II. RESEARCH INTERESTS
My program of research consists of three related lines of research, characterized by the integration of social, neuroaffective, and psychophysiological approaches. The major focus in the lab is on the neuroscience of self-control, where we take an affective neuroscience approach to investigate the function, role, and psychological correlates of one of the brain’s major nodes of executive control, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This is a part of the brain located in the medial prefrontal cortex and indexed by an electroencephalographic (EEG) signal called the error-related negativity (ERN). By studying the ACC and the ERN we are gaining a better understanding of how self-control works and how it functions. Finally, although not as active a research focus in the lab as it once was, we also study prejudice and discrimination, focusing specifically on the psychological consequences of belonging to a stigmatized group. I have been fortunate to receive support from the National Academy of Education, the Spencer Foundation, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the Ontario Research Fund to build my lab and infrastructure, and continued support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation to support my independent lines of research.
Our “social affective neuroscience” approach attempts to elucidate and understand mechanisms underlying social behaviour by combining biological and social approaches, thereby gaining a fuller, more consilient understanding of both social behaviour, emotion, and the brain. By focusing on affective neuroscience and psychophysiology, our lab is grounded in basic psychological science, asking fundamental questions about the brain as it relates to basic psychological functioning. Many of these basic questions have focused on the ACC and the ERN. The ACC is richly interconnected with both limbic and prefrontal areas of the brain, and one of its principal functions is the regulation of bodily states of arousal in the service of action and control. For example, in one of our earliest neuroscience studies, we observed that initial acts of self-control diminish subsequent self-control because they diminish ACC-generated performance monitoring. Specifically, we have found that the ERN—thought to index arousing responses to error and therefore part of a system that signals the need for deliberative control—is diminished for people after initial acts of self-control. Exercising self-control, in other words, hurts subsequent self-control attempts because it reduces the emotional sting of self-regulatory errors. Conversely, new research in the lab suggests that efficient self-control comes about when people experience and accept a more intense emotional sting to their performance errors, as indexed by ACC functioning. These types of questions have led us to study not only the neuroscience of self-control, but also the neuroscience of mindfulness meditation practice, religious belief, emotional acceptance, attachment behavior, and self-affirmation.
Observations from affective neuroscience, specifically observations about the close connection between emotion and self-control, have led us to propose a new affect alarm model of self-control. According to our model, self-control is instigated by situations where two goals come into conflict (e.g., when the goal of losing weight conflicts with the impulse to eat ice cream). These goal conflicts arouse anxious affect, which then acts as a signal, a kind of alarm that orients people to situations that require control and motivates the kinds of behaviours that establish control. In this sense, we propose that emotional processes are mediating mechanisms of self-control, with emotions acting as information that can alert people to when self-control is needed. In a second model, we explore the mechanisms of ego depletion. Although studied for over a decade, the study of ego depletion has foregone deep explorations of process to focus on broad applications of the phenomenon. As a result we know remarkably little about why self-control seems to act like a resource. Our model tries to fill this gap by suggesting that depletion works because it leads to shifts in motivation and attention, such that people are less motivated to regulate and more motivated to self-gratify and pay less attention to cues for constraints and more attention to cues for gratification. We hope that this process model of depletion will move the field to ask more probing questions about the nature of self-control.
My research has contributed to the development of a new focus in the study of prejudice and discrimination—the study of the target’s perspective—and in so doing has contributed to a greater appreciation of what it means to belong to a group with a “spoiled identity.” I have focused on four interrelated consequences of stigmatization: poor academic performance, heightened emotionality, biased emotional perception, and loss of self-control. My main focus has been a focus on how negative stereotypes about intellectual ability, for examples stereotypes that Black Canadians aren’t as smart as Caucasian or Asian Canadians or that women aren’t as gifted in math and science as men, can not only malign one’s social identity but also affect academic performance, striving, and engagement. This research sets out to understand what social psychologists call stereotype threat, a situational predicament that individuals find themselves in when they feel apprehensive about confirming negative stereotypes about their group. More recently, we have asked questions about prejudice from the point of view of the perceiver, specifically as it relates to empathy and the “mirroring” of other people. Informed by recent discoveries in neuroscience, most notably the discovery of the so called “mirror-neuron-system,” my students and I, for example, have recently found that this basic mirroring mechanism, integral for empathy, is constrained to the ingroup.