Skip to main content
Sarah Gerson

Dr Sarah Gerson



School of Psychology

+44 29208 70480
Tower Building, Room 3.01, 70 Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3AT
Media commentator
Available for postgraduate supervision


My research focuses on how infants and young children come to understand and engage in the social world in which they live.

My research explores the active role infants and children play in creating experiences that help them understand the world around them. Specifically, I have previously examined the role active experience, observational experience, and comparison processes play in recognizing goals at the origins of action understanding. More recently, I have built upon this foundation to examine how young children engage in cooperative actions with others. I use a variety of measures to address these topics, including looking times, eyetracking, imitation and other overt behavioral measures, electroencephalography (EEG), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
















Adrannau llyfrau



Most of my research is conducted within the Cardiff University Centre for Human Developmental Science. Our research group, Tiny to Tots, benefits from relationships with local families who volunteer their time for research and collaborations with Techniquest.

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 and social processing using both electroencephalography (EEG; Gerson et al., 2015; Meyer, Gerson, et al., 2017; Monroy, Gerson, et al., 2017) and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS; Hashmi, Vanderwert, Price, & Gerson, 2020).

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.


  • 2019-2023 - Industry Partnership Funding (±£250,000)
  • 2020-2021 - ISSF Cross-Disciplinary Award Wellcome Trust (co-I; ±£50,000)
  • 2020-2021 - Waterloo Child Development Fund (co-I; ±£55,000)
  • 2020 - Cardiff University Research Infrastructure Fund (co-I; ±£100,00)
  • 2019-2022/2020-2023 - ESRC-DTP Collaborative Studentships (± £60,000)
  • 2017-2018 - Welsh Crucible Grant (co-I)
  • 2015 - Royal Society Research Grant (£15,000)

Research collaborators

Recent Publicity

Coverage of doll play findings across Europe with reach of over 400 million (October, 2020). Examples include: Independent; Mirror; Forbes; Daily Mail

Gerson, S.A., & van Schaik, J. (March, 2018). Are kids coding more than their parents did?

Gerson, S.A., Gattis, M., & Weinstein, N. (August, 2017). Before babies understand words, they understand tones of voice. The Conversation. voice-81978

Can how we talk to babies influence their development? (August, 2017). ITV report and television broadcast.

BBC Radio Wales (August, 2017). Voices motivate babies.


I am module coordinator and teach in the second year Developmental Psychology (PS2011) module. I also teach Developmental Psychology as part of the MSc Conversion (PST721). I have previously run the Foundations of Psychology (PS0001) module. I also teach academic tutorials and practicals and supervise student projects and personal tutees. I supervise undergraduate interns via the CUROP and SPRint schemes most summers.

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


Undergraduate education

  • Illinois State University, summa laude.

Postgraduate education

  • University of Maryland, College Park.

Honours and awards

  • 2017 - Welsh Crucible
  • 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.

Professional memberships

  • Society for Research in Child Development
  • International Congress on Infant Studies
  • Cognitive Development Society

Academic positions

  • 2015-2016 - Lecturer, University of St Andrews, School of Psychology and Neuroscience
  • 2011-2014 - Postdoctoral Researcher, Radboud University Nijmegen.

Committees and reviewing

Ongoing                         Editorial Board Member: Infancy

Ongoing                         Editorial Board Member: Scientific Reports- Nature

Ongoing                         Editorial Board Member: Journal of Experimental Child Psychology

2019                             Review Panel Member: Cognitive Development Society

Panel: Perception, Action, Attention, & Cognitive Control

2017                             Review Panel Member: International Conference on Infant Studies

Panel: Cognitive Development

2016                             Conference organizing committee for the European Society for                                                        Philosophy and Psychology Annual Meeting (August 2016)

2016                             Review Panel Member: Society for Research in Child Development

Panel 1: Attention, Learning, & Memory

2015                             Review Panel Member: International Conference on Infant Studies

Panel 5: Attention, Memory, & Learning


If you are interested in applying for a PhD, or for further information regarding my postgraduate research, please contact me directly, or submit a formal application.

Current supervision

Amy Hughes

Amy Hughes

Research student

Kelsey Frewin

Kelsey Frewin

Research student