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-term 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 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 multiple routes. One centers on mindfulness. From its beginnings, meditation and related contemplative practices were 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 as well as reduces their impulses to aggress against enemies. 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 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 reductions to hostility we’ve identified and thereby strengthen individual, team, and societal resilience in both real-world and online settings. Finally, we've also been examining how and why people who have faced adversity in life experience more compassion, even in cases where others usually avoid it (e.g., toward mass suffering). In this work, we’ve found that a sense of efficacy—a belief that one can make a difference when it comes to helping others in need—stands as a primary mechanism by which compassion can be enhanced.
What can behavioral science learn from religion?
Science and religion seem to be getting ever more tribal in their mutual suspicions and recriminations, at least among their hardline advocates. While fundamentalist faiths cast science as a misguided or even malicious source of information, some polemicizing scientists argue that religion isn’t just wrong or meaningless but also dangerous. I am no apologist for religion. As a scientist, I’m a firm believer that the scientific method provides the best tools with which to unlock the secrets of human nature. But after decades spent trying to understand how our minds work, I’ve begun to harbor a worry that the divide between religious and scientific communities might not only be stoking needless hostility; it may also be slowing the process of scientific discovery itself. Religious traditions offer a rich and enduring store of ideas about what human beings are like and how we can satisfy our deepest moral and social needs. For thousands of years, people have turned to spiritual leaders and religious communities for guidance about how to conduct themselves, how to coexist with other people, how to live meaningful and fulfilled lives—and how to accomplish this in the face of the many obstacles to doing so. And while never worthy of blind embrace, emerging work, including some from this lab, has begun to show how religious practices and rituals impact the mind on many levels. Meditation, for example, fosters compassion; synchronized action increases bonding; rituals enhance self-control. Grieving rituals like the Jewish practice of sitting shiva contain elements that science has shown are capable of reducing sadness due to loss (e.g., reductions in self-focus, structured visitations). Over the coming years, we’ll be investigating and comparing the efficacy of certain religious practices for enhancing personal and societal well-being.
Can robots be emotional? And to what end?
In close collaboration with Cynthia Breazeal’s Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab during the past decade, we have been studying how imbuing robots with the illusion of emotion alters the ways in which people interact with them. In so doing, we’ve been able to unlock some of the secrets related to how our minds use nonverbal behavior to ascribe moral intent to others, as well as how the conveyance of affective information impacts learning in children. Moving forward, we’ll be focusing on learning more about how qualities like empathy and compassion can be modeled in social robots and what effects doing so might have on interactions with them.