Postgraduate Research Opportunity

On the purpose of cognitive reflection


Title: On the purpose of cognitive reflection

Funding: The studentship consists of an annual stipend of £16,062, plus £5,360 to cover home tuition fees, for 36 months.

Application deadline: 5th December 2022 (interviews to take place w/c 12th December).

Start date: January 2023.

Duration: 3 years (full time)

Location: Colchester Campus

Based in: Department of Psychology


This funded PhD studentship aims to understand how people use reflection when solving word problems.

This PhD studentship is funded as a part of the Leverhulme Trust grant “On the purpose of cognitive reflection” awarded to the listed supervisors. The role of the PhD student will be to prepare, conduct and publish the proposed research. 

The student will join a vibrant department with an active cohort of doctoral students, and supportive team of academics, administrators, and technicians.

We welcome applications from candidates with a background in psychology or related disciplines.

The project

Many would agree that the ability of humans to engage in reflection is what distinguishes us from other animals. However, less agreement exists on why we acquired the ability to reflect and what its main purpose is.

Traditionally, we view the purpose of reflection as to secure better knowledge and increase accuracy to solve problems and make better decisions. But, some scientists have proposed recently that its main purpose is social—to create socially acceptable justifications of the desired, intuitively generated solutions and decisions to sway others efficiently towards your solutions and decisions.

While we can easily imagine, for instance, a business person thinking hard about the reasons that would persuade a potential customer to buy their product, it is harder to imagine a person thinking hard about a word problem only to come up with justifications for their intuitive solutions to the problem to sway others towards their solution. We will test this counter-intuitive suggestion in this proposal.

Specifically, we will investigate the purpose of reflection in solving verbal problems explicitly designed to measure cognitive reflection. These problems prompt appealing but incorrect responses; for example: “A bat and a ball cost £1.10 in total. The bat costs £1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The appealing answer to this problem is that the ball costs 10 pence. However, this is wrong, and the correct answer is 5 pence.

Traditionally, it was believed that when solving these problems, people first generate a wrong but intuitively appealing answer, and then they correct their wrong intuitions during the reflective stage of reasoning. Thus, this analytical inference account assumes that the main purpose of reflection is to achieve accuracy.

In contrast, recent evidence suggests that people might be able to generate most of the correct answers already intuitively, and reflection serves a different purpose. Thus, this intuitive inference account assumes that the main purpose of reflection lies somewhere else, for instance, in our ability to justify (not correct) our intuitions. These two principal accounts explain how people arrive at the correct answer and map clearly on two different views of the purpose of reflection.

Building on these ideas, we aim to achieve three objectives.

First, we aim to identify whether people come up with the correct solutions to the cognitive reflection problems cueing appealing but incorrect responses intuitively or after deliberation. Do people generate most of the correct responses already during the initial intuitive reasoning stage or only after some deliberation?

Second, we aim to identify the quality of people’s justification for their answers before and after deliberation. Do people justify their answers much better after deliberation? Determining when the correct solution and its justification are generated will shed more light on the function of cognitive reflection.

Third, we aim to determine how fast, intuitive reasoning can account for the predictive power of the ability to solve cognitive reflection problems. Do strong correlation patterns emerge already between intuitively generated correct answers to cognitive reflection problems and various epistemic beliefs, judgments and decision-making? This will help us determine which function of cognitive reflection drives the prediction of a wide array of constructs associated with the correct answers to cognitive reflection problems.


The studentship consists of an annual stipend of £16,062, plus £5,360 to cover home tuition fees, for a maximum of 36 months.

Home and international applicants are eligible to apply. International applicants will be liable for Overseas tuition fees, minus the value specified to cover home tuition fees.

PhD students also receive a £2,500 training bursary via Proficio funding, which may be used to cover the cost of advanced skills training including conference attendance and travel.

The successful applicant will enrol at the University of Essex.



  • BSc (2:1 or above) in Psychology or related disciplines
  • Knowledge and experience in experimental research and quantitative analysis in psychology or related discipline


  • MSc/MRes in Psychology or related disciplines
  • Research interest in areas of thinking, reasoning, judgment or decision-making
  • Ability to conduct statistical analysis with R statistical environment
  • Ability to prepare web-based research in Qualtrics

How to apply

You can apply for this postgraduate research opportunity online.

Applications MUST include the following documents to be uploaded:

  • Academic CV, including contact details of two academic referees.
  • Covering Letter (maximum 500 words) in support of your application.
  • Transcripts of any undergraduate or master's programmes.

Instruction to applicants

When you apply online you will be prompted to fill out several boxes in the form:

  • For "Course title" please put "PhD in Psychology" with January 2023 as the starting date.
  • For "Proposed research topic or area of research" please put the title of this studentship (“On the purpose of cognitive reflection”).
  • For "If you have contacted a potential supervisor..." please put the name of the lead supervisor (Dr Miroslav Sirota).

If you have any informal queries about this opportunity, please email the lead supervisor, Dr Miroslav Sirota (

The application deadline for this studentship is 5th December 2022. We anticipate that interviews will take place w/c 12th December.