Wellcome Trust Featured PhD Programmes
Norwich Research Park Featured PhD Programmes
Imperial College London Featured PhD Programmes
University of Bristol Featured PhD Programmes
University of Reading Featured PhD Programmes

Deciphering hidden meaning in conversation: the role of body language in understanding intentions across the lifespan.

This project is no longer listed in the FindAPhD
database and may not be available.

Click here to search the FindAPhD database
for PhD studentship opportunities
  • Full or part time
    Prof Louise Phillips
    Dr Mingyuan Chu
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Effective communication involves more than encoding and decoding surface meanings. In everyday interaction, people often need to go beyond the literal meaning, and use paralinguistic and contextual cues to draw conclusions about the true intentions and emotions of others. For example, if a colleague habitually arrives late for meetings and turns up late once again, someone waiting might use sarcastic remarks, like “Good to see you are on time as usual”, or use indirect remarks, like “You need to take traffic into consideration next time”. In both cases, there is a discrepancy between the literal meaning and the intended meaning.

As people get older they have more difficulty in interpreting non-literal speech. For example, older adults are poorer at decoding sarcastic intent (Phillips et al., 2015). This might relate to more general problems in theory of mind or capacity limitations in old age, or might instead reflect motivational changes to favour positive interpretations of social situations amongst older adults. One goal of the current project is to improve understanding of why older adults are less likely to decode the intentions behind non-literal speech.

When speakers use non-literal speech, such as sarcasm and indirect remarks, they often use body language (such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact) to convey their true meaning to the recipient. Despite the prevalent use of body language in everyday conversation, there has been relatively little research on the role of body language in understanding non-literal meaning. Thus, a second goal of this project is to examine how body language cues are integrated with verbal messages to support the decoding of non-literal meanings in everyday conversations. A final goal is to explore the role of body language in age differences in understanding intentions when speakers are trying to convey non-literal meaning.

Methods: The first part of the project will look at age differences in the spontaneous production of body language when making non-literal statements (such as sarcastic and indirect remarks). Younger and older adults will be video-recorded producing such statements and the videos coded for appropriate body language cues. The second part of the project will look at age differences in decoding intentions from non-literal statements from the body language cues by using behavioural and eye movement measures

Full training will be provided in adult aging research, behaviour coding, social cognition, linguistic and eye-tracking techniques. The PhD researcher will have access to a large volunteer participant panel and well-equipped labs for aging research, behaviour recording and eye-tracking research.

Applicants should have an excellent understanding of psychological research methods and be interested in social cognition, language, adult aging

To be considered for funding you will need to be a UK or EU student, with the equivalent to a 1st class Honours undergraduate degree or a 2.1 Honours undergraduate degree alongside a Masters with Merit or Distinction in Psychology. International applicants who meet this condition and can pay the difference between the Home and International Fees would also be considered.

Applications must include: 1) An on-line form completed through the applicant portal. 2) a letter of support from the project supervisor. 3) Two academic references – please attach the references to the application or include full referee contact details. 4) A CV outlining your academic qualifications and research experience to date. 5) academic transcripts from previous degree(s).

Funding Notes

These competitive studentships are fully funded for 3 years. Strong students who do not yet have a master’s degree may be considered for “1+3” funding (covering master’s and PhD). The studentship will commence in October 2018, and will cover your tuition fees (at UK/EU level) as well as a maintenance grant. In 2017-18 the maintenance grant for full-time students was £14,533 per annum. You will also receive a computer and office space, and access to research training offered by the School of Psychology and the University of Aberdeen. Further information about research in the School of Psychology is here: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/psychology/research/index.php


Phillips, L.H., Allen, R., Bull, R., Hering, A., Kliegel, M. & Channon, S. (2015). Older adults have difficulty in decoding sarcasm. Developmental Psychology, 51, 1840-1852. DOI: 10.1037/dev0000063
Kita, S., Alibali, M. W., & Chu, M. (2017). How do gestures influence thinking and speaking? The gesture-for-conceptualization hypothesis. Psychological Review, 124(3), 245-266. DOI: 10.1037/rev0000059

FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2018
All rights reserved.

Let us know you agree to cookies

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By continuing, we'll assume that you're happy to receive all cookies on this website. To read our privacy policy click here