Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Why do some relationships work and some fail? What makes some people forgive and others hate? How do different people cope with anxiety? What causes religious zeal and willingness to die for a cause? What makes some people closed-minded? Why are some people resilient through hard times but others just give up? Why do some people take such careless risks? Why aren’t we acting on the climate crisis? What makes some people compassionate and kind, and others callous and careless toward others?  

To get answers to these kinds of causal questions we rely on experiments. For example, we might randomly assign 200 people to two groups of 100 people each, and then experimentally manipulate an anxiety provoking cue for participants in one of the groups. We might then measure some index of hostility afterwards. More hostility in the anxiety group than the no-anxiety group would be taken as evidence that anxiety caused hostility because the anxiety cue would have been the only difference between the two identical groups that could have caused the differing levels of hostility. We also often measure participants’ personality traits in these studies (e.g., how anxious, confident, or secure they say they typically are in their lives). In  our example here, this would allow us to assess the extent to which the experimental manipulation of anxiety would make all or just some kinds of people more hostile. Most experimental manipulations only affect certain kinds of people. People with anxious and approach motivated traits, for example, are especially likely to react to anxiety-related cues with hostility and other closed-minded responses (see the Desire and Anxiety subsection of RESEARCH for background on basic motivational processes related to anxiety and approach motivation). 

In our experiments we use experimental manipulations that mimic real-life experiences. For example, to make participants anxious we might ask them to describe real-life personal insecurities, a dissolving close relationship, or difficult decisions they are grappling with. Or, we might experimentally manipulate frustration or failure on an important-seeming academic task. After these kinds of experimental manipulations we would then typically measure effects on socially consequential outcomes (see RESEARCH section for topic areas). For added confidence that our experimental results are not just artifacts cooked up in artificial laboratory settings, we also conduct correlational studies to see if results point in the same direction in the real world, outside of the laboratory. For example, we might test whether anxious circumstances correlate with hostility or other kinds of extremism in the real world. After generating and statistically analyzing the data in these kinds of studies, we then typically spend several months (or years) writing up
the results for publication in scientific books and journals, to document any novel scientific discoveries. Together, experimental and correlational research contributes to the field’s understanding of social phenomena it would be
advantageous to better predict and control.

While probing causes of specific social phenomena in this way, we simultaneously test more basic and general questions about human emotion, motivation, relationships, and judgment. One of the most exciting methodological developments in our lab in this regard is our recent incorporation of neural measures of anxiety and approach motivation that are intimately linked with various important social phenomena. We began using a standard electroencephalographic apparatus 8 years ago. The standard set-up usually required around 3 researcher-hours to be spent collecting data from one participant.

Over the past 2 years we have developed new procedures with wireless Emotiv EEG Neuroheadsets (pictured on our website home-page) that allow us to run up to 6 participants per researcher-hour through our social neuroscience experiments (an 18-fold increase in efficiency). The headsets measure brain activity through saline-soaked felt sensors that can be quickly placed on participants’ heads in a few minutes. 

This new efficiency gives us a unique opportunity to conduct social neuroscience experiments with far more power (i.e., from far more participants) than has been previously possible. We are excited by the potential for discovery from these highly powered social neuroscience experiments.

Neural measures are useful because they can get beneath self-report to assess motivational tendencies that people might not be willing or able to report. For example, self-reported anxiety is notoriously unreliable. Most people are surprisingly poor at recognizing physiological anxiety cues, and this has impeded research progress on motivational and
relational consequences of phenomena related to anxiety such as uncertainty and frustration. 

Neural measures also hold promise for helping to ground and integrate the field of Social Psychology. Social Psychology is sometimes seen as a collection of isolated mini-theories about human behavior that are not as integrated or grounded in shared basic processes as they could be. The neural measures of anxiety and of approach motivation that we use in our lab hold promise for providing integrative coherence for groups of theories in the field,  as described in our recent synthesis in: *Jonas, E., *McGregor, I., Klackl, J., Agroskin, D., Fritsche, I., Holdbrook, C., Nash, K., Proulx, T., & Quirin, M. (2014). Threat and defense: From anxiety to approach. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 219-286. Grounding social psychological theory in neurophysiological measures not only helps link its pieces together, but also helps connect it with other sub-disciplines that are also increasingly incorporating neurophysiological measures. Neural measures are becoming a common language for discourse across disciplinary boundaries in the psychological sciences. The increasing interconnectedness across mini-theories and subdisciplines is revealing exciting new possibilities for understanding human nature and social behavior.