One astonishing feature of human information processing is humans’ ability to seamlessly highlight aspects of a situation that are most relevant for action and cognition. A key aspect of this ability is to relate perceived information to oneself and to other agents. The goal of my research is to understand the attribution of perceived information to self and other, and what this attribution entails for subsequent information processing. I am particularly interested in how the relationship between self and other influences interactions with objects and other agents within the context of a social environment and what this means for human performance. For example, how do evolutionarily based or modern social conventions influence the distinction and relationship between self and other and how do such distinctions influence cognition and action.
Prioritising ‘me’ – the individual self
The self holds considerable weight in the human cognitive system. Regardless of goals, it often seems that humans operate in a cognitive environment that is permanently tuned to seek and respond to self-related information. Humans are faster to identify self-associated stimuli, they are faster to make judgments about self-owned stimuli, and the self is so ingrained within the human action repertoire that self-relational movements leak into intended movements when interacting with self-owned objects. On a surface level we observe distinct self-privileges suggesting that humans are optimally and permanently primed to process and respond to self-stimuli. I ask whether self-prioritisation occurs through (1) lower-level perceptual and attentional processes, (2) if it operates at higher-level conceptual and representational levels, and (3) if it is context-specific and thus requires an interaction between aforementioned processes and environmental factors.
The next big issue is to establish the extent to which self-relevant processing is governed by the environment in which it occurs. Because humans live in a complex physical and social environment that changes, the human cognitive system needs to be able to flexibly select relevant information and inhibit irrelevant information. This line of inquiry is driven by a situated cognition approach and considers how the self is embedded within a natural ecology.
Prioritising ‘we’ – the collective self
On top of the individual self, humans have numerous collective selves (family, sports team, company). In this line of inquiry, I ask if the collective self is merely an extension of the self or whether ‘we’ is processed and prioritised within the cognitive system distinctly. Can the collective self be integrated into a self-framework or does we-privilege within the cognitive system require a special ‘we-mode’ that selectively prioritises information that is relevant for collaborative opportunities? I have demonstrated that other group members within the ‘collective self’ do not enjoy privileged processing. Thus, early research hints that we-prioritisation might manifest under we-mode engagement that up-regulates the likelihood of attending to group relevant information specifically, rather than just any information connected to the self.
Prioritising ‘you’ – interaction partners
I am also interested in how individuals account for a co-actor’s action in order to optimise joint tasks and how representations of self and other modulate joint performance. An individual will typically prioritise, at least partially, their partner’s action over their own action. For example, the individual might orient a tool for easier grasping. This ‘facilitation’ has been shown to be related to the optimisation of the joint action and likely stems from the representation of the task as a joint task rather than individual components of a task. This line of research involves evaluating the interplay between we-mode processes that operate to enhance collaborative actions (such as co-representation of a joint task), common knowledge regarding the social and physical environment, and individual action planning processes.
If you are interested in working with me as a PhD student, visiting student, or post doctoral researcher I would be happy to hear from you. Although I do not have any funded opportunities currently I am able to host self-funded students and also happy to support funding applications. Please send me an email with your CV and a short introduction of your research interests to merryn.constable[at]northumbria.ac.uk
I also have a limited amount of places for enthusiastic volunteer undergraduate students who are interested in getting research experience prior to their final year. If you are interested in gaining such experience please send an email telling me about your research interests and your goals for the future and we can discuss how you can get involved in the research that is currently happening within my lab.