The Neural Basis of Selfish and Selfless Social Goals
William A. Cunningham, Ph.D., Associate professor of Psychology
and Affiliated Faculty Member, Center for Cognitive Science; Director
of the Human Functional Neuroimaging Center, Ohio State University
The main objective of this proposal is to explore the role of the brain's evaluative systems in selfless behavior. We primarily focus on the amygdala, a subcortical region of critical importance for understanding social cognition that serves as an informational, affect-driven hub between brain regions involved in perception and identification of stimuli and regions involved in decision-making and executive functions. Under prevailing theories, the amygdala provides arousal cues that direct attention, thereby facilitating effective responses to the immediate environment. These theories restrict the functional role of this adaptive system to the self-focused objective of "avoiding personal harm." However, given recent research demonstrating that amygdala activation varies as a function of the goals of the perceiver, we argue that with the appropriate goal, the amygdala can become vigilant for the needs of others. Under this framework, the attentional benefits that the amygdala confers upon social perceivers can be leveraged to promote better prosocial decisions and, by extension, more effective prosocial actions. To test this hypothesis, we will conduct a large-scale functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) experiment combined with the administration of personality scales that measure various facets of prosocial motivation and well-being and a behavioral experiment, in which we will obtain behavioral measures of pure altruism. We would employ correlational and meditational methods to relate these three datasets to one another, enhancing interpretability of each individual component while building a unified view of prosocial thought and action.
William Cunningham received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 2003 and is now an associate professor (as of 10/2010) of psychology and an affiliated faculty member of the Center for Cognitive Science at The Ohio State University (OSU). He is currently the Director of the Human Functional Neuroimaging Center at OSU. His research takes a social cognitive neuroscience approach to understand the cognitive and motivational processes underlying emotional responses. Recently with his graduate students, he has extended his research on basic affective processes to investigate and understand the development and maintenance of the positive neuroscience questions of altruism, selflessness, and happiness. He has more than 30 publications, including in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Psychological Science, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and his work has been cited over 1200 times. His work on the neural basis of motivation and evaluation has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. In 2009, he received the SAGE Young Scholar Award from the Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology.
Alexander Todorov received his Ph.D. from New York University in 2002. Currently, he is an associate professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is also an affiliated faculty of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. His research focuses on the cognitive and neural basis of social cognition. His work has been published in more than 25 journals, including Science, PNAS, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Psychological Science, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. His work on evaluation of faces on social dimensions has been funded by the National Science Foundation. His research has received wide national and international media coverage. In 2008, he received the SAGE Young Scholar Award from the Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology.