulus displays to show learning and memory effects.

Skills required of applicant:

First degree in Psychology or cognate discipline is required. Knowledge of behaviour analysis and experience of experimental psychology methods and programming  would be desirable.


Anderson, B. A., Faulkner, M. L., Rilee, J. J., Yantis, S., & Marvel, C. L. (2013). Attentional bias for nondrug reward is magnified in addiction. Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, 21(6), 499-506..

Boraston, Z., & Blakemore, S. J. (2007). The application of eye-tracking technology in the study of autism. The Journal of Physiology, 581(3), 893-898.

Kundel, H. L., Nodine, C. F., Conant, E. F., & Weinstein, S. P. (2007). Holistic component of image perception in mammogram interpretation: gaze-tracking study 1. Radiology, 242(2), 396-402.

Palmer, D. C. (2010). Behavior under the microscope: Increasing the resolution of our experimental procedures. The Behavior Analyst, 33(1), 37–45.

Essential criteria

  • To hold, or expect to achieve by 15 August, an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC) in a related or cognate field.

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • First Class Honours (1st) Degree
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain


This is a self-funded MRes opportunity.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


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Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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