Feature

Last year researchers launched the Decade of Behavior as a natural follow-up to the Decade of the Brain. Now, a new generation of researchers are looking toward the next decade as the marriage of the two. They're self-proclaimed members of one of the fastest-growing research areas in psychology: social cognitive neuroscience.

This group of pioneers includes social psychologists, neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists and sociologists who are collaborating in the hopes of understanding social behavior from the perspective of the brain. They're using brain-imaging techniques and studies of people with brain injuries to decipher how neural pathways control attitudes, stereotypes, emotions and other socially motivated phenomena.

And they're getting a lot of attention for their efforts.

You don't have to look far for evidence that social cognitive neuroscience is emerging as a major force in research psychology. Last year, the field's first conference--hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and funded in large part by the National Science Foundation (NSF)--had to change venues at the last minute because attendance swelled from an expected 70 or 80 core scientists to more than 300 researchers and graduate students from around the world.

Funding opportunities abound for this field. NSF has created a new cognitive neuroscience branch in part to handle what it considers "hot" new research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) set aside $2.3 million for its last funding cycle to fund pilot research in the area as a way to indicate its growing interest. And last year the James S. McDonnell Foundation made "Bridging Mind, Brain and Behavior" one of three primary funding areas (see sidebar).

"This is an area at the frontier of science," says Steven Breckler, PhD, social psychology program director at NSF. "There's no doubt that NSF recognizes it as a really hot growth area. This is the time to get in on the ground floor."

Piecing together neural pathways

The basic premise behind social cognitive neuroscience is to infuse social psychology with brain science methodology in the hopes of deciphering how the brain controls such cognitive processes as memory and attention, which then influence social behaviors such as stereotyping, emotions, attitudes and self-control.

The idea isn't new, admit researchers in the field. In fact, the first social psychology textbook, by Floyd Allport, published in 1924, had a chapter on the brain. And, for years, researchers such as University of Chicago social psychologist John Cacioppo, PhD, have been working in what he termed "social neuroscience," using techniques such as event-related potentials, molecular biology and autonomic, neuroendocrine and immune responses to study phenomena including attitudes, prejudice and social conflict and connectedness.

What makes this research cutting-edge is the availability of brain-imaging technology--functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in particular--that allows psychologists to look at brain function. Some psychology departments, including Dartmouth, New York University (NYU) and UCLA, are even investing in their own imaging machines so researchers have the technology at their fingertips, rather than having to share with other departments.

"With the new methodologies the intersection [between social behavior and brain mechanisms] has become much more accessible," says Carolyn Morf, PhD, chief of the Personality and Social Cognition Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, and coordinator of NIH's new effort in the area of social neuroscience. "There are huge gaps in our knowledge that can be filled now."

In particular, researchers can begin to piece together the neural pathways and mechanisms responsible for social phenomena. Several areas within social psychology are ripe for this approach, having been studied enough that researchers can make some educated guesses about where to begin brain studies, says UCLA's Matt Lieberman, PhD, who, along with Stanford postdoc Kevin Ochsner, PhD, coined the term social cognitive neuroscience. For example, teams have begun looking at stereotyping, attitudes, self-control and interpreting emotions, with some intriguing results:

  • Stereotyping. Over the years, social psychologists have found that the brain automatically, and in large part unconsciously, places people and objects into categories such as "familiar" and "foreign," and "good" and "bad." This categorization, it's thought, then biases people's feelings and reactions toward those people and objects. With this in mind, several teams of social psychologists and neuroscientists have used fMRI to focus on the amygdala--a small area deep inside the brain--in an attempt to begin piecing together a possible neural pathway that might lead to stereotyping. They chose the amygdala because neuroscientists had already found that one of its primary functions is to signal the presence of emotionally important stimuli. Researchers--including Mahzarin Banaji, PhD, Elizabeth Phelps, PhD, Alan Hart, PhD, and Scott Raugh, PhD--wanted to see if it would consider people of different races as "emotionally important."

It does. In fact, at first, it is especially active at the sight of any unfamiliar face, the studies find. Then, once it's seen the faces a time or two, it stops emphasizing faces of people the same race and only fires more at the sight of different race faces. So the amygdala in African-American participants is more active when they look at white faces, and in whites it's more active when they look at blacks.

  • Attitudes. Lieberman and Ochsner, along with their graduate school mentors, Harvard's Daniel Gilbert, PhD, and Daniel Schacter, PhD, used patients with amnesia to examine pathways that might be involved in attitude change. Researchers have long thought that attitude change involves some amount of conscious reprocessing of information. For example, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that people change their attitudes after consciously realizing that there's a conflict between their core beliefs and their attitudes. Lieberman and his colleagues find that people with amnesia show an even bigger tendency to change their attitudes when shown a conflict between their attitudes and their beliefs than do people without amnesia.

"That's not something you'd predict with cognitive dissonance theory," says Lieberman, "because [people with amnesia] can't remember long enough to realize consciously that there's a conflict."

The finding does, however, make sense when you think about it from the perspective of the brain, which consists of many automatic processes that respond unconsciously to the context of any situation. When someone with amnesia is told that his or her attitude is at odds with his or her core beliefs, the brain automatically changes the attitude to coincide with the beliefs, Lieberman proposes. The difference, he says, is that they don't have access to the conscious processes, such as pride, that might stop them from going through with the change.

  • Self-control. Dartmouth social psychologist Todd Heatherton, PhD, and his colleagues have begun using fMRI to zero in on the cognitive and executive functions, such as memory and decision-making, that might be involved in self-control. In particular, he's interested in how various brain regions contribute to our ability to suppress disturbing or inappropriate thoughts or control the contents of our thoughts, which in turn likely influence how successful we are at controlling behaviors such as eating, drug use and gambling.

To begin studying what happens in the brain when people attempt to control their mental activity, Heatherton and his colleagues examined what happened in the brain when study participants tried to "empty their minds"--a task destined to failure. It turns out that an area of the brain called the "insula" becomes active. Heatherton is now pursuing the idea that the insula might be involved in processing signals sent from the body to the brain to help guide self-regulation.

"Have you ever had that sinking feeling when a police car pulls up behind you with its lights on, or when you realize you forgot to meet someone for lunch?" explains Heatherton. "People who have damage to the insula have that sinking feeling constantly. It is possible that the insula is involved in the interpretation of these bodily signals."

  • Regulating emotions. Ochsner, along with his Stanford colleagues James Gross, PhD, John Gabrieli, PhD, and Sylvia Bunge, PhD, recently examined what's going on in the brain when people reappraise the emotional impact of a scene. Years of social psychology research had found that if, when looking at a disturbing or unseemly picture, people can step back and re-evaluate what they're looking at, they can minimize its emotional impact.

The researchers used fMRI to begin deciphering the neural pathways associated with this phenomenon. They showed study participants an unpleasant photo and asked them either to be aware of their feelings or attempt to reappraise what they were seeing--admitting that it was disquieting but thinking about it as a scene from a movie, for example. They found that when people reappraised the scene, areas in the brain's frontal cortex that are involved in cognitive control become active but those involved in emotion don't. The opposite occurred when people were simply aware of their feelings but didn't try to change them--emotion-related brain areas were active but those involved in cognitive control weren't. These findings suggest that reappraisal may lessen the emotional impact of an experience by turning off the brain's emotion response centers. It also tells researchers that if they want to understand the psychology of reappraisal, it will be important to think about both the cognitive and emotional side of the equation, says Gabrieli.

The power of these types of studies "comes from working at the intersection of the triad of neuroscience, cognition and social psychology," says NSF's Breckler. "By working from the perspective that our brains evolved in a social context, we can begin to understand the origin of social behavior and social phenomena."

And if we can understand the origin of something like stereotypes, it might some day help us "get a grip" on problems such as racism.

Winnowing theories

In the process of "getting a grip" on social phenomena, though, this new area will likely go through some growing pains, admit researchers involved in the field. As with the early days of cognitive neuroscience, there will be a flurry of researchers doing what people call "light-bright" psychology--putting people in scanners and seeing what lights up.

"It isn't terribly interesting to prove that something in the brain turns on when someone is using stereotypes," admits Lieberman. "It would be really weird if something didn't light up."

It will be critical that the field remains broad. "There is not going to be a single technology that will give us all the answers," says Chicago's Cacioppo.

But some of that type of groundwork needs to happen for researchers to move on to the next stage of using what they learn to form theories. Indeed, it's theory forming and theory honing that social psychologists are best at, says Harvard University's Gilbert.

In the end, the importance of social cognitive neuroscience will not be to find the location in the brain of stereotypes or the "self," adds NYU social psychologist John Bargh, PhD. Rather, it will be to help winnow theories about which cognitive processes facilitate various social behaviors. That's important because the topics social psychologists study tend to be so complex they're prone to multiple, and equally plausible, explanations.

"The more we know about the locations [in the brain] of different components of the social processes we're interested in," says Bargh, "the better we can rule out alternative accounts for a given social cognitive effect or phenomenon."

Collaboration is key

To ensure that this new area keeps growing, social psychologists, neuroscientists, cognitive neuroscientists and others with information on a given behavior or brain area need to work together to build theories and sophisticated experiments to test those theories, says Breckler. So far, researchers in the area seem to understand that it's this interdisciplinary nature of social cognitive neuroscience that makes it so powerful, he admits.

"Social psychologists know they can't do the neuroscience on their own," he says. "And the cognitive neuroscientists realize that they need collaborators to properly examine the social phenomena they're interested in."

In fact, Gabrieli is optimistic that social cognitive neuroscience will help reunify psychology after years of slowly splintering into ever finer subdisciplines.

Cacioppo agrees. As neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience and social psychology have independently honed their methodologies, they started asking more complex questions and began to reconnect with their disciplinary cousins, he says.

As universities begin to recognize the power of this new interdisciplinary area, students will be trained to be even more bilingual, says Gilbert. "Young people trained in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology will think differently than those of us trained in one thing and moonlighting in another," he says. "The best work is yet to come."

Scanning has its limits

That doesn't mean, as some fear, that brain research will take over social psychology, adds Gilbert. He's the first one to cheer the field on, he says, but he's not ready to give up his traditional social psychology research program. Nor should he, say Breckler and other funding administrators. Indeed, the field will be best served if it thinks of social cognitive neuroscience not as a research "pinnacle," but rather "as part of the foundation that leads up to better understanding of social behavior," says Dartmouth's Heatherton.

Yes, imaging studies get most of the press--even when they simply replicate findings from less sophisticated experiments. But it's those less flashy studies of people interacting outside of brain magnets that help form the theories brain studies are trying to confirm. Even for those social psychologists interested in the brain, imaging is limited in the types of questions it can answer, admit researchers. People in scanners can't move much and they can't directly interact with other people. "They're bound to looking at social cognitive processes from which they infer social behavior," says NIMH's Morf. "They can't get directly at actual behavior, at least not for now."

In the end, to be relevant, the field must remain broad, says Chicago's Cacioppo. "There is not going to be a single technology that will give us all the answers. Brain imaging is incredibly important. However, so are behavioral neurology, lesion studies, animal studies and pharmacological manipulations. To be successful, we'll want to use converging operations. If we assume that if we see it in the brain, it must be true, we will make errors."

Errors or not, by the next decade many branches of psychology will be doing some kind of brain-related research, predict both social psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists. Everyone doesn't have to participate directly, but they should be ready to integrate the work of those who do into their thinking.

Social cognitive neuroscience "is big science and it's at the leading edge," says Breckler. "That may frighten some who might worry that it will take us down the road of biological reductionism. On the other hand, there's no doubt that huge amounts of social behavior, perception and cognition are supported by the central nervous system. And now the tools are available that makes that a really exciting prospect."

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.

FURTHER READING

  • Ochsner, K. and Lieberman, M. The Emergence of Social Cognitive Neuroscience. American Psychologist, 56(9) 717­734, 2001.

  • Cacioppo, J.T., Berntson, G.G., Adolphs, R., Carter, C.S., Davidson, R.J., McClintock, M.K., et al. (in press). Foundations in social neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.