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Behavioural and brain mechanisms of social decision-making

Primary Supervisor: Dr Patricia Lockwood

Secondary supervisor: Dr. Stephane De Brito (University of Birmingham) and Dr. Joe Galea (University of Birmingham)

Collaborators: Professor Matthew Rushworth (University of Oxford), Prof. Masud Husain (University of Oxford), Prof. Christian Ruff (University of Zurich)

PhD project title: Behavioural and brain mechanisms of social decision-making

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

We are offering two projects examining the fundamental behavioural, computational and neural mechanisms of social decision-making in humans. The lab will be moving from the University of Oxford to the University of Birmingham in summer 2020. Interested candidates are welcome to get in contact with Dr. Patricia Lockwood for informal discussions.


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, social cognition and behaviour can be profoundly disrupted across a wide-range of neurological and psychiatric disorders (Lockwood, 2016). Currently, there is a limited understanding of the mechanisms that underpin social decision-making in health, disease and development.

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 (Ruff & Fehr, 2014; Wittmann, Lockwood & Rushworth, 2018; Lockwood & Klein-Flugge, 2019). Moreover, such models can bridge levels of explanation from neuroscience to psychology.

The proposed projects will use these novel approaches to examine the behavioural and neural basis of social decision-making in healthy adolescents, young adults and older adults and in an important case of disrupted social behaviour – adolescents with persistent antisocial behaviour. 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, our understanding of an increasing ageing population and potential interventions to reduce antisocial behaviour.

Project 1 – Behavioural and brain basis of social decision-making across the lifespan

Social behaviour profoundly changes across the lifespan. Adolescents may be particularly susceptible to the influence of their peers, leaving them vulnerable to heightened risk-taking, whereas older adults may become worse at understanding other people’s intentions, leading to risk of financial exploitation. With adolescence thought to be a critical period for the development of mental health problems and an increasing ageing population understanding healthy lifespan development is of fundamental importance. Models of reinforcement learning, that describe how we learn to choose actions on the basis of reward and punishment, and models of economic decision-making which describe how we weigh up the costs and benefits of making different decisions, will be applied to understand social behaviour (e.g. Lockwood et al., 2016; 2017; 2018). This project will use these models in combination with neuroimaging to provide new insights into changes in social decision-making across the lifespan and link them to computations in specific brain areas.

Project 2 - Behavioural and brain basis of antisocial decision-making

Persistent antisocial behaviour is a major public health issue. In children and adolescents such behaviour is referred to as conduct disorder (CD) and is linked to poor mental and physical health and negative outcomes in adulthood. A subset of children with conduct disorder also have high levels of callous-unemotional (CU) traits, which include a lack of empathy and guilt. These traits have been strongly linked to psychopathy in adulthood (Lynam et al., 2007). Despite the pressing need to understand the mechanisms of antisocial behaviour, existing studies have not applied computational models to quantify social impairments in conduct disorder. This project will combine computational models of social decision-making with measures of behaviour and neuroimaging to provide new insights into persistent antisocial behaviour.


  1. Lynam, D.R., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T.E., Loeber, R., and Stouthamer- Loeber, M. (2007). Longitudinal evidence that psychopathy scores in early adolescence predict adult psychopathy. J. Abnorm. Psychol. 116, 155-165.
  2. Ruff, C., & Fehr, E. (2014). The neurobiology of rewards and values in social decision making. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15.8 (2014): 549.
  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. 113, 9763–9768.
  4. Lockwood, P. L. et al. (2017). Prosocial apathy for helping others when effort is required. Nature Human Behaviour 1, 0131.
  5. Lockwood, P. L. et al. (2018). Neural mechanisms for learning self and other ownership. Nature Communications. 9.
  6. Wittmann, M. K., Lockwood, P. L. & Rushworth, M. F. S. (2018). Neural Mechanisms of Social Cognition in Primates. Annu. Rev. Neurosci.
  7. Lockwood, P. L. & Klein-Flugge, M. C. (2019). Computational modelling of social cognition and behaviour – a reinforcement learning primer. PsyArXiv (preprint).

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, 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