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Why do individuals develop incorrect beliefs about other social groups and how can we combat the consequences?

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, December 01, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


In professional and private life, individuals regularly have to orient themselves in social groups and form bonds with other people. Employees build up work relationships with colleagues, children find friends in their school class, and members of sport clubs may engage in leisure activities with other members beyond the course. In the past decade, social network research has prominently demonstrated across health behaviours from smoking (Christakis & Fowler, 2008) to obesity (Christakis & Fowler, 2007) to life satisfaction (Fowler & Christakis, 2008) that the behaviours of people in our social network often inform our own behaviour. One reason for this effect is that individuals often form relationships with similar persons. For instance, persons who are happier with their lives often live close to other happy persons (Fowler & Christakis, 2008). However, individuals also adapt their own behaviour to changes within their social network. For instance, smokers are more likely to quit if their spouse and friends quit smoking (Christakis & Fowler, 2008). Adopting this new behaviour is more likely, if more persons in their close neighbourhood reinforce the behavioural change (Centola, 2010). Thus, which behaviour we observe in other persons may change our own behaviour (McEachan, Conner, Taylor, & Lawton, 2011).

Yet, individuals often misperceive and misjudge the behaviour of others. When judging their social surroundings, people often misperceive the social norms within the broader population. Across a range of countries, for instance, most people overestimate the percentage of the population who are unemployed, the percentage of Muslims, and underestimate how satisfied most people are with their lives (Ipso, 2016). Even in small social networks that allow perceiving each peers’ behaviour, the perception of the social standard can be heavily distorted (Borsari & Carey, 2003). Several studies, for instance, report that college students overestimate their acquaintances’ alcohol consumption (Giese et al., 2018). Although distorted perceptions of social standards are frequently reported (Galesic et al., 2018), it is unclear why they are developed. Understanding how and why these distorted norm perceptions evolve may ultimately enable policy research and nongovernmental organisations to counteract these misperceptions.

Combining insights from social network and memory research, the overall aim of this PhD is to explore why people develop distorted social norms from a memory perspective. In a first step, the PhD project will investigate experimentally why individuals fail to correctly judge the behaviour of other people and establish a distorted social norm. These insights will then be used to develop tools and nudges combating those distorted beliefs.


Applications are invited from excellent candidates who have, or are about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class degree and/or a Master’s in Psychology or a related area.


Please contact Dr Hoffmann () with a CV to express your interest in applying for this studentship and find out more about the proposed project.

The application process has two stages: the first involves submitting a short research proposal (2-3 paragraphs), a CV, and degree transcripts to Dr Hoffmann by 1st December 2019. The second involves submitting a formal online application to study a PhD in Psychology, if advised to do so, to the University of Bath by 21st January 2020 12 noon GMT. The successful applicant will be closely supported in developing a research proposal.

Funding Notes

If successful, funding would be provided by either an SWDTP ESRC studentship or a University of Bath studentship (URSA). Eligible applicants may receive for three years of full-time study: Home/EU tuition fees and an annual stipend for living costs as per research council rates. Students also receive a personal allowance for training and conference attendance.

To check what kind of award you may be eligible for, please see here: View Website

Successful applicants would be expected to commence their PhD studies in September 2020.


Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ, 337, a2338.

Galesic, M., Olsson, H., & Rieskamp, J. (2018). A sampling model of social judgment. Psychological Review, 125(3), 363-390.

How good is research at University of Bath in Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 54.20

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

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