Oxford Psychology Interview Questions & Answers

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When approaching Science interview questions, you should have a general approach set out in your mind, one which you have practised and are confident in.

Your first step should always be to contextualise the question and consider what knowledge you can apply to it. Ensure that you consider what subject area you are being asked about. Questions are often very left-field and therefore you must be prepared to take a step back and assess.

Your next step should be to apply your A Level knowledge to the question as far as you can. Do not be concerned if this knowledge does little to answer the question.

Next, bring in any additional knowledge that you have gained from your general reading. Try to apply your wider knowledge as far as possible.

Finally, use logic and common sense to build out an answer, and fill in gaps in your knowledge using plausible theories and information from the tutor that you are talking to. Remember that this should be a back-and-forth discussion.

Question 1: How would you design a better brain?

You might begin an answer here with a nod to the fact that evolution has designed an incredibly efficient and complex organ – or you might try to explain that there are inefficiencies instead. An interesting first argument to make is the debate over the efficiency of the autistic brain compared to the non-autistic. In particular, those with autism are less likely to be susceptible to illusions, and also that savants, who are frequently autistic, can sometimes outdo a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ human to a degree which is almost unbelievable. This is often seen in feats of memory or of mental arithmetic. Therefore if you were to design a new brain, you might wish to incorporate these elements, yet consider the role of empathy and communication which might be lacking in the brain of someone with autism. You might also consider the brain’s reward scheme, which is skewed towards immediate gratification, rather than long term benefits. You could alter the way in which we consolidate and build on memories, so that sleep becomes less of a necessity – meaning that we would have more time in which to live our lives. You could argue that a biological brain will in time be inferior compared to a synthetic one, and this could lead to a debate over consciousness and whether it can be produced in a computer.

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Question 2: At what point is a person "dead’?

There are various definitions of death, and the one that is most relevant for a psychologist is brain death. On the other hand, cardiopulmonary death is when the person’s heart ceases to beat, and the heartbeat cannot be restored. Brain death is when the functions of the brain (and thus, of the human being themselves) cease irreversibly.

Question 3: How would you describe a human to a person from Mars?

This is a great question as it requires you to consider what a ‘human’ is and also how best to communicate that. You might also want to consider what a Martian might be and what communication problems you would face when talking to them. You could break the human being’s core characteristics down as follows:
– They are bipedal, have two biological sexes which allow for reproduction and thus variety
– They have a limited lifespan of around 80 years which necessitates the passing on of information from generation to generation
– There are countless different cultures with differing languages and beliefs that stem from thousands of years of different ideas and concepts
– Humans use tools and alter their environment
– This means that humans look broadly similar despite living in very different environments, as they can adapt where they live
– Humans are harnessing technology at an ever-increasing speed
– Humans use computers to calculate and work on problems that they themselves cannot solve, but have not yet developed a general AI
– Humans are not logical beings, and are prone to letting emotion cloud their decisions
– Humans have a sense of morality that they will typically be led by in their decision making process, and which provides a sense of right and wrong

Question 4: How many people do you think believe in evolution in the US?

This is an interesting question as it requires both an assessment of the US’s population and some general knowledge. You should be aware that the US population is roughly 300m people. You ought to know that the US is more inclined toward creationism than many, if not the vast majority, of industrialised Western countries. Assuming that the majority of the population live in cities and that a majority of those urbanites people believe in evolution, then we might assume that a small majority believes in evolution – these city dweller numbers would be contrasted with the more elderly population, and with citizens of areas like the Bible Belt and the Mormon Corridor, as well as other rural areas, in which one would assume belief in creationism to be more likely. You could therefore estimate that perhaps 50-60% of US citizens believe in evolution.

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Question 5: What do you like most about the brain?

A professor called Anil Seth is well-known for using the phrase ‘controlled hallucination’ to describe our consciousness. We don’t understand consciousness, despite humans having tried for centuries to begin to unravel its mysteries. Therefore, we might argue that something that is especially interesting about the brain is that it has that ability to ‘hallucinate’ for us, so that we can make sense of the world around us and then interact with it. This hallucination involves using some guesses, as well as extrapolations based on the information that it is given to the brain. Without that hallucination, we would have disparate sensory signals and no central sense of ‘me’ to interpret them, to bring them together. We feel that we hear, see, smell and taste from a central point – in our head – and that our proprioception lets us know how far bits of our body are from that same point – our mind, of course, being in our brain, in our head. You might therefore conclude then that what you most like about the brain is that it can provide consciousness, that we still cannot understand how that consciousness works, and that our brain is wired in such a way that our metaphysical sense of self is located in that same physical space as our brain.

Question 6: Can you describe a graph that shows learning on the Y axis with age on the X axis?

You might argue different rates here, but a sensible approach seems that initial learning in the first three to five years of life must be at its absolute fastest, as we develop language, understand social cues, learn how to manipulate objects and learn motor function, etc. As we then increase our knowledge through schooling, the rate of learning might actually slow slightly – learning facts or another language might be less than the sheer volume of information that is naturally taken in at the outset of life, and whilst we are learning more information, the rate of learning is slowing. As we move into university and through life, that rate of learning will decrease further and further, even if our accrued knowledge has increased yet more. We might see small increases and decreases in rate as life goes on, but I would expect the rate to drop away to almost nothing, compared to the rate at the start, by the end of one’s life.

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