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Behavioural and brain mechanisms of social learning and motivation

Primary Supervisor: Dr Patricia Lockwood, School of Psychology

Secondary supervisor: Dr Ole Jensen

Collaborators: Dr Matthew Apps

PhD project title: Behavioural and brain mechanisms of social learning and motivation

University of Registration:University of Birmingham

Project outline:


Humans are highly social creatures, spending much of their lives thinking about and making decisions that affect other people. However, whilst the capacity to successfully engage in social interactions is critical, we still lack a clear characterisation of the mechanisms of social decision-making and its brain and behavioural basis (Lockwood et al., 2020).

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 decision-making between people, and the fundamental mechanisms (Ruff & Fehr, 2014; Wittmann, Lockwood & Rushworth, 2018; Lockwood & Klein-Flugge, 2021). Moreover, such models can bridge levels of explanation from neuroscience to psychology.

Objectives and methods

The proposed project will use these novel approaches to examine the behavioural and neural basis of social learning – how we learn which of our actions help and avoid harming others – and social motivation – how willing we are to put in effort to help. First we will collect big-data samples online from novel computerised tasks measuring social learning and motivation, combined with computational modelling. Next there will be an opportunity to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG). fMRI has excellent spatial resolution and MEG has excellent temporal resolution. We will use these approaches with data analysis techniques that can combine them together.

Training and outcomes

Students will receive advanced training in methods from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neuroimaging, and computational modelling. The findings will have important implications for healthy development across the lifespan and potential interventions to reduce antisocial behaviour.


  1. Cutler, J., Wittmann, M. K., Abdurahman, A., Hargitai, L., Drew, D., Husain, M. & Lockwood., P. L. (2021). Ageing disrupts reinforcement learning whilst learning to help others is preserved. Nature Communications.
  2. Lockwood, P. L.  Apps, M. A. J., Chang, S. W. (2020). Is there a ‘social’ brain? Implementations and algorithms.Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
  3. 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.
  4. Lockwood, P. L., Klein-Flugge, M. C., Abdurahman, A, & Crockett, M. J. (2020). Model-free decision making is prioritized when learning to avoid harming others. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.
  5. Lockwood, P. L. et al. (2017). Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required. Nature Human Behaviour.
  6. Lockwood, P. L. et al. (2018). Neural mechanisms for learning self and other ownership. Nature Communications.
  7. Ruff, C., & Fehr, E. (2014). The neurobiology of rewards and values in social decision making. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Understanding the Rules of Life: Neuroscience and behaviour  

      Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

      • Advanced techniques in computational modelling (model fitting, model simulation, model generation)
      • Analysis of brain imaging data (functional MRI, structural MRI, MEG, connectivity analyses)
      • Programming of behavioural tasks (Matlab, Presentation)
      • Advanced statistical analysis (Matlab, R)
      • Data collection with clinical populations, children, adolescents and older adults.
      • Additional opportunities for learning of cutting-edge cognitive neuroscience techniques with collaborators at University of Birmingham, University of Oxford and University of Zurich.

      Contact: Dr Patricia Lockwood, University of Birmingham