PhD studentship: Neurobiological basis of social decision-making

Closing Date
22 Jan 2020
Competition funded (European/UK students only)

Project Description

The Social Decision Neuroscience lab ( led by Dr. Patricia Lockwood and Motivation and Social Neuroscience lab ( led by Dr. Matthew Apps, are offering a competitively funded project examining the fundamental behavioural, computational and neural mechanisms of social decision-making in humans.


Humans are highly social creatures, spending much of their lives thinking about and making decisions that affect other people. Two crucial processes that underpin our social behaviour are how we learn about which of our actions help and avoid harming others and how motivated we are to engage with others. However, currently, there is a limited understanding of the behavioural, computational and neural mechanisms that underpin social decision-making.

Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience have allowed the combination of measures of behaviour, computational models of decision-making, neuroimaging and self-report which can get us closer to understanding why there are differences in social behaviour between people, and the fundamental mechanisms (Apps et al., 2016; Wittmann, Lockwood & Rushworth, 2018). Moreover, such models can bridge levels of explanation from neuroscience to psychology. Models of reinforcement learning can be applied to understand social learning and models of effort-based decision-making, that quantify how we weigh up the costs of putting in effort against the benefit of gaining rewards, will be applied to understand social motivation.

Projects are being solicited from highly motivated students interested in using these novel approaches to examine the behavioural and neural basis of social learning and social motivation. Asking questions about how altruistic people are, what the mechanisms in the brain are that guide altruistic and selfish behaviours, and in what contexts are people more or less prosocial. Such approaches can be used to understand a range of social behaviours, from charitable behaviour, atypical social motivation (apathy) and disordered social cognition.

Students will receive advanced training in methods from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, and computational modelling. The findings will have important implications for everyday decision-making with potential applications to disorders of social behaviour.

Research techniques and training

• Advanced techniques in computational modelling (model fitting, model simulation, model generation)
• Analysis of brain imaging data (functional MRI, structural MRI, connectivity analyses)
• Programming of behavioural tasks (Matlab, Presentation)
• Advanced statistical analysis (Matlab, R)

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the Midlands Graduate School ESRC DTP View Website and View Website

See eligibility requirement here: View Website


Apps MAJ, Rushworth MFS, Chang SWC (2016) The Anterior Cingulate Gyrus and Social Cognition: Tracking the Motivation of Others. Neuron 90: 692–707.

Chong TTJ*, Apps M,* Giehl K, Sillence A, Grima LL, et al. (2017) Neurocomputational mechanisms underlying subjective valuation of effort costs. PLoS Biol 15: 1–28. *Equal contributors

Lockwood, P. L., Apps, M. A. J., Valton, V., Viding, E. & Roiser, J. P. (2016). Neurocomputational mechanisms of prosocial learning and links to empathy. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 113, 9763–9768.

Lockwood PL, Hamonet M, Zhang SH, Ratnavel A, Salmony FU, Husain, M. & Apps, MAJ. (2017) Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required. Nature Human Behaviour 1: 131.

Lockwood PL, Wittmann MK, Apps MAJ, Klein-Flügge MC, Crockett MJ, Humphreys GW, Rushworth MFS (2018): Neural mechanisms for learning self and other ownership. Nature Communications 9:4747.

Wittmann, M. K., Lockwood, P. L. & Rushworth, M. F. S. (2018). Neural Mechanisms of Social Cognition in Primates. Annu. Rev. Neurosci.

For more information and to apply, please click here (only apply once having contacted Dr Lockwood and Dr. Apps; see below)

Further Information

***IMPORTANT*** Prior to submitting a PhD application to the University of Birmingham, all interested candidates should first contact Dr Patricia Lockwood ( and Dr. Matthew Apps ( Following this, only applicants with the most competitive CV will be requested to submit a PhD application using the University of Birmingham on-line application system. Candidates will be required to generate their own project within these themes under the guidance of the supervisors.