Past projects

The effects of social context on adolescent and adult risk-taking behaviour

Adolescence involves dramatic changes in the social world. While most adolescents find peer relationships intensely rewarding, adolescence is also a period of increased vulnerability to the effects of negative social experiences such as peer victimization. Related to this, adolescents find peer judgements especially salient; both anecdotal and self-report data show that adolescents are more likely to change their behaviour or attitudes to fit in with their peers, which often results in adolescents encouraging one another to engage in risky behaviour, including reckless driving, use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, and risky sexual behaviour. In this project, we are using experimental tasks to investigate the decisions that adolescents (and adults) make about risky situations, and how this is modulated by social context. We are interested in exploring whether, in the laboratory, adolescents are more likely than adults to shift to a more risky pattern of decision making when they are observed by peers, when they observe peers’ behaviour, or when receiving advice from peers. We are also examining the neural bases of these developmental differences using fMRI.

Learning to look out for cheats

It has been suggested that humans have evolved cognitive mechanisms which facilitate social exchange. One crucial skill for smooth social interactions is the ability to detect individuals who are likely to “cheat” or to “free-ride”. Individuals who are unable to detect such defectors are more likely to be exploited, whereas those who have cognitive mechanisms that enable them to detect cheats (even if such detection occurs unconsciously) may be more likely to be successful in avoiding such exploitation. In this project, we are interested in examining whether people have cognitive biases (e.g., preferential attention or better memory) for individuals who have defected in a social exchange. We are also extending this work to examine how cognitive biases for defectors might emerge through development, as adolescents’ social worlds become more complex.

Navigating the social world: Higher-order mentalizing in adolescents

Humans are unique in their capacity to mentalize – that is, to think about others’ beliefs, desires, and intentions. Whenever we think “He wants.” or “She knows.” or “She knows that he wants.”, we are mentalizing. Mentalizing contributes to our ability to explain, predict, and influence others’ behaviour, enabling us to navigate our complex social worlds. Despite extensive research on mentalizing in young children, little is known about the development of mentalizing during adolescence, although recent evidence suggests that it continues to develop through to the early 20s. Yet the maturation of social cognitive skills, including mentalizing, in adolescence may be critical for social and emotional wellbeing, because the social world changes dramatically through this period. This project involves adapting an existing measure of mentalizing ability to make it appropriate for adolescents and use it to examine both typical development of mentalizing through adolescence and how individual differences in adolescent mentalizing relate to social and emotional wellbeing.

The development of interpersonal information integration

Collaboration is an important part of our education and work environments. However, we have a fairly limited understanding of how we share and integrate our mental information, and how doing so affects our learning and decisions. We all have intuitions and opinions about these matters, but it is important – not least for educational purposes – that these intuitions and opinions are based on careful research. In an attempt to address this issue, we are currently using social psychophysics to test how interpersonal information integration change with age; importantly, our approach allows for both dynamic interaction between participants and careful modeling of their behaviour.

Detection of interpersonal cues encourages altruism

Helping others is an important part of many social species. On the one hand, helping others may encourage reciprocal acts in the future, but on the other hand, helping others can come at a cost to the individual too. In this project, we investigate how the presence of interpersonal cues can elicit more generous patterns of behaviour from people, and whether individual differences in mood can enhance these effects further.