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The mechanisms underlying body shape and size misperceptions across development SSS23

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2022

Project ID: SSS23

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 cognitive 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, with a focus on how this might vary across the life span (from childhood to adulthood).

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. This suggests that actively looking at particular body types (as we might do when using social media) can result in much stronger shifts in our perception of body size. This project aims to understand how these mechanisms may result in long-term recalibration of people’s perceptions of body size, how body size misperception interacts with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviour, and how these mechanisms change across the lifespan. As such, this project will answer important scientific questions about the visual system and lay the groundwork for more holistic future treatments for body image disturbance and associated mental health conditions.

School strategic research priority

This project is directly aligned with the Centre for Behavioural Research Methods, and the research focuses of Safety and Security of Citizens and Society and Health and Well Being research themes.

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

For guidance and to make an application, please visit our studentship application page. The application deadline is Friday 14 January 2022.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2022 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Download our full applicant guidance notes for more information.

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