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Emotion, learning and decision-making in birds

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  • Full or part time
    Dr E Paul
    Prof M Mendl
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About This PhD Project

Project Description

Traditional experimental psychology of the 20th Century extensively investigated the fundamental processes involved in reinforcement learning in both mammals (particularly rodents) and birds (e.g. pigeons, chickens). But more recent advances in the behavioural and neuroscientific underpinning of such processes have focused almost exclusively on mammalian species. In particular, there has been a great increase in interest in the nature of reinforcement in mammals, and its relationship to “emotion” (also described using terms such as “affect”, “valence” and “valuation”), with a view to developing a better understanding of the evolved processes that have given rise to human emotions and their functions, particularly within decision-making and learning.

In contrast to mammals, relatively little is known about emotional or “emotion-like” processes in birds. How do they differ from mammals and in what ways are they similar? And to what extent are these similarities attributable to common ancestral pathways with mammals and to what extent can they be considered products of convergent evolution? Within this PhD, the student will conduct a series of behavioural experiments to investigate the emotional capacities of at least two bird species. Using paradigms first developed with humans in the fields of behavioural economics and experimental learning theory, these birds’ capacities to use emotional states as heuristics in decision-making will be explored.

Our lab studies the emotional and cognitive processes in a range of species (inc. rodents, dogs, pigs, humans, chickens, insects), and how these two sets of processes inter-relate. We are interested in fundamental questions such as: what types of cognitive and emotional capacities do animals have; how do these abilities affect an animal’s vulnerability to welfare problems; how do short-term emotions translate into longer-term ‘mood’ states; how do mood states influence decision-making (e.g. ‘cognitive biases’) and what is the adaptive value of such influences; exactly what decision-making processes are affected? To achieve these aims, we collaborate with researchers in a range of disciplines (e.g. computer scientists; behavioural biologists; psychologists; vets; computational neuroscientists; statisticians; theoretical biologists; pharmacologists; insect biologists), and employ techniques including ethological methods of behaviour recording, operant training and testing methods, computer-based cognitive tasks, and (with collaborators) mathematical and statistical modeling and computer vision.

PhD or Master by research: We welcome applications at any time of year from self-funded students interested in animal cognition and emotion and their inter-relationships, and/or in applying this knowledge to help improve animal welfare. Please contact [email protected] if you would like more information, or see:

When applying please select ’Veterinary Science’ PhD within the Faculty of Health Sciences.


Marzluff, J. & Angell, T. (2015) Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans.
Emery, N.J. & Clayton, N.S. (2015) Do birds have the capacity for fun? Current Biology, 25, (1), R16-R20.

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