Research

For papers providing an overview of our research, see herehereherehere, and here. Researchers at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab focus broadly on deconstructing social cognition and interaction. Although often delving into new territory, some of our main threads of research include:

The Anatomy of Empathy

Systems of brain regions involved in sharing others' internal states (in green) and in drawing inferences about those states (in blue). 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: people’s sharing, thinking about, and concern for others’ emotions. 

 

The SSNL studies empathy through a wide range of conceptual approaches and methods.  We examine the components of empathy and their underlying neural systems (Zaki & Ochsner, 2012), for instance examining brain processes that support people’s ability to vicariously “catch” each other’s suffering (Zaki et al., 2016) and happiness (Morelli, Sacchet, & Zaki, 2015).  We also use computational models to probe how people make sense of others’ emotions based on signals such as facial expressions or language (Ong, Zaki, & Goodman, 2015, Zaki, 2013, Zaki et al., 2016) and explore how people form accurate impressions of each other’s minds (Zaki & Ochsner, 2011). 

 

Our lab also explores the benefits of empathy, for example in reducing individuals’ stress and in building relationships (Morelli et al., 2015, Zaki, 2016).  For instance, we are now using social network analyses to probe the role of empathic individuals in bolstering the formation of supportive emerging communities, such as friendship networks in freshman dorms. 

 

Empathy Building

In addition to how empathy works, we hope that our work can offer practical ideas for how to build empathy in tough, crucial situations (Weisz & Zaki, 2017).  Caring and understanding often crumble just when they’re needed the most: encounters between groups in conflict, doctors and their patients, or police officers and community members (Zaki & Cikara, 2015).  Is there a way to recover empathy in these circumstances? 

 

In recent years, our lab has gathered evidence that empathy is not an emotional reflex, but rather something that people choose in response to motives that drive them to approach or avoid engaging with others’ emotions (Zaki, 2014).  This means that by bolstering empathic motives, scientists should be able to “grow” empathy even under hard circumstances (Schumman, Zaki, & Dweck, 2014). 

 

The lab is now exploring this possibility through ongoing empathy-building interventions.  Our hope is that these efforts can help college students build broader, more diverse social networks, mitigate bullying in middle schools, and help police officers and their communities form stronger, more productive connections. 

Social "Tuning" of Emotions

Peer opinions shape activity in striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. From Zaki, Schrimer, & Mitchell, 2011; click image for PDF.

William James famously described the emotion someone would feel when encountering a bear in the woods, but in fact most of our emotional lives unfold around other people.  We’re awash in social interactions, which alter—or “tune”—our emotions in countless ways. 

The SSNL studies social tuning of emotion at two primary levels.  First, we examine how people take cues from others when deciding how to respond to emotionally relevant stimuli.  We have found that such emotional conformity relies on brain systems associated with reward processing and learning (e.g., Zaki, Schirmer, and Mitchell, 2011, Nook & Zaki, 2015). Although social influence often gets a bad rap, we have also demonstrated that people make healthy and kind choices when they see others around them do the same, a process driven by emotional conformity (Templeton, Zaki, & Stanton, 2016, Nook et al., 2016). 

Second, we explore the ways people signal their emotions in social settings to express their feelings in ways that others can “read” (Zaki et al., 2012).  We believe this signaling is the first part of a broader phenomenon, interpersonal emotion regulation, people turning to their social world to change their feelings, for instance, by seeking help and support from others (Zaki & Williams, 2013).

Prosocial Behavior

Altruistic and selfish choice-patterns predict activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex. From Zaki, Lopez, & Mitchell, in press; click image for PDF.

Humans are—compared with many other animals—slow, small, and weak. And yet we won the cross-species lottery for global domination. Why? In large part, because we often work together, and often compromise our individual well-being for the greater good. Such prosocial behavior is both central to our species and enigmatic to social scientists.

Members of the SSNL examine prosociality on many fronts.  For instance, we’re interested in the idea that people experience prosociality as rewarding—in other words, that doing good may feel good—and try to deconstruct why this might be the case (Zaki & Mitchell, 2011,Waytz, Zaki, & Mitchell, 2012, Zaki & Mitchell, 2013, Zaki et al. 2014, Tamir, Zaki, & Mitchell, 2015).  We also explore the idea that prosocial behavior often “helps the helper,” by improving the health and psychological well being of people who act to benefit others (Morelli, Lieberman, & Zaki, 2015, Morelli et al., 2015).  Finally, we are interested in how and when prosocial behavior breaks down, for instance between members of different social groups (Hughes, Ambady, & Zaki, 2017).