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Behavioural and brain mechanisms of social learning and motivation

School of Psychology

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Dr P Lockwood , Prof O Jensen , Dr J Galea No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
Birmingham United Kingdom Data Analysis Development Studies Other Other Other Other Statistics

About the Project


Humans are highly social creatures, spending much of their lives thinking about and making decisions that affect other people. In parallel, social isolation is as damaging to health as excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, yet we know surprisingly little about the mechanisms that drive people to engage with others (Lockwood et al., 2020).

Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience have allowed the combination of measures of behaviour, computational models of decision-making, neuroimaging and self-report which can get us closer to understanding why there are differences in social behaviour between people, and the fundamental mechanisms (Ruff & Fehr, 2014; Wittmann, Lockwood & Rushworth, 2018; Lockwood & Klein-Flugge, 2020). Moreover, such models can bridge levels of explanation from neuroscience to psychology.

Objectives and methods

The proposed project will use these novel approaches to examine the behavioural and neural basis of social learning – how we learn which of our actions help and avoid harming others – and social motivation – how willing we are to engage with other people in the first place.

First, we will collect big-data samples online from computerised tasks measuring social learning and motivation, combined with computational modelling. This will allow us to probe what drives individual differences between people in social learning and motivation and how the two processes relate to one another.

Next, we will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and advanced computational modelling approaches, with multivariate analyses, to examine the neural basis of social learning and motivation. fMRI provides excellent spatial resolution of brain data. We will also use Magnetoencephalography (MEG) based advanced computational modelling and multivariate analyses of social learning and motivation. MEG provides excellent temporal resolution of brain data. These imaging approaches will allow us to uncover the mechanisms in the brain that track how we learn and decide in social situations and the neural representations that underpin social learning and motivation.

Training and outcomes

Students will receive advanced training in methods from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, and computational modelling. The findings will have important implications for healthy social development across the lifespan and, ultimately, potential interventions to reduce antisocial behaviour.

Research techniques and training provided

• Advanced techniques in computational modelling (model fitting, model simulation, model generation)

• Analysis of brain imaging data (functional MRI, structural MRI, connectivity analyses)

• Programming of behavioural tasks (Matlab, Presentation)

• Advanced statistical analysis (Matlab, R)

• Additional opportunities for learning of cutting-edge cognitive neuroscience techniques with collaborators at University of Birmingham, University of Oxford and University of Zurich.

Studentships include:

fees (at UK rate)

a tax free stipend of at least £15,295 p.a (to rise in line with UKRI recommendation)

a travel allowance in year 1

a travel / conference budget

a generous consumables budget

use of a MacBook Pro for the duration of the programme.

Funding Notes

This studentship is competition funded by the BBSRC MIBTP scheme, under "Neuroscience and behaviour". Full funding is only available for UK students, or those with settled/ pre-settled status and

***IMPORTANT*** Prior to submitting a PhD application to the University of Birmingham, please contact Dr Patricia Lockwood ([Email Address Removed]) with your CV and statement of research interests. Following this, only the most competitive applicants will be put forward. Full funding is only available for UK applicants/those with pre-settled or settled status.


Lockwood, P. L. Apps, M. A. J., Chang, S. W. (2020). Is there a ‘social’ brain? Implementations and algorithms. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Lockwood, P.L., Klein-Flugge, M. C., Abdurahman, A. & Crockett, M. J. (2020). Model-free learning is prioritized when avoiding harm to others. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Lockwood, P. L., Abdurahman, A. Gabay, A. Drew, D., Husain, M., & Apps, M. A. J. (2020). Ageing increases prosocial motivation for effort. Psychological Science.

Lockwood, P. L. Wittmann, M. K., Apps, M. A. J., Klein-Flugge, M. C., Crockett, M. J., Humphreys, G. & Rushworth, M. (2018). Neural mechanisms for learning self and other ownership. Nature Communications.

Lockwood, P. L. Hamonet, M. Zhang, S. Ratnavel, A. Salmoney, F. U. Husain., M., & Apps, M. A. J. (2017). Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required. Nature Human Behaviour.

Lockwood, P. L., Apps, M. A. J., Valton, V., Viding E. & Roiser, J. P. (2016) Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Lockwood, P. L. Sebastian, C. McCrory, E., Hyde, Z. Gu, X. DeBrito, S. Viding, E. (2013). Association of callous traits with reduced neural responses to others’ pain in children with conduct problems. Current Biology.
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