The COVID19 pandemic (World Health Organization, 2020) was caused by a virus but also by human behaviour. In 2020, social gatherings were banned and social distancing rules were introduced in many countries to minimise person-to-person transmission of the virus (Fong et al., 2020). However, other personal behaviour contributes to infection by any virus. Viral infection often proceeds through contact of the person’s hand with an infected surface (e.g., a door handle) followed by contact of the hand with the person’s face. Research has shown that we touch our faces about 23 times per hour, and this creates a major pathway for the spread of infection.

The science of behaviour provides a wide range of methods to help us change our own behaviour and that of others (Leslie, 2002: Leslie & O’Reilly, 2003). Relevant here may be methods to increase awareness of unconscious acts, helping others to notice what they are doing, learning to do other things with your hands, changing posture to take your hand away from your face, and practising relaxation techniques. There are also specific locations, such as care homes, where social distancing is difficult, but infection control is even more important because of the presence of vulnerable elderly residents. There is an urgent need to bring our scientific knowledge to bear on these important problems. This study will  be a novel contribution to the emerging field of behavioural safety (Cooper, 2009).

Objectives of the Research:

The first stage will be to evaluate what is known about the role of personal behaviour in virus transmission. The next stage will be to review the range of behavioural strategies that are likely to be effective in modifying the behaviours identified as crucial. Thirdly, a protocol will be developed for use in a care home context to modify appropriately the behaviour of care staff. Finally, a pilot study will be carried out in a care home, in which behavioural data will be collected before and during the implementation of the protocol.

Methods to be used:

The first stage will involve reviewing literature in diverse fields of science. The remainder of the research will use the methods of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) to define categories of behaviour, such as regular hand-cleansing and self-face touching, to select appropriate interventions, and to measure behaviour in applied contexts.

Skills required of applicant:

The applicant should hold or expect to achieve an Upper Second-Class Honours (2:1) or First-Class Honours Degree in Psychology or a cognate field. The applicant should also have knowledge of and interest in ABA.


Cooper, M. D. (2009). Behavioral safety interventions a review of process design factors. Professional afety, 54, 36-45.

Fong, M. W., Gao, H., Wong, J. Y., Xiao, J., Shiu, E. Y., Ryu, S., & Cowling, B. J. (2020). Nonpharmaceutical Measures for Pandemic Influenza in Nonhealthcare Settings-Social Distancing Measures. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 26(5).

Leslie, J.C (2002). Essential Behaviour Analysis. London: Arnold.

Leslie, J.C. & O’Reilly, M. (2003).  Behavior Analysis: Foundations and Applications to Psychology. Hove: Psychology Press.

World Health Organization. (2020). Global surveillance for COVID-19 caused by human infection with COVID-19 virus: interim guidance, 20 March 2020 (No. WHO/2019-nCoV/SurveillanceGuidance/2020.6). World Health Organization.

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.


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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