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EASTBIO Using machine learning to investigate how emotion drives human aggression.

   School of Psychology

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  Prof David Donaldson, Dr Robert May  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project investigates how emotion drives aggression. Existing machine learning tools can characterise individual facial expressions and even identify positive and negative emotions; we wish to develop these tools to facilitate our attempts to understand the dynamic changes in emotion that occur within and between individuals during aggressive behaviour.

This project combines Psychology and Computer Science. From a Psychology perspective, aggressive behaviour is thought to be driven by moment-to-moment changes in emotional experience. For example, research suggests that an individual’s emotions can also influence others (known as emotional co-regulation) making violence and aggression more likely in group settings. At the same time, from a Computer Science perspective, advances in machine learning mean that it is possible to monitor an individual’s expression of emotion from images of the face. However, to be truly useful for psychological investigations of emotion these tools need to be developed so that they can be used to track emotion from multiple individuals, interacting in natural settings, in real time. In essence, therefore, this project aims to develop tools capable of predicting when a conflict between individuals is likely to escalate.

The project is interdisciplinary and combines the expertise of Professor David Donaldson (a cognitive neuroscientist with an interest in emotion as a driver of human behaviour; cf. Porter et al., 2022) and Dr Bobby May (an evolutionary and comparative psychologist with expertise in gender, sex and violence; cf. Brown et al., 2021). It capitalises on our existing expertise in the study of emotion and aggression; (cf. McCurry et al., in review), and the applicant will join a team with other PhD students, as well as benefiting from a wider network of collaborators in Biology, Neuroscience and Maths & Computing who share our interest in the use of machine learning approaches.

The project will involve testing existing tools for monitoring and assessing human emotion from facial expressions; the student will develop existing experimental tests to assess the role of emotion in aggressive behaviour; they will learn about experimental design, programming of experiments, data collection and behavioural analysis techniques. Acquisition of professional skills such as team-working, time-management and communicating effectively will be an important part of the training. The project will suit students from Psychology, Computer Sciences and related disciplines including Neurosciences. Candidates should have an interest in human behaviour (emotion and aggression) along with programming skills; experience with machine learning tools will be an advantage.


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.


• Brown, G. R., Cross, C. P., [now: May, R. C.], & Laland, K. N., (2021) Evolutionary approaches to human behavior, The Behavior of Animals: Mechanisms, Function, and Evolution. Wiley, p. 456-488.
• Porter, K., Miles, P. J. & Donaldson, D. I., (2022) Teachers’ emotions in the time of COVID: thematic analysis of interview data reveals drivers of professional agency, Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 18 p., 987690.
• McCurry, A., May, R. C., & Donaldson, D. I., (in review) Theories of Arousal Predict a Link Between Heart Rate Variability and Reactive Aggression: Meta-Analytic Results Disagree, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

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