Portrait of Mahsa Barzy

Mahsa Barzy

Research Associate

About

Mahsa completed a BSc (Hons) at the University of Central Lancashire and a Master of Research (MRes) in Psychology at the University of York. In 2016, Mahsa joined the School of Psychology at Kent as a PhD student. During her PhD she investigated the effect of social context and perspective on language processing in autism and then in 2019 she joined the ‘CogSoCoAGE’ research team as a postdoctoral researcher to work on a project awarded to Professor Heather Ferguson that investigates the cognitive basis of social communication across the lifespan.

Research interests

Mahsa's primary research interest is based in social cognition and socially situated language processing in adults with and without autism. She is particularly interested in how social cognition abilities, such as Theory of Mind, visual perspective taking and empathy influence the quality of our social interactions. While working on CogSoCoAGE project , Mahsa examines the interaction between these social cognition abilities and executive functions (working memory, inhibition, task switching, and planning) and how these abilities change across the lifespan (from 10 to 80+ years old). 

Mahsa is also interested in how autistic adults build mental representations of events and take the perspective of others while comprehending language. Previously she explored how context and socioemotional factors influence language comprehension in individuals with autism. Mahsa frequently uses techniques, such as event-related brain potentials (ERP/EEG), eye-tracking, facial EMG and behavioural measures to conduct research. 

Professional

Awards

  • 2019 - 2 x £200 Grindley travel award to attend the Experimental Psychology society meetings at University of Manchester and Bournemouth University
  • 2018 - €230 for an Invited talk as a guest speaker at Donders Discussions - The Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University, The Netherlands
  • 2018 - Best Talk at the University of Kent PhD Psychology Conference (Staff Vote)
  • 2018 - $550 travel bursary to attend the 10th Annual meeting of Society for the Nuerobiology of Language in Quebec, Canada
  • 2017- £1000 grant from University of Kent and Psychology Postgraduate Affairs group (£500 each) to hold a workshop on Bayesian Analysis for the graduate students across the UK which was successfully held at University of Kent (co-organiser with Matthew Plummer)
  • 2017- £100 travel bursary to attend the Social communication Disorders workshop at University College London , London
  • 2015 - £400 travel award as part of the UCLan Undergraduate Research Internship Programme to attend the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), held at Eastern Washington University, US

Publications

Article

  • Barzy, M., Filik, R., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2020). Emotional processing of ironic vs. literal criticism in autistic and non-autistic adults: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research. doi:10.1002/aur.2272
    Typically developing (TD) adults are able to keep track of story characters’ emotional states online while reading. Filik et al. (2017) showed that initially, participants expected the victim to be more hurt by ironic comments than literal, but later considered them less hurtful; ironic comments were regarded as more amusing. We examined these processes in autistic adults, since previous research has demonstrated socio-emotional difficulties among autistic people, which may lead to problems processing irony and its related emotional processes despite an intact ability to integrate language in context. We recorded eye movements from autistic and non-autistic adults while they read narratives in which a character (the victim) was either criticised in an ironic or a literal manner by another character (the protagonist). A target sentence then either described the victim as feeling hurt/amused by the comment, or the protagonist as having intended to hurt/amused the victim by making the comment. Results from the non-autistic adults broadly replicated the key findings from Filik et al. (2017), supporting the two-stage account. Importantly, the autistic adults did not show comparable two-stage processing of ironic language; they did not differentiate between the emotional responses for victims or protagonists following ironic vs. literal criticism. These findings suggest that autistic people experience a specific difficulty taking into account other peoples’ communicative intentions (i.e. infer their mental state) to appropriately anticipate emotional responses to an ironic comment. We discuss how these difficulties might link to atypical socio-emotional processing in autism, and the ability to maintain successful real-life social interactions.
  • Barzy, M., Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Autistic adults anticipate and integrate meaning based on the speaker’s voice: Evidence from eye-tracking and event-related potentials. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149, 1097-1115. doi:10.1037/xge0000705
    Typically developing (TD) individuals rapidly integrate information about a speaker and their intended meaning while processing sentences online. We examined whether the same processes are activated in autistic adults, and tested their timecourse in two pre-registered experiments. Experiment 1 employed the visual world paradigm. Participants listened to sentences where the speaker’s voice and message were either consistent or inconsistent (e.g. “When we go shopping, I usually look for my favourite wine”, spoken by an adult or a child), and concurrently viewed visual scenes including consistent and inconsistent objects (e.g. wine and sweets). All participants were slower to select the mentioned object in the inconsistent condition. Importantly, eye movements showed a visual bias towards the voiceconsistent object, well before hearing the disambiguating word, showing that autistic adults rapidly use the speaker’s voice to anticipate the intended meaning. However, this target bias emerged earlier in the TD group compared to the autism group (2240ms vs 1800ms before disambiguation). Experiment 2 recorded ERPs to explore speaker-meaning integration processes. Participants listened to sentences as described above, and ERPs were time-locked to the onset of the target word. A control condition included a semantic anomaly. Results revealed an enhanced N400 for inconsistent speaker-meaning sentences that was comparable to that elicited by anomalous sentences, in both groups. Overall, contrary to research that has characterised autism in terms of a local processing bias and pragmatic dysfunction, autistic people were unimpaired at integrating multiple modalities of linguistic information, and were comparably sensitive to speaker-meaning inconsistency effects.
  • Lowe, M., Khan, R., Thanzami, V., Barzy, M., & Karmaliani, R. (2019). Antigay “Honor” Abuse: A Multinational Attitudinal Study of Collectivist- Versus Individualist-Orientated Populations in Asia and England. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 88626051983849. doi:10.1177/0886260519838493
    Objective: Cultural collectivism, a core feature of honor cultures, is associated with the acceptance of aggression if it is used in the name of so called ‘honor’. Currently overlooked in the research literature, this study explored perceptions of anti-gay ‘honor’ abuse in collectivist orientated honor cultures, where homosexuality, in particular, is considered to be dishonorable. Method: To conduct exploratory and comparative analysis, this study recruited 922 students in four Asian countries (India, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan), as well as Asian British and White British students in England. All participants read a brief vignette depicting a man whose relatives verbally abuse him and threaten him with life-threatening violence, after suspecting that he is gay and has joined an online dating website to meet men. Participants then completed a short questionnaire that assessed the extent to which they thought the man’s actions had damaged his family’s honor and their approval of the anti-gay ‘honor’ abuse depicted in the scenario. Results: Broadly in line with predictions, data analyses revealed attitudes more supportive of anti-gay ‘honor’ abuse in all five collectivist-orientated populations than the sample of individualistic-orientated counterparts in England. Notably, however, a series of one-way ANOVAs demonstrated that these results varied depending on country of residence, gender, religious denomination, educational status and age. Conclusions: The findings show that individual and demographic differences influence perceptions towards homophobic ‘honor’ abuse in collectivist cultures. These differences are a useful indices of the psychosocial factors that underpin hostile attitudes towards gay males in cultures where homosexuality is denounced.
  • Black, J., Barzy, M., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research, 12, 422-444. doi:10.1002/aur.2056
    Counterfactual emotions, such as regret and relief, require an awareness of how things could have been different. We report a pre-registered experiment that examines how adults with and without ASD process counterfactual emotions in real-time, based on research showing that the developmental trajectory of counterfactual thinking may be disrupted in people with ASD. Participants were eye-tracked as they read narratives in which a character made an explicit decision then subsequently experienced either a mildly negative or positive outcome. The final sentence in each story included an explicit remark about the character’s mood that was either consistent or inconsistent with the character’s expected feelings of regret or relief (e.g. “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision.”). Results showed that adults with ASD are unimpaired in processing emotions based on counterfactual reasoning, and in fact showed earlier sensitivity to inconsistencies within relief contexts compared to TD participants. This finding highlights a previously unknown strength in empathy and emotion processing in adults with ASD, which may have been masked in previous research that has typically relied on explicit, response-based measures to record emotional inferences, which are likely to be susceptible to demand characteristics and response biases. This study therefore highlights the value of employing implicit measures that provide insights on peoples’ immediate responses to emotional content without disrupting ongoing processing.
  • Lowe, M., Khan, R., Thanzami, V., & Barzy, M. (2018). Attitudes toward intimate partner “honor”-based violence in India, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research. doi:10.1108/JACPR-09-2017-0324
    Purpose
    Although intimate partner violence (IPV) and “honor”-based violence (HBV) are major concerns throughout the world, little research has investigated the acceptance of these forms of abuse outside of the West. The purpose of this paper is to therefore respond to this gap in the literature by exploring attitudes toward HBV in a fictional depiction of IPV across four Asian samples: India, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan.

    Design/methodology/approach
    Participants (n=579) read a hypothetical scenario in which a husband, despite his own marital infidelity, verbally abuses and physically assaults his wife after discovering that she has been unfaithful. Participants then completed a questionnaire that assessed perceptions of damage to the husband’s honor, approval of intimate partner HBV against the wife, and perceptions of both the victim-wife and the perpetrator-husband.

    Findings
    The findings revealed that more males than females, across all four nations, were endorsing of honor-adhering attitudes in response to the perceived threat to the husband’s reputation resulting from the wife’s infidelity. Additionally, of the four samples, Pakistani participants were the most approving and Malaysians least endorsing of honor-adhering attitudes.

    Originality/value
    The results are discussed in relation to studies of honor-adherence in Asian populations. This study provides an original glimpse into the perceptions of intimate partner HBV in these not-often sampled nationalities.

Thesis

  • Barzy, M. (2020). The Effects of Social Context and Perspective on Language Processing: Evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder.
    This thesis aimed to provide new insights into the role of perspective and non-linguistic context in language processing among autistic and typically developing (TD) adults. The mental simulation account and the one-step model state that language is mentally simulated and interpreted in context, suggesting that these processes are activated online while linguistic input is processed. Little is known of whether the same processes are activated in autism. In seven experiments (four were fully pre-registered), I used offline and online measures (e.g. EEG, eye-tracking) to investigate how social factors, such as the perspective, speaker's voice, emotional states of the characters, and topic of conversation influence language comprehension in both lab and real-life settings, in autism and TD adults. Based on the weak central coherence (WCC), and the complex information processing disorder (CIPD) theories, it was expected that autistic adults would struggle to integrate the social context with language, or at least show some subtle delays in the time-course of these anticipation/integration processes. First, I failed to find the same effect as previous findings, showing enhanced processing for personalized language, suggesting that this process is dependent on individual preferences in perspective-taking and task demands. Furthermore, I found that contrary to the WCC, autistic individuals had an intact ability to integrate social context online, while extracting the meaning from language. There were subtle differences in the time-course and strength of these processes between autistic and TD adults under high cognitive load. Findings are in line with CIPD hypothesis, showing that online language processes are disrupted as task demands increase, which consequently affect the quality of their social interactions. Future research should further investigate how these subtle differences impact social communication abilities in everyday life in autism.

Forthcoming

  • Barzy, M., Ferguson, H., & Williams, D. (2020). Perspective influences eye movements during real-life conversation: Mentalising about self vs. others in autism. Autism.
    Socio-communication is profoundly impaired among autistic individuals. Difficulties representing others’ mental states have been linked to modulations of gaze and speech, which have also been shown to be impaired in autism. Despite these observed impairments in ‘real-world’ communicative settings, research has mostly focused on lab-based experiments, where the language is highly structured. In a pre-registered experiment, we recorded eye movements and verbal responses while adults (N=50) engaged in a real-life conversation. Using a novel approach, we also manipulated the perspective that participants adopted by asking them questions that were related to the self, a familiar other, or an unfamiliar other. Results replicated previous work, showing reduced attention to socially-relevant information among autistic participants (i.e. less time looking at the experimenter’s face, and more time looking around the background), compared to typically-developing controls. Importantly, perspective modulated social attention in both groups; talking about an unfamiliar other reduced attention to potentially distracting or resource-demanding social information, and increased looks to non-social background. Social attention did not differ between self and familiar other contexts, reflecting greater shared knowledge for familiar/similar others. Autistic participants spent more time looking at the background when talking about an unfamiliar other vs. themselves. Future research should investigate the developmental trajectory of this effect and the cognitive mechanisms underlying it.
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