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Spatial primacy in communication and debate

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, March 20, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

In political and campaign contexts, a lot of attention is placed on getting politicians to appear in the “right” place in photos, greetings, handshakes, and debates. Will they look most important and credible when being positioned in the middle, on the left, or the right? It has long been known that state protocols follow specific spatial arrangements in order for seating arrangements to project levels of hierarchy in political status.

These dilemmas are relevant to research investigating how information from the spatial arrangement among a number of stimuli may be used to inform the generation of a response about these stimuli. Recent research has shown that people tend to represent ordered hierarchies in mental space by placing the maximum of the order dimension at the origin of their trained reading/writing (R/W) routine. Thus, people with left-to-right R/W background would position the maximum on the left, whereas people with right-to-left R/W background would position it on the right. Since further research has also shown that people tend to blend the meanings of the dimensional maximum into a generalised notion of “primacy”, we start from the assumption that Westerners (as we argue for now without loss of generality) will assign the leftmost element the highest primacy in a horizontal spatial arrangement of ordered elements.
In situations of public debate and media presentations of debate, the audience often has only few or even no cues (e.g., due to insufficient knowledge) for a genuine evaluation of the content presented by speakers on the left vs. on the right, but one may still feel the need to generate an overt response (e.g. an opinion in an ensuing discussion amongst friends, or in a voting situation). The planned project aims to test whether in such situations, people might use spatial information, and in particular any spatial implication of primacy, to infer features and characteristics of the speakers. More generally, not only live speakers in a debate can fall under this argument, but also objects in an advert display, or arguments presented horizontally next to each other on a screen (on websites), etc.. All these communicative scenarios have in common that the horizontal arrangement alone, independent of the actual content-relevant significance of the speakers or objects or texts, may be influential just in terms of differential primacy values derived from the relative left-right position amongst them. There is now increasing experimental evidence for the idea that in lack of more salient or diagnostic cues (if there is not much distinguishing information about the stimuli), people can use location information in order to generate a decision of choice between fictitious consumer objects. We also have evidence for feature attributions to facial stimuli, on the basis of spatial primacy (the left face out of two being seen as “more self-confident” etc.).

The present PhD project will aim at placing these paradigms within the context of persuasion and debate. We will be looking at feature attributions to social stimuli, e.g., the persuasiveness of arguments presented by a left vs. right speaker, the perception of trustworthiness, etc. We will examine the role of pre-existing attitudes in political debates, or people’s social stereotypes in view of target stimuli that come from different social / racial backgrounds. We hope that this PhD project will, eventually, be able to make a theoretical and well-supported empirical contribution to timely issues of the mechanisms underlying perception, preference, and response-generation in situations of public debate where persuasiveness and argument perception are crucial factors in communication and debate.

How to Apply

Applicants should apply to the Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology with a start date of October 2020.

In the research proposal section of your application, please specify the project title and supervisors of this project and copy the project description in the text box provided. In the funding section, please select ’I will be applying for a scholarship/grant’ and specify that you are applying for advertised funding from Spatial primacy in communication and debate.

Funding Notes

The studentship will commence in October 2020 and will cover your tuition fees (at UK/EU level) as well as a maintenance grant. In 2019-2020 the maintenance grant for full-time students was £15,009 per annum. As well as tuition fees and a maintenance grant, all School of Psychology students receive conference and participant money (approx. £2250 for the duration of the studentship).They also receive a computer, office space and access to courses offered by the University’s Doctoral Academy and become members of the University Doctoral Academy.


Full awards (fees plus maintenance stipend) are open to UK Nationals, and EU students who can satisfy UK residency requirements. To be eligible for the full award, EU Nationals must have been in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the course for which they are seeking funding, including for the purposes of full-time education.

As only one studentship is available and a very high standard of applications is typically received, the successful applicant is likely to have a very good first degree (a First or Upper Second class BSc Honours or equivalent) and/or be distinguished by having relevant research experience.

How good is research at Cardiff University in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 69.33

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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