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The mechanisms underlying body shape and size misperceptions

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2023
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2023

Project ID: S3 16

Many people misperceive their own body size, judging themselves and others to be bigger/fatter or smaller/thinner than they really are. In many cases this type of error is only transient (‘feeling fat today’), but it can also be long lasting. Body size misperception is associated with negative feelings about the body, poor mental wellbeing, and negative health behaviours, all of which can pose significant health risks (e.g., eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia, depression, decreased immunity, cardiovascular disease, stress, and diabetes) and add significant strains on limited health care resources. However, relatively little is known about the mechanisms that underpin body size perception, or the factors that influence it. This PhD is concerned with understanding the cognitive and perceptual mechanisms that underpin body representation and misperceptions of body size.

One possible mechanism underpinning body size (mis)perception, is the influence of our surroundings on our cognitive representation of body size and weight. In this view, inaccuracies in body size perception result from a recalibration of parts of our visual system following exposure to unrealistic body images in, for example, film, television, social and print media. This kind of recalibration can be measured experimentally using behavioural measures (size estimates) and eye-tracking.  For example, it has been shown that following exposure (adaptation) to multiple images of fat (or thin) bodies over a short period of time, people’s perceptions of body size change such that subsequently viewed images of bodies appear to be much thinner (or fatter) than they really are.  This suggests that their mental representation of body size and weight is recalibrated. Interestingly, actively directing visual attention (rather than passive exposure) towards particular body images in a visual display, increases the size of this misperception effect. Therefore, actively looking at particular body types results in strong shifts in subsequently perceived body sizes. Much of this research has however, employed computer-based image distortion methods. This project aims explore how these mechanisms result in long-term recalibration of body size perception and how body size misperception interacts with body image concerns using research methods that alter perceptions of one’s own body representation. The applicant will take advantage of our new 3D body scanner, virtual reality eye-tracker and mirror distortion equipment to address these aims. This project will answer important scientific questions about the visual system and lay the groundwork for holistic future treatments for body image disturbance and associated mental health conditions.

Supervisory Team:

Dr Treshi-Marie Perera (Director of Studies)

Dr Andrew Dunn

Dr Ian Stephen

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

To make an application, please visit our studentship application page.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2023 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Application guidance can be found on our studentship application page.

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