New Publication: Empathy and well-being correlate with centrality in different social networks

Read the Stanford News press release here!

Craig Williams has successfully defended his dissertation "Social goals shape the facial expression of emotion: Subjective, behavioral, and neural bases of communicating feelings"

Congratulations Dr. Craig!

Desmond Ong has successfully defended his dissertation: "Computational Affective Cognition: Modeling Reasoning about Emotion"!

Congratulations Dr. Desmond!

Yuan Chang Leong was selected as one of the 20 most highly rated abstracts that will be presented as a poster for The Social and Affective Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting in March!

Congrats Yuan Chang!

Welcome to our newest lab members: Marissa Clark, Leor Hackel and Tyler Bonnen

This summer, we added three new members to our lab: Marissa Clark has joined us as our new lab manager, Leor Hackel as our new postdoctoral fellow who recently received his Ph.D from New York University, and Tyler Bonnen as our newest graduate student from Columbia University. 

Excited to have you here!

Deshawn Sambrano and Kira Alqueza present summer posters!

Deshawn Sambrano, a Psychology major at California State University, Fullerton, presented a poster on how our desires shape what we see as part of the Stanford Summer Research Early Identification Program!

Kira Alqueza, a junior at Stanford, presented a poster titled "Goals to show or feel empathy drive both empathic expressions and experience" studying the link between experiences and expressions of empathy. Kira won an award as one of the top three presenters!

Congrats to both our summer students!

Yuan Chang Leong wins the Zimbardo Teaching Prize!

Congrats to Yuan Chang Leong for winning the Zimbardo Teaching Prize for inspiring teaching in the Introductory Psychology Course at Stanford. The Teaching Prize is given in honor of Professor Emeritus Phillip Zimbardo, who taught Introductory Psychology for over 35 years and is celebrated as one of Stanford's most innovative and exciting teachers. This prize is given to two Teaching Fellows from Introductory Psychology, one undergraduate student and one graduate student, who best embody Zimbardo's ability to bring psychology to life by making it vivid, personal, and relevant. Great job, Yuan Chang!

Christina Chwyl and Brittany Torrez win thesis awards!

Congrats to our undergraduate thesis students for their thesis awards!  Christina Chwyl won the Firestone Medal, which recognizes the top ten percent of all honors theses in social science, science and engineering.  Brittany Torrez won the Zajonc Award for Excellence in Psychology Honors Research, which recognizes students who have exhibited exceptional performance in the conception, execution, and presentation of original research.  We are so proud of them!  

New Publication: Virtually Old: Embodied perspective taking and the reduction of ageism under threat

Can we leverage the power of immersive perspective taking to reduce bias against the elderly? In collaboration with Soo Youn Oh and Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Erika Weisz and Jamil Zaki examined the efficacy of different perspective-taking modalities–including perspective taking in a virtual environment–to improve attitudes toward older adults. They found that perspective taking through virtual reality increases feelings of connectedness and desire to interact with older adults when participants perceived the elderly as a threatening outgroup. These findings suggest that virtual reality-based perspective taking can improve attitudes toward outgroup members even in the presence of intergroup threat. For a complete list of SSNL publications, click here.

New Publication: Tracking the emotional highs, but missing the lows: Hypomania Risk is associated with positively biased empathic accuracy inference

How might humans’ ability to accurately perceive others’ emotions—empathic accuracy—be affected in mood disorders? For example, people suffering from mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder, often report feeling more positive emotions and having more positive experiences: do these symptoms affect how others are perceived? A recent study, done by Prof Jamil Zaki and PhD student Desmond Ong in collaboration with Hillary Devlin and June Gruber, looked at how risk for mania is associated with empathic accuracy. The study finds that people who report higher hypomania risk were more sensitive to, and hence more accurate in detecting, positive changes in others’ emotions. Retrospectively, however, these people also rate others as feeling overly-positive compared to how those others actually feel. Thus, the findings provide a more nuanced look at empathic accuracy in people who report higher levels of hypomania risk: they might be more sensitive and more accurate in judging others’ positive emotions in the moment, but less accurate after the fact. For a complete list of SSNL publications, click here.


New Publication: Vicarious Fear Learning depends on Empathic Appraisals and Trait Empathy

People learn about the world not only through their own experiences, but also through the experiences of others.  Such vicarious learning helps people benefit not only from their own mistakes and successes, but also by watching what works (and does not work) for other people.  Which factors affect the extent to which much people learn vicariously from others?  Olsson and colleagues examined this question through a vicarious fear learning paradigm.  Participants observed social “targets” who in turn viewed blue and yellow squares on a screen, and received electric shocks in the presence of one of these colors.  Some participants were asked to empathize with targets, others were asked to think objectively about targets, and a third group was given no instructions.  We then examined participants’ own physiological responses to these squares, which they had learned about vicariously via targets.  Participants who empathized with targets showed a stronger vicarious learning response than those in the other two groups.  Further, participants in this group showed an especially strong vicarious learning reaction if they also scored highly on a trait empathy measure.  These data suggest that vicarious learning builds on at least two factors: how empathic a person is at a trait level, and how empathic they choose to be in the moment, at a state level. Click here for a complete list of SSNL publications.

New Publication: Affective Cognition: Exploring lay theories of emotion

Humans effortlessly reason about others’ emotions all the time. However, scientists do not have formal, computational models to describe how humans actually do this reasoning. New work by Desmond Ong, Jamil Zaki and Noah Goodman proposes that humans might do such reasoning rationally. Across four studies, they show that a rational Bayesian model of emotional reasoning accurately describes human inferences. In particular, the paper tackles the problem of emotional cue integration (see also Professor Zaki's 2013 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science). Imagine seeing a friend’s smiling face when you know that something bad happened: how do you reconcile whether your friend is feeling positive or negative? This problem involves combining the potentially conflicting information you get from multiple cues (smiling face; bad outcome). We show that, just like other cue integration problems in psychology (e.g. using visual and audio cues), we can model human inferences of emotion using an optimal Bayesian model. In addition to informing basic psychological theory, this work has many exciting applications like applying computational models to mental health (computational psychiatry) or affective computing. To read more publications from the SSNL, click here.

New Publication: Near-misses sting even when they are uncontrollable

Have you ever missed a plane by mere minute, or missed winning a game by several points? Emotionally, these "near-misses" hurt more than “far-misses” (when you miss by a large margin), and one potential explanation is because we feel regret that we could’ve “tried harder”. But what about when your lotto ticket misses the jackpot by 1? Intuition (and previous research) shows that you might still feel worse, even if you could not have “tried harder”. New research, done by Desmond Ong, Noah Goodman and Jamil Zaki, shows that humans do judge others to feel worse when they experience near-misses even when those others had no control over the outcomes, such as in gambling and other luck-based scenarios. Critically, these near-miss judgments depend on an appearance of control (often called “illusory control”). Observers judge others to feel worse if the near-miss occurred along a dimension on which the players made a choice (e.g. the number the players chose missed the winning number by 1), but not when the near-miss was along a dimension on which the players did not make a choice (e.g. the card position the players were assigned was only 1 away from the winning card). This has implications for understanding how we judge others’ emotional reactions. Desmond present this research as a talk at the 37th Annual Cognitive Science Society Meeting, Pasadena CA, July 2015. Click here for a full list of SSNL publications.

New Publication: Emotional and Instrumental Support Provision Interact to Predict Well-Being

We help close others in many ways, from listening to each other’s problems, to making each other feel understood, to providing practical support.  Although these supportive actions often benefit the recipient, how does helping affect the person providing support (i.e., provider)?  A new paper by Sylvia Morelli, Ihno Lee, Molly Arrn, and Jamil Zaki reveals that empathizing with those we help directly relates to feeling happier, less lonely, and less stressed. When providers provide practical support (e.g., helping with chores), but don't feel emotionally engaged, they do not experience these benefits. Thus, interventions should not only encourage individuals to provide more practical support to each other, but should concurrently train individuals to enhance their emotional connection to recipients. Click here for a complete list of SSNL's publications.

Jamil Zaki receives APS Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions

Huge congrats to Jamil Zaki for receiving the APS Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions! The APS recognized six psychological scientists “pushing the limits of their field.” You can (and should!) read profiles of all six recipients here

Craig Williams wins poster awards!

Congrats to graduate student Craig Williams for winning the SPSP Emotion Preconference Poster Award and for his recognition as an SPSP Student Poster Award Finalist. Craig’s poster, “Interpersonal emotion regulation style: Predictions for affiliation, regulatory success, and well-being” details the development of his Interpersonal Regulation Questionnaire. Well done!

New Publication: Social norms shift behavioral and neural responses to foods

Why do we like what we like?  It seems that other people influence our values and preferences, even when it comes to food.  A new study by Erik Nook and Jamil Zaki found that Stanford undergraduates shifted their preferences for foods towards those of their peers.  However, group norms didn't just shift how much participants said they liked foods, norms also shifted how their brains responded to foods.  The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a region thought to encode "value") was more active when participants re-rated foods they believed their peers rated favorably, as compared to unfavorably.  These data suggest that social norms can shift food preferences at both self-reported and neural levels, a finding that could inform interventions that promote healthy eating.  For a complete list of SSNL publications, click here.

New Publication: Common and distinct neural correlates of personal and vicarious reward: A quantitative meta-analysis.

Individuals experience reward not only when directly receiving positive outcomes (e.g., food or money), but also when observing others receive positive outcomes (i.e., vicarious reward). But do personally rewarding experiences and vicariously rewarding experiences draw on the same or different neural machinery? A new meta-analysis by Sylvia Morelli, Matthew Sacchet, and Jamil Zaki sheds light on the common and unique components of personal and vicarious reward and suggests new avenues for future research. For a complete list of SSNL publications, click here

New Publication: Reconsidering Automatic Theory of Mind

We think about others and reason about other minds all the time: but do we do this automatically? There is an on-going debate in the literature about the automaticity of theory of mind (ToM). Is ToM effortful or automatic? A new Psychological Science paper, coauthored by PhD student Desmond Ong, in collaboration with Stanford Psychology Professor Michael Frank and others, sheds more light on this debate. The paper offers a replication of a previous important and influential study whose results support automatic ToM. Desmond and his collaborators find that the original study had several experimental confounds, which invalidates the previous evidence for automatic ToM. Still, the authors argue that the jury is still out on automatic ToM: we need to develop better experimental methodologies to address this question. Read more about this paper here and check out more of our lab's publications here.

New Publication: A new look at emotion perception: Concepts speed and shape facial emotion recognition

When we're trying to understand how other people are feeling, do we automatically recognize expressions as "afraid" or "angry," or must we use conceptual processes to arrive at these conclusions?  A new publication by Erik Nook, Kristen Lindquist and Jamil Zaki reports data supporting the latter notion: people use emotion concepts to identify how other people are feeling.  Identifying emotions in others speeds responses to congruent emotion words, a clear indication that emotion perception primes emotion concepts.  Further, activating emotion concepts can actually shape what expression people believe they have seen others express.  Finally, pairing emotion expressions with emotion labels can help people with alexithymia accurately identify emotions in others.  For a full list of our lab's publications, click here.

New Publication: The Emerging Study of Positive Empathy

When we hear the term "empathy," we often think of empathizing with others' pain and suffering.  However, empathy can also involve sharing, celebrating, and enjoying others’ positive emotions (or "positive empathy").  A new paper by Sylvia Morelli, Matthew Lieberman, and Jamil Zaki introduces this new construct and reviews evidence that positive empathy relates to increased prosocial behavior, social closeness, and well-being. It also discusses open directions for the study of positive empathy, such as investigating the potential role of positive empathy (or its disruption) in psychiatric disorders. For a full list of our lab's publications, click here

New Publication: Not as Good as You Think? Trait Positive Emotion is Associated with Increased Self-Reported Empathy but Decreased Empathic Performance

Are happy people more empathetic? Or are they unable to emotionally connect with those around them? A new study — done by Prof. Jamil Zaki and PhD student Desmond Ong in collaboration with Hillary Devlin and June Gruber of the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Lab — investigates how positive emotion is associated with our ability to empathize with others. The study finds that people high in trait positive emotions are “not as good as they think” when it comes to empathy. Specifically, trait positive emotion was associated with increased self-reported subjective empathy (that is, happy people tend to report that they are more empathetic), but with decreased objective measures of empathy when the target’s emotion was incongruent with their own feelings. That is, happy people performed worse on an objective empathic accuracy task when the target that they were empathizing with was experiencing negative emotions. However, people high in trait positive emotions were much more sensitive to positive changes in the target’s emotions. Together, these findings suggest that high trait positive emotion engenders a subjective-objective empathy gap, and that emotion-congruence plays an important role in empathic accuracy. For a full list of our lab's publications, click here.

New Publication: Empathy: A motivated account

We often think of empathy as an automatic process. However, empathy is often context-dependent. Our willingness to empathize with others changes with different situations and with different people. A new paper by Jamil Zaki resolves this tension by underscoring the role of motivation in empathy. Motives drive our willingness to empathize. In his paper, Zaki highlights specific motives that drive people to avoid and approach empathy, illustrates a motivated model of empathy, and suggests potential interventions to maximize empathy. For a complete list of SSNL publications, click here.

Jamil Zaki and Craig Williams receive Stanford Teaching Awards!

 Prof. Jamil Zaki and grad student Craig Williams have both received teaching awards for the 2013-2014 academic year!  Jamil Zaki's Dean's award for distinguished teaching recognizes exceptional investment in undergraduate education, and Craig Williams is this year's recipient of the Zimbardo award for outstanding graduate teaching through Stanford's Psychology 1 curriculum.  Congrats to them both!  

New Publication: Beliefs about the Malleability of Empathy Predict Effortful Responses when Empathy is Challenging

We tend to think of empathy as an automatic process - something that happens naturally when we interact with people in need. However, this assumption is not always correct. We frequently experience lapses in empathy when relating to others is difficult, or makes us upset or uncomfortable. Across several studies, Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki, and Carol Dweck explore when and why this empathy breakdown occurs, and what predicts whether people will exert effort to experience empathy these situations. They discover that people's beliefs about the malleability of empathy (whether or not empathy can be developed), play an integral role in the decision to exert effort to experience in challenging contexts. For a full list of our lab's publications, click here.

Craig Williams and Desmond Ong win SPSP Travel Awards!

Congratulations to SSNL PhD students Craig Williams and Desmond Ong for their receipt of SPSP Graduate Student Travel Awards.  Travel awards are provided to students with outstanding poster submissions to the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.  Craig's poster presents data he has collected showing that social presence (believing that a friend is watching you) can cause individuals to express more emotion without changing how these individuals actually feel.  Desmond's poster discusses a Bayesian model he has created that describes how people make inferences about what other people are feeling, particularly when they receive conflicting information about another's emotional state.

New Publication: Interpersonal emotion regulation

Even though we can certainly influence our emotions when we're on our own, it's important to remember that we also go to others in order to control how we're feeling.  Whether we're celebrating a new accomplishment or seeking support with a challenge, people often use help from others to shift how they're feeling.  A new paper by Jamil Zaki and Craig Williams provides a conceptual framework for exploring these methods of interpersonal emotion regulation.  See here for a full list of SSNL publications.

New Publication: Intuitive Prosociality

A new paper by Jamil Zaki and Jason Mitchell turns the tables on prosocial behavior.  Rather than depicting selfless behavior as the effortful suppression of primal selfish desires, the paper argues that prosocial behavior could itself arise from intuitive impulses that involve the goal of helping others.  See here for a complete list of SSNL publications.


The People's Science Creates New Forum for Vital Dialogue

The People's Science, a new online forum designed by Jamil Zaki, attempts to bridge the gap between scientific discoveries and the media's representation of these advances.  As featured on NPR, this forum allows for scientists from any discipline to create short, accessible abstracts that communicate their findings directly to the public.  Individuals interested in learning about cutting-edge research can then hear from these scientists and even engage them in dialogue through comments on their abstracts.  Zaki explains that the project aims to "reduce barriers to entry for scientists to engage directly, and also offer the public a place to find out about science straight from the source, so to speak."

New Publication: Functional neuroimaging and psychology: What have you done for me lately?

In a recent article, Joseph Moran and Jamil Zaki suggest ways to integrate the goals and methods of psychology and functional neuroimaging.  Even though certain facets of brain mapping projects could be deemed reductionistic or uninteresting to psychologists who are interested in doing more than localizing a cognitive process to a certain brain region, Moran and Zaki argue that functional neuroscience does indeed offer a bevy of insightful tools to understand the way that people perceive, feel and behave.  See here for a complete list of SSNL publications.

Jamil Zaki receives the Association for Psychological Science "Rising Star" award

The award recognizes researchers who, in the early stages of their career, are already making significant contributions in psychological science.

Welcome to our inaugural lab members: Sylvia Morelli, Erik Nook, Desmond Ong, and Craig Williams

The SSNL opened its doors in August of 2011.  If you're interested in joining us or participating in our research, please see the Contact page.  

Craig Williams receives an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Craig's work on Interpersonal Emotion Regulation will be funded by this award.  Congrats Craig!

Sylvia Morelli receives an NIMH Postdoctoral Fellowship

Sylvia's work on prosocial behaviors and close relationships will be funded by this award.  Congrats Sylvia!