Authors: Dr Merryn Constable, Dr Kris McCarty, Dr Nick Neave
  • Playing jump rope.
  • Holding the door open for the person behind you.
  • Dancing, singing, and being merry with your friends at a wedding.
  • Building an aeroplane that reduces carbon emissions.
  • Navigating a roundabout.
  • Performing life-saving medical assistance.

Humans face coordinative challenges every day. Some are mundane, some propel society toward new innovations, and others may be life or death situations. The human species has survived and thrived because of the strong drive toward collaboration (Boyd & Richerson, 2009; Tomasello, 2014).

Nevertheless, collaborating, coordinating and cooperating is not necessarily simple. Coordinative failures are common: Sometimes doors are closed in people’s faces, dance steps are missed and car crashes occur.

So, how do humans adapt to each other to achieve the best possible outcome? How do humans coordinate in a variety of situations? How can the frequency of coordinative failures be minimized?

This is the study of Joint Action!

Researchers who are interested in how human cognition supports collaboration, coordination and cooperation study what is called Joint Action (Sebanz & Knoblich, 2021).

To collaborate humans must develop a representation of the task. This representation will often include a predicted representation of the actions that each person will take to do the task.  Establishing such a representation might not require much effort. In fact, the required representation sometimes already exists, as in understanding the rules that one must abide by to navigate a roundabout.

If rules or conventions do not exist, the representation will be developed by more complex routes. Communication and negotiation are obvious means of aligning task representations, however, humans also use variety of ‘mindreading’ processes to align representations without direct communication.  

To illustrate: Around the roundabout we go….

Roundabouts are designed such that the cognitive resources of coordination are minimized. And in fact, the installation of roundabouts does tend to reduce car crashes that result in injuries and fatalities for those in cars (Elvik, 2003). This coordinative event relies upon road users (1) having knowledge of the rules and conventions associated with roundabout use, (2) abiding by those rules and conventions, and (3) trust in other road users to abide by those rules and conventions. Without trust, the traffic through the roundabout would not proceed smoothly.

Most often, traffic proceeds smoothly. Each individual aims to proceed past the roundabout, and can reach their goal by following the rules. They must monitor the progress of other cars in the roundabout but they can do so at a minimal level. Coordination manifests with little effort.

When it goes wrong….

Consider a rogue American driver on a British roundabout. They went anti-clockwise instead of clockwise! How can a crash be avoided?

Other drivers may begin to beep to communicate the error and (hopefully) get the rogue driver back on the right track. But the driver is oblivious and bopping away to some loud music; the communication has failed. Other drivers must begin to engage in more effortful action monitoring and prediction processes so they can adapt and avoid collision.

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

Using human movement analysis this project will explore the cognitive strategies that coordinative partners use to adapt to different task constraints. For example, task difficulty and task uncertainty.

This fundamental research aim will then be explored in terms of environmental context. Specifically, ‘How do factors present in the physical and social environment (e.g., physical constraints, hierarchical structures, partner familiarity) shape the coordinative strategy employed during a joint task?’ Answering these fundamental questions about how the human cognitive system works will provide theoretical direction to tackle the collaborative and coordinative challenges that humans face. From designing urban environments that promote free-flowing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, to implementing policies and workflows to optimise coordination within hospitals, the theory of joint action can assist.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who is enthusiastic about working across disciplines to contribute to the cumulative pursuit of knowledge within cognition and joint action.

You should be confident in quantitative research methods and have ambition to develop skills in human movement analysis. The applicant will be expected to engage with a wider group of academics interested in both fundamental and applied research aligned with the themes of coordination and teamwork.

Applicants should have a background in psychology, kinesiology (sports science) or a related discipline. The successful applicant will have a history of academic achievement as demonstrated by first-class, or upper second-class undergraduate honours degree and/or a masters degree (or equivalent).

About the supervisors

Merryn is a Senior Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow within the psychology department. She is committed to advancing the research profile of Northumbria and passionate about supporting young researchers. As such, she sits on the University’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee advocating for the interests of Early Career Researchers. Prior to the UK, she has held academic posts in Australia, Canada and Hungary, with her research networks extending to Austria and Italy.  Her research takes an interdisciplinary perspective as a result of her background in psychology, kinesiology, cognitive science and business communications. Most recently, Merryn has been translating her work on social cognition and joint action to comparative psychology, healthcare and robotics. Merryn also has a strong technical background, with a particular interest in using motion capture technologies to answer fundamental questions about human cognition.

Kris is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He is also the department’s technical lead and as a part of that role oversees the use of the specialist hardware and software that researchers use to conduct their research. With his expertise in Motion Capture, Eye-tracking, Body Scanning, virtual reality, and a variety of programming languages he provides assistance and training to staff and students in the technical aspects of experimental psychology. Kris has worked on an array of applied projects using motion capture including a collaboration with the European Space Agency and NASA investigating the effect of reduced gravity on muscle function and postural control.

Nick is a Professor within the Department of Psychology. He is the Director of the Hoarding Research Group, Faculty Director of Ethics, and Chair of the Faculty Research Ethics Committee. He has extensive experience of conducting high quality research and in managing research teams and supervising research students. He has a keen interest in motion capture technology and has conducted research using motion capture to explore human dance movements and how such movements may serve as ‘honest’ signals to reproductive quality.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Merryn Constable (merryn.constable@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post.

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Constable, M.D., Bayliss, A.P., Tipper, S.P., Spaniol, A.P., Pratt, J., & Welsh, T.N. (2016) Ownership status influences the degree of joint facilitatory behavior. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1371-1378. doi: 10.1177/0956797616661544

Constable, M.D., Elekes, F., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2019) Relevant for us? We-prioritisation in cognitive processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(12), 1549-1561. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000691

Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2021). Progress in Joint-Action Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0963721420984425. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420984425

Török, G., Pomiechowska, B., Csibra, G., & Sebanz, N. (2019). Rationality in Joint Action: Maximizing Coefficiency in Coordination. Psychological Science, 30(6), 930–941. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619842550

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