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EASTBIO Recollections and Reciprocity – The Interplay of Memory and Cooperation

   School of Psychology

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  Dr Manon Schweinfurth, Dr Joachim Frommen  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Evolution predicts the survival of the most competitive members of a group. If only those behaviours evolve that increase the actor’s own competitiveness, then it might come as a surprise that cooperative behaviours, i.e., providing benefits to others, are a widespread phenomenon. Various animals, including humans, frequently help their conspecifics by providing care, food, information, or support. One possibility to explain these behaviours is reciprocity, i.e., “I scratch your back, if you scratch mine”. By helping those that were helpful before, cooperative individuals are better off than individuals that never help, but also never receive any help.

 Humans reciprocate help in daily interactions and even global trading contracts are based on the principle of reciprocation. Other animals have been shown to exchange favours reciprocally, too. However, it is not clear how (especially small-brained) animals can achieve this seemingly cognitively demanding form of cooperation, as a lot of information often stemming from several partners needs to be memorised over potentially long timeframes. This high memory capacity load has been suggested to be the main factor limiting reciprocity in non-human species.

 Norway rats are ideal study animals to deepen our understanding of the cognitive processes of such reciprocal cooperation. Rats are highly social animals that can be easily trained in captivity. Importantly, they are well known reciprocators that help preferably cooperative partners, which helped them in the past, using various tasks. Hence, they are ideal to conduct non-invasive experimental tasks to causally understand cooperative decisions.

 This project aims at shedding light on the interplay between memory and reciprocity. Specifically, we will first study what kind of details rats remember about their interaction with a partner in order to reciprocate. In the next steps we will make it more and less difficult for the rats to memorise their partner’s latest helpful action to investigate whether memory demands are flexible in reciprocal settings. To do so, we will keep a colony of rats in our well-equipped rodent facility and train individual rats to participate in cooperation experiments, in which rats can donate food to each other and groom each other.

Thus, this project will not only improve our understanding and appreciation of the complex social life of rats, but it will also shed light on the evolutionary and psychological origins of (human) cooperation by investigating potentially shared mechanisms of stable cooperation. In so doing, this work brings us face to face with how cooperative we are in comparison to other species and how closely our behaviour is connected to that of other animals.


Application instructions can be found on the EASTBIO website-

1)     Download and complete the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion survey.

2)     Download and complete the EASTBIO Application Form.

3)     Submit an application to St Andrews University through the Online Application Portal

Your online application must include the following documents:

-         Completed EASTBIO application form

-         2 References (to be completed on the EASTBIO Reference Form, also found on the EASTBIO website)

-         Academic Qualifications

-         English Language Qualification (if applicable)

Unfortunately due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications. Please make sure your application is complete by 27th November 2023


Queries on the project can be directed to the project supervisor.

Queries on the application process can be directed to Rachel Horn at [Email Address Removed]

UKRI eligibility guidance: Terms and Conditions: View Website International/EU: View Website

Biological Sciences (4) Psychology (31)

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership.
This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend at UKRI standard rate and UK level tuition fees. The University of St Andrews will cover the Home-International fee difference.


[1] Pennisi, E. (2005) How did cooperative behaviour evolve? Science 309, 93.
[2] Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). A cooperative species - human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton University Press
[3] Schweinfurth, M.K., & Call, J. (2019) Reciprocity: Different behavioural strategies, cognitive mechanisms and psychological processes. Learning & Behaviour 47: 284-301.

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