The Social Neuroscience Lab focuses broadly on the phenomenon of motivated cognition, under which goals and needs guide individuals’ thinking towards their desired conclusions. These motives (i) range from the need to feel good about oneself to the desire to affiliate with others, (ii) pervasively shape cognition and decision-making, and (iii) have far-reaching consequences on real-world outcomes. We use methods like functional neuroimaging, behavioral experiments and computational modeling to examine the processes underlying these 3 facets of motivated cognition across various settings.



People typically wish to feel good about themselves, a motivation that powerfully shifts beliefs. For example, people often self-enhance by evaluating themselves as having more desirable attributes than their peers (e.g., the “above-average” effect), expressing overconfidence in their performance and future prospects, and even perceiving control over objectively uncontrollable events. In one line of work, we found that people self-enhanced to the extent that they failed to activate neural systems associated with top-down control, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC). Moreover, people self-enhanced more when under time pressure or cognitive load. These findings suggest that people effortlessly overestimate their favorable attributes and abilities, and that encouraging people to think more deeply might reduce effortless self-enhancement.


People Like Us

People likewise enhance close others (e.g., relationship partners) and similar others (e.g., ingroup members) as a way to feel that they are part of relationships and groups that are special. Much like self-enhancement, we found that enhancing one’s romantic partner and ingroup members is associated with reduced activation in neural systems related to top-down control. For instance, we recently examined how motivation biases people’s use of undesirable information when forming impressions of ingroup and outgroup members. Participants encoded desirable and undesirable information about ingroup and outgroup members, and then rated their impression about these social targets. We found that observers maintained favorable impressions of ingroup, but not out group, members after learning negative facts about them. Crucially, this tendency was associated with a failure to engage neural systems involved in top-down control (e.g., dACC and LPFC) while learning new facts about ingroup members. These results suggest that people effortlessly ignore information that conflicts with their desire to enhance ingroup members. 


People Who Like Us

People typically wish to feel good about themselves, a motivation that powerfully shifts beliefs. For example, individuals seek approval, and frequently surround themselves with people who provide such approval. Here, we examined whether people effortlessly “return the favor” by enhancing others who provided approval in the past. Heterosexual men were scanned while they received feedback about their attractiveness from a series of women. When men initially liked a given woman, they later reported more attraction when liked women provided positive feedback. When men initially disliked a given woman, they later reported less attraction when disliked women provided them with positive feedback. These effects were mirrored in reward-related brain structures: Men engaged greater ventral striatum activation in response to social approval, but only when the source of approval was valuable. Remarkably, this occurred even when men did not remember the specific feedback they received from a given woman. This work suggests that people effortlessly shift their preferences towards others who provide social reward, but only when such reward is motivationally valuable.



Importantly, motivated cognition produces a number of pernicious real-world outcomes. For example, people who overestimate their abilities and are overconfident in their future prospects often fail to meet deadlines, receive lower grades, and fail to take preventative health measures (e.g., flu vaccines, contraception). They also engage in risky behaviors (e.g., risky driving, gambling), and dismiss relevant information about their risky behaviors (e.g., smoking), making such behaviors resistant to change.

In ongoing work, we are developing novel quantitative markers of motivated cognition and connecting them to downstream behavioral outcomes. For example, we used a game-theoretic approach to quantify breakdowns in intergroup cooperation. We found that when faced with cooperative decisions, participants trusted ingroup members with larger sums of money than outgroup members. Critically, decisions to trust ingroup members were accompanied by engagement of reward-related brain structures (e.g., striatum). In contrast, decisions to trust outgroup members produced activity in systems associated with top-down control (e.g., dACC and LPFC). People also trusted ingroup, as compared to outgroup, members more especially when under time pressure. Together, these findings suggest that people might intuitively value and trust ingroup members, but require control to regulate distrust of outgroup members. These findings hold important applied consequences for intervening to reduce conflict. For example, they suggest that encouraging deliberation during intergroup interactions may increase intergroup trust and cooperation.