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Psychobiology of Religion and the Social Brain

Eligibility: UK/EU/International

Award Details: Bursary plus tuition fees

Duration: Full Time - 3 years 6 months Fixed Term

Application deadline: May 21st (Starting September)

Informal enquiries are essential before application; contact Dr. Valerie van Mulukom to discuss this opportunity.

As an ambitious and innovative University, we’re investing an initial £100m into our new research strategy, ‘Excellence with Impact’. Through original approaches from world-leading experts, we’re aiming for our research to make a tangible difference to the way we live. As a research student you are an integral part of Coventry’s lively and diverse research community and contribute to our reputation for excellence. With our exceptional facilities and superb support mechanisms you are afforded every opportunity for academic success.

The project

How do religious rituals bring people together? The cohesion of religious groups that perform rituals together is outstanding and has been documented by anthropologists and sociologists for decades. However, the psychobiological mechanisms by which this happens are not yet fully understood.

The aim of this PhD project is to apply Robin Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis to religious rituals and beliefs. The PhD candidate will investigate a variety of religious rituals, their relationship to social bonding, and the psychological and biological mechanisms that mediate this relationship. The PhD candidate is expected to conduct observational and experimental studies, analyse, write up, and publish the research during the course of the PhD. This work will contribute to a larger project, ‘Religion and the Social Brain’, funded by the Templeton Religious Trust. The PhD applicant will be primarily supervised by Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Valerie van Mulukom. Other supervisors are Dr Jonathan Jong, Dr Gavin Sullivan, and Prof. Robin Dunbar (University of Oxford).

Related Publications:                                               

Dunbar, R. I. (2009). The social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution. Annals of human biology36(5), 562-572. 

Machin, A. J., & Dunbar, R. I. (2011). The brain opioid theory of social attachment: a review of the evidence. Behaviour148(9-10), 985-1025.

van Mulukom, V. (2017). Remembering religious rituals: autobiographical memories of high-arousal religious rituals considered from a narrative processing perspective. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1-15.

About the Centre/Department

The Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement is vibrant research community for researchers with interests in a broad range of psychological and social topics.  Our work is captured by five main themes: literacy, violence and interpersonal aggression, identity and resilience in communities and organisations, atypical development, and brain, belief and behaviour.  More detail on these themes can be found at

The research will be supervised by experienced staff located in the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement.

Successful Applicants

Successful Applicants will have:

  • A minimum of a 2:1 first degree in Psychology with a minimum 60% mark in the Project element or equivalent with a minimum 60% overall module average.
  • In the event of a first degree classification of less than 2:1, a Masters Degree in Psychology will be considered as an equivalent. The Masters must have been attained with overall minimum marks at merit level (60%). In addition, the dissertation or equivalent element in the Masters must also have been attained with a minimum mark at merit level (60%).
  • The potential to engage in innovative research and to complete the PhD within a three-year period of study
  • A minimum of English language proficiency (IELTS overall minimum score of 7.0 with a minimum of 6.5 in each component)


  • knowledge and/or experience in the subject of (experimental) psychology
  • knowledge of and experience in statistical analyses
  • a proven interest and knowledge of religion and religious rituals


  • experience with participant recruitment and testing
  • experience with experimental design

Eligibility & Application procedure

Application Procedure:

Application information can be found in our how to apply section. Before completing the application please contact Dr. Valerie van Mulukom for an initial informal discussion about the opportunity.


All UK/EU/International students are eligible to apply that meet the academic requirements, the eligibility criteria can be found making an application page.