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EASTBIO Brain mechanisms of trustworthiness perception.

   School of Psychology

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  Dr M Manassi, Dr C Sutherland  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr Mauro Manassi (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Clare Sutherland (University of Aberdeen)

Trust is fundamental to human life: without trust, society itself would not exist. Trustworthiness perceptions have critical and widespread social impact, predicting financial lending, mate selection, and even criminal justice outcomes. Consequently, understanding how people perceive trustworthiness from faces has been a major focus of scientific research, with high-profile models trying to explain what drives trustworthiness perception.

Trustworthiness perception has primarily been investigated by focusing on the unique facial features which reliably lead to first impressions (Vernon et al., 2014). Consequently, face perception has typically been investigated using isolated, de-contextualized, static face pictures. However, in everyday life, an individual’s face almost always appears within a situational context arising from the physical environment surrounding the face. Context has recently been shown to play a crucial role in basic aspects of face perception. Over the time domain, the perception of a face can be strongly biased by our past visual experience (Manassi et al., 2018). Likewise, over the spatial domain, observers are able to represent multiple faces simultaneously presented as an ensemble percept. Crucially, these contextual influences have only been shown for relatively simple facial features, such as identity and emotion. How does temporal and spatial context determine more complex facial perceptions, such as trustworthiness? Most importantly, what are the underlying neural mechanisms of trustworthiness perception in context?

In a series of behavioral experiments, we will fully uncover the impact of temporal and spatial context on the perception of trustworthiness. First, in the temporal domain, we will make use of well-established psychophysics research paradigms such as priming and serial dependence. Second, in the spatial domain, we will refer to standard paradigms in crowding and ensemble perception.
Once we have established how context can affect trustworthiness perception, we will use electroencephalographic (EEG) recording to examine neural sensitivity to trustworthiness changes across time and space. We will use a cutting-edge technique, fast visual periodic stimulation (FVPS) which has recently been applied to trustworthiness perception (Swe et al., 2020). FVPS uses Fourier analysis to deconstruct EEG signals, allowing reliable, fast and objective mapping between visual and neural signals. It is ideally suited to probing the neural mechanisms of trustworthiness perception across time and space for the first time, as it does not require pre-existing knowledge of which neural components are important.

The outcome of the research will lead to a more dynamic, integrative understanding of trustworthiness underlying mechanisms, which is in turn critical for more applied environments. Among other real-life implications, understanding trustworthiness in context will be crucial for app development, AI, etc.

The PhD candidate will learn psychophysical techniques and advanced frequency-based analyses of electrophysiological signals (FVPS) to investigate how the brain processes trustworthiness signals across time and space. This project will involve developing a high level of expertise in digital signal processing and programming (Matlab, Python, R), skills highly useful in both industry and academia. The project would be suitable for candidates with a background in psychology, neuroscience, physics, computer science or engineering who have interests in face recognition and electrophysiology.

Application Procedure:


Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at [Email Address Removed]. Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to [Email Address Removed].

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership http://www.eastscotbiodtp.ac.uk/how-apply-0. This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition (limited funding is available to provide international tuition fees). Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.


Manassi, M., Liberman, A., & Whitney, D. (2018). Serial dependence promotes the stability of perceived emotional expression depending on face similarity. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 80(6), 1461-1473.

Swe, D. C., Palermo, R., Gwinn, O. S., Rhodes, G., Neumann, M., Payart, S., & Sutherland, C. A. (2020). An objective and reliable electrophysiological marker for implicit trustworthiness perception. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 15(3), 337-346.

Vernon, R. J., Sutherland, C. A., Young, A. W., & Hartley, T. (2014). Modeling first impressions from highly variable facial images. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(32), E3353-E3361.
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