Dr Sarah Gerson


Research group:
Developmental & health psychology
029 208 70480
Tower Building, Park Place

Research summary

From learning to tie one’s shoes to perfecting the art of tango, observing and understanding others’ actions is critical to human success throughout development. Understanding what other people are doing when they act is foundational to the development of language, cognition, and culture, and it is essential to seamlessly interacting in the social world. In my research, I recruit diverse methodological techniques and innovative paradigms in order to examine a central question in social-cognitive development: How do infants and young children come to learn about and from others' actions? Although action understanding is essential throughout human development, studying its origins is especially important because it allows us to examine the interplay between inborn abilities and formative experiences. I began by examining mechanisms underlying the origins of intention understanding (see, for example, Gerson & Woodward, 2013, 2014). That is, I investigated how young infants develop an understanding of the goals underlying others’ actions and, in particular, how their own experience producing actions contributes to this understanding. Building on this work, I have since conducted research addressing how infants come to understand, copy, and predict actions that they have never previously performed themselves (e.g., Gerson & Woodward, 2012, 2013). In this work, I emphasise the role comparison (i.e., analogy) processes play in the generalisation of action understanding. I hypothesise that comparing familiar and novel actions helps infants and children understand the goals of novel actions (Gerson, 2014; Gerson & Woodward, 2009; Woodward & Gerson, 2014). For example, if I had never seen someone using an electric mixer to stir batter, but I had previously stirred batter with a spoon, I could understand the goal of the person using the electric mixer via comparison to my previous experience sitrring with a spoon. In ongoing research, I am exploring the neural correlates of action understanding using both electroencephalography (EEG; Gerson et al., 2015; Meyer, Gerson, et al., in preparation; Monroy, Gerson, et al., in preparation; Ni Choisdealbha, Gerson, et al., in preparation) and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS; Stapel, J., Gerson, et al., in preparation). Across my work, I use a variety of behavioural and neuroimaging methods to address one common theme: how infants and young children come to understand and interact with other humans. When we learn to tie our shoes, we learn more than just the mechanics of the action. We also learn about the goal of our sister’s action when she ties her shoes and, via comparison, the goal of our mother when she ties a bow in our sister’s hair. Understanding the goals underlying these basic actions is an important foundation for social, cognitive, and cultural development.

Teaching summary

I teach in the second year Developmental Psychology (PS2011) module. I also supervise student projects and personal tutees.

I have previously taught or TA’d for Developmental Research Methods, Cognitive Development, Statistics, Cognitive Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Selected publications (2014 onwards)


Full list of publications


Media activities



2015 - Royal Society Research Grant (£15,000)

Research collaborators

Amanda Woodward
Sabine Hunnius
Harold Bekkering
Marlene Meyer
Aine ni Choisdealbha
Claire Monroy
Andrea Schiavio
Lauren Howard
Erin Robbins
Amanda Seed

Postgraduate research interests

If you are interested in applying for a PhD, or for further information regarding my postgraduate research, please contact me directly (contact details available on the 'Overview' page), or submit a formal application here.

Undergraduate education

Illinois State University, summa cum laude

Postgraduate education

University of Maryland, College Park

Awards/external committees

2012 - University of Maryland Distinguished Dissertation Award
2011 - Ann G. Wylie Dissertation Fellowship
2011 - International Conference Student Support Award
2010 - Rovereto Workshop on Cognition and Evolution Travel Grant
2009 - Janet W. Johnson Student Grant for Travel and Professional Development
2009 - Society for Research on Child Development Student Travel Award
2008 - Janet W. Johnson Summer Fellowship for the Study of Developmental Psychology
2008 - Goldhaber Travel Grant
2008 - Graduate Student Award to the International Conference on Infant Studies
2006-08 - Psychology Department Block Fellowship
2002-06 - Presidential Scholarship at Illinois State University
2005 - Robert G. Bone Scholarship
2002-06 - Presidential Scholarship at Illinois State University


2015-2016 - Lecturer, University of St Andrews
School of Psychology & Neuroscience
Origins of Mind Research Group
Child Development Lab
Centre for Social Learning & Cognitive Evolution
Institute of Behavioural and Neural Sciences
Living-Links/Budongo Research Consortium

2011-2014 - Postdoctoral Researcher, Radboud University Nijmegen
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, & Behaviour
Sponsors: Drs Harold Bekkering & Sabine Hunnius