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The effect of disease-signalling features on holistic face processing

   College of Health and Life Sciences

  , Dr Martin Jüttner  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

In this project we study the effect of disease-signalling facial features (e.g., scars, birth marks) on the extraction of information from unfamiliar faces. In previous work (Boutsen, Pearson and Jüttner, 2018; 2021), we established that when viewing facial stigma, observers differentially distribute attention across the face, suggesting that the mode of encoding of visual information from a face is affected by the presence of a facial stigma. Because perceptual encoding of face images tends to be holistic rather than feature-based, we hypothesise that the presence of a facial stigma disrupts the default holistic face processing mode, and consequently can disrupt the subsequent extraction of perceptual and trait information from the face, leading to biased first impressions. To assess whether faces with a stigma are encoded in a featural manner, we propose to measure a specific behavioural indicator of holistic face processing established in the psychological literature on face perception: the composite effect (Calder, Young, Keane, & Dean, 2000; Young, Hellawell, & Hay, 1987). In a representative behavioural task in our study, participants are presented with composite images of unfamiliar faces, in which the top and the bottom half of the face represent the same person posing different emotional expressions. They are asked to identify the expression of the top half of the face when the bottom half of the face is either spatially aligned or misaligned relative to the top. In this task, the identification of the emotional expression in horizontally aligned face composites tends to be slower and less accurate compared to that of misaligned face composite images indicating a holistic face processing bias (Calder et al., 2000). We hypothesise that the presence of a facial disfiguring feature can reduce, or even abolish, the holistic bias, favouring a piecemeal encoding of the face and consequently disrupting the efficient extraction of extravisual facial information.

Estimated yearly cost of consumables

We foresee the use of a computer with monitor to run the behavioural tasks in this project, at an estimated cost of £2,000.

Person Specification

A Masters degree in a relevant subject with a 60% or higher weighted average, and/or a First or Upper Second Class Honours degree (or an equivalent qualification from an overseas institution)

Submitting an application

As part of the application, you will need to supply:

·        A copy of your current CV

·        Copies of your academic qualifications for your Bachelor degree, and Masters degree (if studied); this should include both certificates and transcripts, and must be translated in to English

·        A research proposal statement*

·        Two academic references

·        Proof of your English Language proficiency

Details of how to submit your application can be found here

*The application must be accompanied by a “research proposal” statement. An original proposal is not required as the initial scope of the project has been defined, candidates should take this opportunity to detail how their knowledge and experience will benefit the project and should also be accompanied by a brief review of relevant research literature.

Please include the supervisor’s name and project title in your Personal Statement.

If you require further information about the application process please contact the Postgraduate Admissions team at

Funding Notes

There is no funding for this project.


Boutsen, L., Pearson, N. A., & Jüttner, M. (2018). Differential impact of disfiguring facial features on overt and covert attention. Acta Psychologica, 190, 122–134.
Boutsen, L., Pearson, N. A., & Jüttner, M. (2021). Do facially disfiguring features influence attention and perception of faces? Evidence from an antisaccade task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 75, 830-840.
Calder, A. J., Young, A. W., Keane, J., & Dean, M. (2000). Configural information in facial expression perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 26, 527-551.
Young, A. W., Hellawell, D., & Hay, D. C. (1987). Configurational information in face perception. Perception, 16, 747-759.

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