The acquisition of fear and avoidance responses may be considered essential in protecting an individual or species from potentially harmful events. Humans appear to be unique in their ability to acquire such behaviours through a combination of naturalistic fear cues, such as video images of arachnids, and symbolic relations found in human language (e.g., Smyth, Barnes-Holmes, & Forsyth, 2006). This unique ability may provide advantages for the human species over that of others. For example, by learning the names and characteristics of specific spiders we may learn (sensibly) to fear and to avoid highly venomous but not harmless spiders. On balance, fear and avoidance behaviours acquired through symbolic relations may be psychologically problematic. For example, we may develop fear and avoidance of individuals and groups who offer no threat to our safety (see Barmes-Holmes, Harte, & McEnteggart, in press) and also come to fear and avoid even our own thoughts and feelings when it is unhealthy to do so (see Hayes, Stroshal, & Wilson 1999). Much of the research on the acquisition of symbolic fear and avoidance responses has employed non-social cues, such as mild electric shock or aversive visual images (e.g., spiders).

More recently, however, social cues such as negative facial expressions (e.g., fear/anger) have been used to produce symbolic fear and avoidance (Perez et al, 2020). In simple terms, this finding suggests that observing an aversive facial expression on a stranger’s face, who is then labelled (with a symbol) as a member of a specific group, could lead you to fear/avoid other strangers who are labelled with the same symbol, even though there is no direct basis for doing so. As such, this type of experimental research may help to explain the human capacity for acts of social prejudice. Related research has also shown that symbolic fear and avoidance may be recorded using methods that target relatively slow (explicit) and fast (implicit) responses (Leech & Barnes-Holmes, 2020; Leech, Bouyrden, Bruijsten, Barnes-Holmes, & McEnteggart, 2018); note, however, that this research employed images of spiders not facial expressions (but see Hughes et al, 2018; Perez et al, 2019). Demonstrating implicit fear and avoidance responses has been deemed important because they appear to be less susceptible to “experimenter-demand” effects (see O’Toole, Barnes-Holmes, & Smyth, 2008). Finally, very recent research has suggested that the transmission of implicit fear and avoidance may require the opportuntiy to ruminate (i.e., repeatedly rehearse) the symbolic relations that “transmit” the fear and avoidance responding from the naturalistic cues to the relevant symbolic stimuli (Leech & Barnes-Holmes, 2020).

Objectives of the Research:

The proposed research project will explore the transmission of symbolic fear and avoidance behaviours using naturalistic social fear cues (facial expressions) rather than non-social stimuli (i.e., shock, aversive images, etc.).

The first objective of the project will be to replicate the findings reported by Perez et al (2020). The research conducted by Perez et al. (2020) employed methods that targeted relatively slow (explicit) responses (i.e., a range of self-report scales and an avoidance task) and could thus be criticised, as noted above, for relying upon experimenter-demand effects. The proposed research project would therefore include the use of methods that require relatively rapid (implicit) responses. Specifically, two separate implicit relational assessment procedures (IRAPs) will be employed, one targetting symbolic fear and a second targeting symbolic avoidance/approach (see Leech & Barnes-Holmes, 2020; Leech et al. 2018). Eye tracking methods and data analyses will also be employed to faciltate a relatively precise theoretical interpretation of the data obtained from the IRAPs (see Pinto, de Almeida, & Bortoloti, 2020).

The second objective of the project will be to replicate the findings reported by Leech and colleagues, but using facial expressions as stimuli rather than images of spiders.

The third objective will be to test a theoretical interpretation of the symbolic fear and avoidance responses obtained with the IRAPs using eye-tracking methods similar to those reported by Pinto et al (2020). As noted above, recent research has suggested that generating implicit symbolic fear and avoidance requires that participants ruminate on (i.e., repeatedly rehearse) the relevant symbolic relations that “transmit” the fear and avoidance responding from the naturalistic cues (Leech & Barnes-Holmes, 2020). A limitation to the study, however, was that it suggested that rumination was necessary for implicit symbolic fear and avoidance effects to emerge, but did not seek to determine if the strength or size of those effects was sensitive to the amount of rumination that occured.

The fourth objective of the project will be to replicate the basic rumination effect reported by Leech and Barnes-Holmes (2020) and also to determine if implicit symbolic fear and avoidance are sensitive to different levels of rumination.

Methods to be used:

A training IRAP, broadly similar to that employed by Leech and Barnes-Holmes (2020), will be used to establish the relations necessary for the transmission of fear and avoidance behaviours from pictures of facial expressions to arbitrary symbols. Measures targeting the transmission of explicit symbolic fear and avoidance will involve: (1) a semantic differential, (2) an avoidance task, (3) an expectancy scale, and (4) valence scale. Two testing IRAPs will be used to assess the transmission of implicit symbolic fear and avoidance responses. An eye tracker will be used to capture visual orienting responses to the facial and symbolic stimuli presented in the training and test IRAPs; the data will be used to assist in the theoretical interpretation of the effects obtained from the two testing IRAPs.

Skills required of applicant:

The applicant should hold or expect to achieve an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) or First Class Honours Degree in Psychology or a cognate field. The applicant should also have strong research methods skills and an interest in experimental social and/or clinical psychology.


Barnes-Holmes, D., Harte, C., & McEnteggart, C. (in press). Implicit cognition and social behaviour. In R. A. Rehfeldt, J. Tarbox, J., & M. Fryling, M. (Eds.) Applied behavior analysis of language and cognition. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K.D., Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press, New York: NY.

Hughes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., Van Dessel, P., de Almedia, Stewart, I., & De Houwer, J. (2018). On the symbolic generalization of likes and dislikes. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 79, 365-377.

Leech, A., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2020). Training and testing for a transformation of fear and avoidance functions via combinatorial entailment using the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP): Further exploratory analyses. Behavioural Processes,

Leech, A., Bouyrden, J., Bruijsten, N., Barnes-Holmes, D., & McEnteggart, C. (2018). Training and testing for a transformation of fear and avoidance functions using the implicit relational assessment procedure: The first study. Behavioural Processes, 157, 24-35.

O’Toole, C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Smyth, S. (2007). A derived transfer of functions and the implicit association test. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 88, 263-283.

Perez, W. F., de Almeida, J. H., de Rose, J. C., Dorigon, A. H., de Vasconcellos, E. L. … Barnes-Holmes, D. (2019). Implicit and explicit measures of transformation of function from facial expressions of fear and of happiness via equivalence relations. The Psychological Record, 69, 13-24.

Perez, W. F., de Almeida, J. H., Soares, L C. C. S., Wang, T. F. L., Morais, T. F. L. . . . de Rose, J. C. (2020). Fearful faces and the derived transfer of aversive functions. The Psychological Record,

Pinto, J. A. R., de Almeida, R. V., & Bortoloti, R. (2020). The stimulus’ orienting function may play an important role in IRAP performance: Supportive evidence from an eye-tracking study of brands. The Psychological Record,

Smyth, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Forsyth, J. P. (2006). A derived transfer of simple discrimination and self-reported arousal functions in spider fearful and non-spider-fearful participants. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 85, 223-246.

Essential criteria

  • To hold, or expect to achieve by 15 August, an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC) in a related or cognate field.


This is a self-funded MRes opportunity.

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


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Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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