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Out of control? The perceived controllability of risk and socioeconomic inequalities in health (ref: RDF20/PSY/PEPPER)

Project Description

Preventable unhealthy behaviours contribute strongly to socioeconomic inequalities in health and mortality (Pampel, Krueger & Denney, 2010). To reduce health inequalities, it is therefore important to understand what drives these behavioural differences. Behavioural ecological theory suggests that health behaviour should be influenced by the perceived controllability of overall mortality risk. Further, small initial socioeconomic disparities in exposure to uncontrollable mortality risks may drive differences in unhealthy behaviour, leading to larger eventual health inequalities (Pepper & Nettle, 2014a; 2017). Empirical and experimental studies have found support for this theory: The association between socioeconomic status and health effort has been found to be mediated by perceived control over mortality risk (Pepper & Nettle 2014b). Further, experiments have demonstrated that priming controllable mortality risk increases participants’ tendencies to choose a healthier food option (Pepper & Nettle 2014c).

This PhD project will extend this work by establishing; a) what types of health and mortality risk are widely perceived to be uncontrollable, b) whether there are socioeconomic differences in perceptions about control over these risks, c) the sources of information which people use to assess their personal risk and, d) whether personal risk perceptions are accurate. This new information will then be used to guide pilot work, testing the effect of perceived-control-enhancing messages on health behaviour.

The research will be valuable because it will generate novel information about the aetiology and nature of health risk perception. Further, it will test the feasibility of the concept of health interventions to enhance perceived control over mortality risk. Finally, it will suggest whether improving safety in deprived neighbourhoods could drive improved health behaviours, reducing total health inequalities.

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.

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. RDF20/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: Friday 24 January 2020
Start Date: 1 October 2020

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff. We welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds an Athena SWAN Bronze award in recognition of our commitment to improving employment practices for the advancement of gender equality.

Funding Notes

The studentship is available to Home/EU students with a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2019/20, this is £15,009 pa) and full fees.


Pepper, G. V., & Nettle, D. (2013). Death and the time of your life: experiences of close bereavement are associated with steeper financial future discounting and earlier reproduction. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(6), 433–439.

Pepper, G. V., & Nettle, D. (2014). Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ, 2(e459), 1–24.

Pepper, G. V., & Nettle, D. (2014). Perceived extrinsic mortality risk and reported effort in looking after health: Testing a behavioural ecological prediction. Human Nature, 25(3), 378–392.

Pepper, G. V., & Nettle, D. (2014). Socioeconomic disparities in health behaviour: An evolutionary perspective. In D. W. Lawson & M. Gibson (Eds.), Applied Evolutionary Anthropology: Darwinian Approaches to Contemporary World Issues (pp. 225–239). Springer.

Bulley, A., Pepper, G. V., & Suddendorf, T. (2016). Using foresight to prioritise the present. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2017.

Pepper, G. V., Corby, D. H., Bamber, R., Smith, H., Wong, N., & Nettle, D. (2017). The influence of mortality and socioeconomic status on risk and delayed rewards: a replication with British participants. PeerJ, 5(e3580), 1–14.

Pepper, G. V., & Nettle, D. (2017). The Behavioural Constellation of Deprivation: Causes and consequences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, e346.

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