Research

For papers providing an overview of our research, see herehereherehere, and here. Researchers at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab focus broadly on how people connect with, respond to, and care for each other.  We study a broad range of topics, but some of our main threads of research include the following:

The nature and consequences of empathy

Brain systems associated with mentalizing (blue) and experience sharing (green).  From Zaki & Ochsner, 2012; click image for PDF.

Audience members’ palms sweat while they watch a tightrope walker teeter over a precipice.  Friends wonder how to help each other through struggles, and customers wonder whether a used car salesman is genuinely happy to see them.  All of these instances represent forms of empathy: sharing, thinking about, and feeling concern for others’ emotions. 

 

The SSNL studies empathy through a wide range of approaches and methods.  We differentiate between different “pieces” of empathy, such as vicariously taking on others’ feelings (emotional empathy), thinking about their experiences (cognitive empathy) and feeling a motivation to improve their well-being (empathic concern, see Zaki, 2016; Zaki & Ochsner, 2016).  Our work probes the brain processes that support pieces of empathy, (e.g., Zaki et al., 2016; Morelli et al., 2018), and use computational models to describe how people make sense of others’ emotions based on facial expressions, language abd other cues (Ong et al. 2015, 2019; Zaki, 2013).  We’re also interested in when and how empathy leads people to accurate, versus inaccurate impressions of what others are going through, with an eye towards improving interpersonal understanding (Zaki & Ochsner, 2011).

 

Our lab also explores the benefits of empathy, for example in reducing individuals’ stress and in building relationships (Morelli et al., 2015Zaki, 2016).  We are also interested in the noisy, but powerful role of empathy in guiding moral decisions (Zaki, 2016).

 

Connections and communities

Highly empathic, compared to less empathic, individuals are nominated by more of their peers as confidantes in the face of bad news.  From Morelli et al., 2017; click image for PDF.

Empathy is often viewed as residing within individuals, or connecting pairs of people, such as married couples, a parent and child, or doctor and patient.  But people of course exist in broader communities, like towns, teams, companies, and schools.  Through a collaboration with Stanford, the SSNL is examining the ways that empathy affects these larger groups.  

Using a combination of social network analysis, personality measurements, and neuroimaging, our lab has probed how empathy tracks individuals’ position and role in new communities (Morelli et al., 2017) and brain processes involved in detecting people who are central to one’s social group (Morelli et al., 2018).  We are now extending this work to examine how, when, and why individuals’ social ties help them cope effectively with stress.

Empathy-building

People donate more to charity after seeing others behave generously, as opposed to stingily, demonstrating the role of social norms in driving empathic behavior.  From Nook et al., 2016; click image for PDF.

In addition to how empathy works, members of the SSNL are interested in moments during which it doesn’t work, and how scientific insights can help people empathize better (Weisz & Zaki, 2017).  Caring and understanding often crumble just when they’re needed the most: a problem that characterizes polarized political climates, callous physician-patient interactions, and burnt-out workplaces (Zaki & Cikara, 2015).  The SSNL has probed ways to rebuild empathy under these circumstances, for instance through the use of virtual reality to help people simulate the suffering of people they might otherwise ignore (Herrera et al., 2018). 

 

Our lab has also argued that empathy is not an emotional reflex, but rather an experience people choose in response to motives that drive them to approach or avoid engaging with others’ emotions (Zaki, 2014; Weisz & Zaki, 2018).  This means that by bolstering empathic motives, scientists should be able to “grow” empathy even under hard circumstances. 

 

We have demonstrated that motivation-based manipulations, such as social norms and “growth mindsets,” indeed inspire people to empathize even when they might not otherwise (Schumman et al., 2014; Nook et al., 2016). Our lab is now exploring this possibility through longer term empathy-building interventions which we hope can help people connect in broader, healthier ways across a range of settings.

Interpersonal emotion regulation

A major factor in mental health is people’s ability to successfully regulate their emotions, tuning their feelings in ways that are sustainable and adaptive.  Social interactions are a key ingredient for this ability.  People often vent to others, seeking support and commiseration to regulate their own emotions; parents, friends, partners, and colleagues also work hard to regulate each other.

The SSNL has developed a framework for understanding such interpersonal emotion regulation (Zaki & Williams, 2013).  We have also examined IER as varying across people, in ways that predict well-being, social connection, and the ability to form supportive relationships (Williams et al., 2018).  Finally, we are probing the connection between empathy and IER, especially in cases when helping someone requires making them feel negative emotions (Zaki, 2020).  We are now expanding this work to focus on IER in broader communities, and consider ways of helping people improve their abilities to manage emotions through social interactions.