Altruism, empathy and morality are typically thought of as abstract ideals, but Oriel FeldmanHall, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, breaks these topics down scientifically.
In an effort to better understand human behavior, her lab studies concepts at the intersection of social psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience.
FeldmanHall’s team has studied topics such as the formation of empathy and morality, friendship development, social interactions and numerous others, FeldmanHall said.
Though the team picks topics of scientific interest, the concepts are also pertinent to the general population, not just the scientific community. Empathy and morality have broad appeal as individuals seek to improve themselves, said Joseph Heffner GS, a lab member.
Historically, topics like these have been thought of as immeasurable, but models of human behavior and cognition being developed by the team are seeking to overturn that long-held belief, said former Lab Manager Jae-Young Son GS.
For example, the lab devised an experiment in which an individual must shock someone several times in order to keep a sum of money as a means of studying costly altruism — deciding whether or not to help someone if it costs you money — FeldmanHall said. This behavior is difficult to analyze, as it is hard to study experimentally, she added. By conducting an experiment with real world consequences, a hypothetical ideal can be scientifically tested.
The lab also undertook a separate experiment analyzing costly punishment: By observing whether or not subjects intervened as a third party when they witnessed an individual wronging another person, the team identified reputation as the driving factor behind people’s actions, Heffner said.
Another study on empathy and networking showed that more often than not, people who exhibited more empathy were at the center of their respective social networks, said William Lee GS, a member of the lab.
A separate publication by the lab studied how degrees of uncertainty influence risk taking and decision-making pertaining to helping and trusting others, as uncertainty influences most social decisions, said Lab Manager Logan Bickel.
The lab’s focus is rooted in FeldmanHall’s deep interest in the study of social psychology and behavior. “What could be better about waking up every morning, thinking about why humans do the things they do and trying to find the answer to those things?” she said. While the lab began two years ago with just FeldmanHall, she was quickly joined by Son and Heffner. The new lab began to grow and decided to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to its work, pulling from disparate literature and fields. “(It) speaks to how open-minded we all are and how eager we are to adopt state-of-the-art techniques,” Son said.
The lab maintains a culture in which argument is allowed and even encouraged, if it means promoting progress, Son said. “(The lab is) an open book, a blank slate. … We’re allowed to have scientific disagreements with one another but fashion them into productive and interesting debates about things that can move the field forward,” he added. The multidisciplinary approach fosters more well-rounded answers to the topics at hand, Bickel said.
The lab has since grown to between 10 to 15 members, including undergraduates, and encourages an environment in which students from many disciplines come together to answer questions about social interactions, FeldmanHall said. “I think some of the best science happens on the fringes,” she added. “If you can cherry pick the beautiful things … from lots of different spaces and merge them together, then you can have a fruitful avenue forward.”
“That’s the key to science,” Lee said. “If you surround yourself with people who have all sorts of ideas, you can test them and determine whose intuition is right.” A multidisciplinary approach may make things muddy at times due to contrasting viewpoints, but it forces everyone to break down information so that researchers from diverse disciplines can all add to the discussion. “We all have to speak the same language when we all don’t speak the same language,” he added.
The FeldmanHall lab is now conducting studies on political polarization and the influence of inequality on decision making, among other investigations. Their work on political polarization will examine the way people from different political backgrounds view the same footage. Lee’s upcoming thesis explores social foraging, a topic that analyzes people’s tendency to gauge the utility of social situations, such as when to leave their job or their romantic relationships, and what influences those decisions to be made earlier or later, he said. The team purposefully focuses on topics relevant to the public and encourages other researchers to consider how “their own areas of study can complement and also be informed by the work (we) are doing,” Son said.
“I feel very lucky that I have the lab that I do,” FeldmanHall said. “I am surrounded with people who are all much smarter than I am, and so I am continually learning from my students, and that is the greatest gift.”