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Understanding the psychological and social determinants of the impact of languageless visual health messages (GIFs) to promote Covid-19 preventive behaviours in Latin America and the UK. (Ref: RDF22/HLS/PSY/OBRIEN)

   Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

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  Dr Nicki O'Brien  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Effective public health communications are critical to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Government guidance and legislation have advocated and coerced evidence-based transmission preventive behaviours, such as physical distancing, good hygiene practices such as handwashing, and mask-wearing. Encouraging individual adherence to these behaviours is challenging, requiring input and evidence from psychology and behavioural science.

Increasing knowledge through information provision is generally considered to be necessary but not sufficient for health behaviour change. Research on the individual determinants of transmission preventive behaviours provides evidence of other potentially modifiable targets for behaviour change interventions to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Intention, self-efficacy, perceived risk and outcome expectancies have been shown to predict preventive behaviours of physical distancing (i.e., keeping a distance of 1-2 metres from people in other households), handwashing and mask-wearing.

Information is better retained when health communications include visuals rather than text alone. Visual communications do not rely on language but use images and animations to tell the message narrative. In countries with multiple official languages, visual languageless communications can disseminate messages to the entire population.

The proposed project will extend previous work of a collaboration between the supervisory team at Northumbria University and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, Guatemala ( The collaboration developed evidence-based, languageless, animated messages, in the form of GIFs, which have been disseminated via social media across Guatemala and on the national catholic TV channel. Guatemala is an exemplar multilingual country with 25 official languages spoken (24 indigenous and Spanish).

The effect of exposure to the GIFs on behavioural cognitions in relation to performing the preventive behaviours has been examined through an online experimental study of Guatemalan adults. The data demonstrated that exposure to the GIFs resulted in significant improvements in key determinants of preventive behaviours, namely intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies. These preliminary data suggest promise of the GIFs to have a positive impact on adherence to behaviours, however, this is yet to be determined.

In order to make more definitive conclusions about the efficacy and potential effectiveness of the GIFs, several questions first need to be answered. In particular, what are the behaviour change features of the GIFs? What is the impact of the GIFs on adherence to behaviours? Which, if any, demographic factors (education, socioeconomic status, political leanings etc) and GIF features influence the presence or magnitude of effect of GIF exposure, and in which contexts?

This PhD project will identify and explore how different features and potential mechanisms of action of languageless health messages (GIFs), promoting Covid-19 preventive behaviours, impact on their potential effectiveness. The project will include a consensus study to identify the behaviour change features of the GIFs and a series of experimental studies to explore the effects of exposure to the existing GIFs and modified GIFs (i.e., with varying message features and mechanisms of action) on adherence to preventive behaviours in different populations. 

The supervisory team combines the complementary disciplinary, methodological and topic expertise required to fully support this research. 

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 or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

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. RDF22/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Informal enquiries to Dr Nicki O’Brien ([Email Address Removed]).

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


O’Brien N, Vijaykumar S, Craig M, Land E, Aguilar S, Bedoya X, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Nicolau L (under review). A before-after cross-sectional survey of the effect of exposure to GIFs communicating Covid-19 preventive behaviours on behavioural cognitions of Guatemalan adults. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
O’Brien N, Land E, Vijaykumar S, Long A, Aguilar S, Bedoya X, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Nicolau L (in prep). Evidence-based, languageless, animated messaging about Covid-19 preventive behaviours for a multilingual population: a co-design approach. Journal of Medical Internet Research.
O'Brien N, Land E, Vijaykumar S, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Bedoya X, Aguilar S, Nicolau (2021). Languageless animated gifs to communicate COVID-19 preventive behaviours to adults in Guatemala: Development and evaluation of efficacy. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28:S11-S12
Lwin, M.O., Vijaykumar, S., Rathnayake, V.S., Lim, G., Panchapakesan, C.K., Foo, S., Wijayamuni, R., Wimalaratne, P., Fernando, O.N.N. (2016). A social media mHealth solution to address the needs of dengue prevention and management in Sri Lanka. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 18(7): e149. doi: 10.2196/jmir.4657
Lwin, M., Vijaykumar.S., Foo, S., Lim.G., Fernando, O. N. N., Lim, G., Panchapakesan, C.K., Wimalaratne, P. (2016). Social media-based civic engagement solutions for dengue prevention in Sri Lanka: Results of receptivity assessment. Health Education Research, 31(1), 1-11. doi: 10.1093/her/cyv065
Lwin, M. O., Vijaykumar, S., Lim, G., Theng, Y. L., & Foo, S. (2014). ‘It's effective but should I bother?’ A study of personal protection measures against malaria in urban India. Public Health, 128(7), 654-664. doi:
Craig M, Vijaykumar, S (under review) Single ‘dose’ of correct information is insufficient to provide long-term protection against COVID-19 misinformation. PLOS ONE.
Craig, M (2021). Memory and Forgetting. In: Della Sala, S. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience, vol. 2. Elsevier, pp. 425–431.
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