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Coordination in Context: Optimising task performance by balancing the cognitive needs of team members relative to task and environment demands (Ref: RDF22/HLS/PSY/CONSTABLE)

   Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

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  Dr Merryn Constable  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Paying for a daily coffee at the local coffee shop. 

Navigating a traffic jam.

Trying to find the best day for a family gathering.

Performing life-saving surgery.

Rescuing a child in a flood.

Collaboration and coordination are pervasive in everyday life. Some of these events contribute to successful societal functioning: traffic proceeds smoothly. Other coordinative events could be so serious that the difference between life and death could rest on the quality of coordination:

The lung transplant was a success!

Collectively, humans achieve and prosper because they are so adept at collaborating and coordinating. Indeed, the drive that humans have towards collaborating can be considered an evolutionary advantage (Boyd & Richerson, 2009; Tomasello, 2014).

Despite the frequency with which humans coordinate, the act itself is not trivial. In fact, humans have an exceptional range of cognitive mechanisms that may be deployed to assist in achieving a successful coordinative outcome (Sebanz & Knoblich, 2021). Even so, coordinative failures are not uncommon: pedestrians frequently bump into each other on the streets, car crashes are a daily occurrence, and the coffee sometimes ends up on someone’s shirt rather than in their hand.

So how can we leverage cognitive psychology to optimise coordination? This project will investigate how the human cognitive system adapts to the coordinative task and environment in order to optimise ongoing task performance. Two primary methods, physical handover tasks (Constable et al., 2016; Ray & Welsh, 2011) and virtual handover tasks (Török et al., 2019), will be used to systematically evaluate how the cognitive strategies used when collaborating are adapted to the task environment. In real-world terms: how does a surgical assistant pass a surgical tool to a surgeon and how does that impact task performance with that tool? Experimental handover tasks index high-level action prediction and planning processes as well as decision-making processes. A systematic experimental investigation using these tasks will provide insight into how humans optimise coordinative cognition. Answering such questions will ultimately contribute to theoretically and empirically validated recommendations that aim to optimise coordination situated within context.

This foundational work will be conducted alongside applied projects that are being developed with local and international collaborators. These projects aim to optimise (1) human-robot coordination and (2) coordination within medical teams. The candidate will have opportunities to engage with this applied work and associated collaborators during the studentship.

The research topic has been designed to provide the candidate with:

  • internationally significant research outputs
  • a range of novel technical skills
  • and, exposure to interdisciplinary research within an international research community.

Thus, they will experience a vibrant and diverse research culture, and post PhD, will have a breadth of knowledge and skills that will transfer between academic disciplines or to industry settings.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see 

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Informal enquiries to Dr Merryn Constable ([Email Address Removed])

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


Constable, M.D., Bayliss, A.P., Tipper, S.P., Spaniol, A.P., Pratt, J., & Welsh, T.N. (2016) Ownership status influences the degree of joint facilitatory behavior. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1371-1378. doi: 10.1177/0956797616661544
Roberts, J.W., Constable, M.D., Burgess, R., Lyons, J.L., & Welsh, T.N. (2018) The influence of intrapersonal sensorimotor experiences on the corticospinal responses during action observation. Social Neuroscience, 13(2), 246-256. doi:10.1080/17470919.2017.1289979
Constable, M.D., Elekes, F., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2019) Relevant for us? We-prioritisation in cognitive processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(12), 1549-1561. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000691
Constable, M.D., Kritikos, A., & Bayliss, A.P. (2011) Grasping the concept of personal property. Cognition, 119(3), 430-437. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2011.02.007
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