Dr Ulrich von Hecker - Diploma Hamburg, PhD Habilitation Berlin

Senior Lecturer

Research group:
Social & environmental psychology
029 208 76639
Tower Building, Park Place

Research summary

I am interested in how we represent the social world around us. How do we create a comprehensive picture of our social group, our social networks, how do we perceive ourselves in the context of other people? How do we use analog dimensions, such as the up vs. down dimension, or spatial distance, to represent differences in social status, or friendship and affiliation relationships? I am also interested in attentional processes, and in the distinction between controlled and automatic processes in thinking and reasoning. I also study how different kinds of mood affect reasoning and memory. Other research helps to understand how social values get translated into action. This research is being undertaken in collaboration with colleagues in the Values in Action (ViA) Centre, at Cardiff University.

Teaching summary

I am currently teaching undergraduate modules in research methods, statistics and computing, and decision making, alongside supervising postgraduate projects. I have taught undergraduate statistics, social psychological theory, emotion, and social cognition.

Selected publications (2014 onwards)


Online publications

Full list of publications


Research topics and related papers

Constructive mental processes: Social mental models.
When we move into a new environment, start a new job, join a leisure group, or, in general, meet new people in new social contexts, we must try to get oriented within the new context. This involves forming an impression about what kind of group it might be, how homogeneous it seems to be, e.g., whether there are any subgroups or hierarchies in it. It is of equal importance, of course, to find an appropriate position in that group for ourselves. This is the basic psychological situation studied in this project. The general idea is that, in the process of doing all of the above, one  attempts to construct a so-called mental model of the new social environment. Such a model represents the group as a whole and, at the same time, contains information about pairwise relationships between members in an integrated, highly connected fashion. We are interested in finding out how the constructive process unfolds, and, specifically, to what extent it is based on logical inference rules. Assuming that such rules work on the basis of specified antecedent knowledge, we ask what specific information is selected and seen as diagnostic when a rule is applied to establish a common, global representation of  subgroups and factions. Are there perception biases which lead to overemphasize or to neglect observed boundaries or polarizations within a group? Under  what conditions does one assume reciprocity for sympathy relations, i.e., assume to be liked by  someone whom one finds likeable? What is the role of  the context, e.g., social background information, or stereotypes, in which the group is placed? In this project, these and similar questions are examined experimentally.

Research on topics within this area has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Polish Committee for Scientific Research (KBN), and the Russell Sage Foundation, USA (Sectarian Conflict and Cross-Community Trust in Northern Ireland).

See  von Hecker (1997), von Hecker & Sedek (1999), Hewstone et al. (2008), Dutke et al. (in press), Dutke & von Hecker (in press).

Cognitive symptoms in depression.
Besides their well-known affective disturbances, depressed persons show a number of cognitive symptoms as well. Depressed individuals are often very diligent and accurate in their attempts to work on intellectual tasks. They are meticulous in processing information at the detail level and perform very well in simple tasks requiring effort or vigilance. On the other hand, depressed mood is associated with impairments in generating a clear picture of an overall situation, in gaining an overview about a problem at a large scale, or in constructing a clear representation of a decision or a social situation. Depressed individuals sometimes "don't see the  wood for the trees". The basic assumption in this research is that one of the main cognitive deficits in reactive depression can be seen as a specific impairment in generating mental models. In order to examine this idea, we are developing experimental settings that permit (1) to trace different cognitive operations that occur during the learning and memorizing of different sorts of materials, social and non-social; (2) to distinguish between genuinely cognitive and genuinely motivational/emotional components of the observable deficits. The aim is to better understand how processes of thought and memory might be altered in depression. Recently, processes of active deployment and control of attention tend to be in the focus of interest. Scientific knowledge of this kind is of central importance for successful approaches to treatment as well as therapeutic intervention.

Research on topics within this area has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and the Polish Committee for Scientific Research (KBN).

See von Hecker & Sedek (1999), Sedek & von Hecker (2004), von Hecker & Meiser (2005)

Mental control and inhibition.
Highly overlearned, deeply entrenched knowledge may exert an automatic influence on responses, and such influence is hard to overcome. Research on thought suppression has identified attentional processes that help to concentrate on desired contents while keeping unintended contents out of concern. This research project examines the ability of experimental participants to give random “yes” / “no” – answers to trivia questions. According to earlier findings, this is a very difficult task to do, since automatized knowledge drives a tendency to respond in the correct direction. We are interested in developing an experimental setting to study this type of task, and we explore potential ways how to improve participants’ ability to inhibit unwanted associations in their thought, and to direct their responses towards the generation of “true randomness”. Research on mental control and inhibition is relevant to a number of applications, including commitment in social relationships and the treatment of reactive depression.  In this context, we are also interested in phenomena of “negative priming”, that is, situations in which a previously presented stimulus can lead to a delay (instead of acceleration) in response when this stimulus is shown again soon afterwards.

Research on topics within this area has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). See von Hecker & Conway (2010).

The plasticity of emotions.
The question is how one might best explain some effects found in earlier research, according to which sad mood, as manipulated in laboratory experiments, leads to more detail-oriented and elaborative processing. This was found, for example, for the processing of counterattitudinal messages. We consider the argument that mood episodes may be malleable and have plasticity to evolve in various ways. Thus, induced sadness may become frustration, and it may indeed be the frustration, and not sadness that is fuelling the cognitive processing observed with sad mood induction. The rationale is that, as previous studies have shown, a sad mood induction is likely to lead to other emotions as well, such as fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger. Second, the exposure to the counterattitudinal appeal may lead sad people to feel frustrated via 2 mechanisms, (a) reactance: people who feel sad may be more prone to reactance effects; (b) mood transformation: mood that is predominantly of sadness, but that includes frustration, may become primarily sadness, with some sadness, as a consequence of a change in the environment of the individual.

We are interested in identifying individual differences variables that could be potential moderators of these processes, such as gender or masculinity, and to carry the argument further in order to study the plasticity of emotional episodes in general. See Conway & von Hecker (submitted).

Research group

Sindhuja Sankaran (PhD Student, Psychology, Cardiff University)
Matteo Saccaro (Research Assistant)

Research collaborators

Geoffrey Haddock (Psychology, Cardiff University)
Simon Dymond (Psychology, Swansea University)
Ana Guinote
(Psychology, University College London)
Elanor Hinton (Psychology, University of Bristol)
Michael Conway (Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada)
Stephan Dutke (Psychology, University of Muenster, Germany)
Karl Christoph Klauer (Psychology, University of Freiburg, Germany)
Marcin Bukowski (Psychology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland)
Izabela Kreijtz (Psychology, Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland)
Grzegorz Sedek (Psychology, Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, ICACS, Warsaw, Poland)

Postgraduate research interests

My current interests are in social psychology, in particular social cognition and the link between cognition and emotion. I study how social schemata shape the way we perceive groups and social relations around us and involving us, and how social perception is affected by states of dysphoria and depression. For example, I have found that sad mood influences cognition in highly specific ways, impairing us in situations when we have to process and integrate novel stimuli into mental models and global representations. My recent research focuses on attentional control and embodiment, that is, to what extent physical dimensions and bodily experiences shape the formation of abstract ideas and concepts.

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.

Current students

Lukas Wolf (2nd year), Embodiment of social values.

Previous students

Masoud Fazilat Pour (2009). Defocused Attention in Depressed Mood.
Sindhuja Sankaran (PhD Student, Psychology, Cardiff University). Cognitive determinants of athletic performance.

Undergraduate education

1986: Diploma in Psychology, University of Hamburg

Postgraduate education

1992: Ph.D., Psychology, Free University Berlin
1999: Habilitation, Free University Berlin

Awards/external committees

2010-2012: Nomination and empanelment for ESRC Peer Review College.
2009-2011: Empanelment as Research Guide in the Centre for Research of Christ University, Bangalore, India.


2010-present: Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University.

2000 (September) to 2009: Lecturer at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University.

1996 (August) – 2000 (August): Lecturer at the Institute of Psychology, University of Potsdam, Department of Social Psychology

1994 (February) - 1996 (July): Lecturer at the Institute of Psychology, Free University Berlin

1993 (August) -1994 (January): Scholarship at the University of Kansas, USA

1988 - 1993: Lecturer at the Institute of Psychology, Free University Berlin, Department of Social Psychology

1986 - 1988: Lecturership, funded by Research Project Attitudes and Behavior, Department of Social Psychology, University of Hamburg