Social Emotions Group

Northeastern University

Current Projects


Social Emotions as Mediators of Social & Economic Capital

What makes us be fair? Be honest? Be communally-oriented as opposed to selfish? Help others at cost to ourselves? For a long time, the view has been that such seemingly “selfless” decisions or actions stem from self-control and adherence to “higher” principles that tamp down our craven emotions. While this may be true at times, we believe that humans also possess moral emotional responses that push us toward self-sacrifice in the moment in favor of longer-terms gains in social and economic capital. Compasssion, gratitude, pride – each of these emotions mediate prosocial actions that have a long-term benefit. As such, they help us solve problems of intertemporal choice.

In ongoing research, we continue to examine the impact of moral emotions and meditation on multiple phenomena requiring self-regulation and a willingness to accept short-term costs for long-term gains (e.g., perseverance, reciprocity, cooperation, altruism).


The Dynamics of Trust in Novel Partnerships

How do you know whether you can trust someone? If you've never met this person before, can you accurately assess her or his trustworthiness? These questions hold great import for initial negotiations, as the decision to cooperate with or trust another holds the potential for great benefit and great asymmetric loss. With Bob Frank, Cynthia Breazeal, and David Pizarro, we are working on a multi-site project funded by the NSF Human Social Dynamics Initiative to find answers.

We believe that “the cue” for trustworthiness has not yet been found because a single cue doesn’t exist. It’s more like a dance. Our initial findings reveal that people can ascertain the trustworthiness of others within the context of economic games, but only if they’re exposed to them in real-time (i.e., accuracy is much lower if only verbal information is exchanged via internet chats, etc.). But what predicts accuracy isn’t just single specific cues emitted by others. For accuracy to occur, one must be exposed to sets of cues that, in a probabilistic fashion, dynamically provide insight into the motivational stances of others. We’ve followed up on these initial findings using Cynthia Breazeal’s social robot
Nexi, which provides unprecedented abilities to control the types of cues emitted. The results have much to say not only about how the human mind can detect the trustworthiness of novel others, but also about how it interacts with emerging technological entities.

Emotion Guided Decision-Making and Threat Detection

Why can the hate or disgust we feel toward different groups fluctuate moment to moment? Why can our emotions alter the threats we see in our environs? What intuitive mechanisms can increase healthy decision-making and behavior when willpower fails? How does context alter the impact of emotions on risky decision-making? These are the questions we're investigating with multiple collaborators.

Work by Jolie Baumann in the lab is shedding light on the multiple ways that anger affects not only how humans make decisions, but also what they see. Sometimes anger makes us see or take more risks, sometimes less; Jolie's work is beginning to show why. Work with Nilanjana Dasgupta is continuing to examine how emotional states can inflame intergroup prejudices and resulting aggression. And planned work with Laura Kubzansky is set to test a novel theory for how emotions can actually enhance willpower vis-a-vis preventative health behavior. Stay tuned . . . .