Can emotions foster virtue?

What makes us be fair? Be honest? Be communally-oriented as opposed to selfish? Help others at cost to ourselves? Persevere toward a difficult goal? For a long time, the view has been that such seemingly “selfless” decisions or actions stem from self-control and adherence to “higher” principles that tamp down our emotions. While this may be true at times, we believe that humans also possess moral emotional responses that push us toward self-sacrifice in the moment in favor of longer-terms gains in social and economic capital. Compassion, gratitude, pride—our work has shown that each of these emotions impels behaviors that, although possessing short-term costs (i.e., expenditures of hedonic, social, or economic resources), offer long-term benefits. As such, they help us solve problems of intertemporal choice writ large. In ongoing research, we continue to examine the impact of moral emotions on multiple phenomena requiring self-regulation (e.g., perseverance, financial investing, impulse control, cooperation, altruism).

Can I trust you (or even myself)?

How do you know whether you can trust someone? If you've never met someone before, can you accurately assess her or his trustworthiness? Are you trustworthy yourself? These questions hold great import, as the decision to cooperate with or trust another holds the potential not only for great communal benefit but also for great asymmetric loss. In collaboration with colleagues at MIT and Cornell University, my team believes we’ve begun to identify some of the answers to these perennial questions. Using interdisciplinary methodologies including behavioral economics, social robotics, and automated pattern detection, we’ve begun to identify the metrics by which the human mind accurately infers the trustworthy intentions (or lack thereof) of others. But studying nonverbal behavior is of little help when the person whose trustworthiness you’re trying to assess is yourself. In that vein, we’ve also demonstrated just how readily most people are to break promises, cheat, or give in to temptations they promised themselves they’d resist. And in so doing, we’re pointing out the mechanisms of our minds that allow us not only to mispredict our future behavior but also whitewash our past actions.

Can compassion be cultivated?

The world needs more compassion—on that fact, almost everyone agrees. Forgiveness, cooperation, and the relief of suffering make individuals and societies more resilient. The big question, of course, centers on the hows. If compassion is a social balm, how can we increase it? In our view, there are two routes. The first centers on mindfulness. From its beginnings, meditation and related contemplative practice was centered on one goal—the end of suffering. Our lab has been at the forefront of studying the social effects of meditation and has demonstrated that even practice as brief as a few weeks increases people’s compassion and willingness to come to the aid of others. We believe this enhanced compassion stems from a meditation-increased readiness to see others as more linked to, or similar with, one’s self—a factor that we’ve also shown to magnify compassionate responding toward others. Together with tech partners like Facebook and Headspace, we’re exploring how mindfulness and nudges related to emphasizing similarities with others can be utilized to scale the more local, lab-based enhancements of compassion and trust we’ve identified and thereby strengthen individual, team, and societal resilience.