Our research focuses on how social interactions and the feedback we receive from such interactions shape our understanding of ourselves and others. We assume that any current understanding of ourselves and others is shaped by how we were integrated into social structures in the past. At the same time, every current social interaction has a strong influence on our future social behavior and the way we will construct and understand ourselves. Specifically, we are interested in the behavioral and physiological manifestations of the underlying psychological processes and their relevance for applied clinical research. On the basis of psychological concepts, we develop experimental paradigms that make it possible to pursue these questions in interactive and ecologically valid environments.
Belief formation, social feedback and social anxiety
Maintaining a positive social image in the eyes of others is a strong motivational force for people. Thus, other people’s opinions and judgements about us or our own assumptions about their opinions and judgements are so important in our daily lives that they influence how we feel, what we think and how we behave. In our research projects, we try to develop novel approaches that allow us to quantify the effects of social feedback in order to model how feedback helps us form certain beliefs about ourselves (see Müller-Pinzler et al., 2019). These questions are especially relevant in the context of clinical conditions such as social anxiety or depression, where feedback is processed in a valenced/biased way and may reinforce self-referential negative beliefs. In other ongoing projects, we investigate how acute stress affects social learning behavior, how observation by others impacts social learning, or how learning is different if we learn such information about others.
Self-efficacy, effort and affective consequences
Subjective beliefs of control over the social and non-social environment are central to well-being and health. If we believe to have caused a positive outcome that is relevant for ourselves, such as mastering a personal goal, the related experience of pride has lasting effects for our development. Losing the idea of being the architect of one’s own future in turn is strongly linked to symptoms of depression such as learned helplessness, diminished self-esteem, and lack of motivated behavior. Some forms of addiction might also hijack the otherwise functional processes and result in an unjustified sense of control. In our research projects related to this topic we try to develop novel approaches to understand the neural systems that underly control beliefs, self-efficacy and affectives consequences in order to explain variability in human behavior and psychiatric symptoms (see Stolz et al., preprint).
The social neurosciences of psychiatric disorders are in a phase of profound change. New methodological developments make it possible to identify the causes of developmental disorders of the central nervous system no longer exclusively in the functioning of individual brain regions, but rather understand dysfunctional interactions of specialized and spatially separated brain structures as the basis for their symptoms. In our research we aim to translate classic experimental designs that examined psychological processes largely in “social isolation” into more interactive settings where two or more persons directly exchange information.
Social reward, stress and immunology
Social acceptance and belonging are regarded as the basic motives of human beings. In our studies we focus on the rewarding aspects of social interactions to unravel neural processes of reward anticipation and consumption (see e.g. Rademacher et al., 2010). These questions gain clinical significance, especially in the context of addictions. We are currently concentrating on the interaction of stress, inflammatory reactions and social reward processing in alcoholism in two third-party funded projects.
Social processes in Autism Spectrum Disorders
Autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental conditions with severe consequences for social communication and interaction. Pioneering research suggests that oxytocin can improve motivation, cognition and attention to social cues in patients with autism spectrum disorder. As part of DFG-/BMBF-funded, multi-center projects we examine the acute modulatory effects of oxytocin treatment on higher-order social cognition in individuals with high-functioning autism (for the BMBF-project see www.asd-net.de). The ASD-Net is one out of nine consortia in Germany that has been selected to increase the understanding of psychiatric conditions. In a period of four years the ASD-Net will focus on the establishment of a large clinical and research network focusing on the key challenges in ASD diagnostics, therapy and health economics.
Virtual Reality as a controlled space to study social behaviors
Examining social interactions in the neurosciences is a difficult endeavour. The many facets of sociality are yet difficult to control in the strong constraints of the laboratories aiming at high standards for experimental control. Virtual reality settings have proposed novel roads promising to integrate both worlds allowing greater ecological validity and sufficient experimental control when examining the neural foundations of social behavior. In a developing project with the Institute for Neuro- and Bioinformatics we are currently investigating the possibilities for inducing and controlling social phenonema in virtual reality settings. In the future, this will enhance both our basic research as well as applied appraoches in the diagnosis and therapeutic interventions of psychiatric disorders with profound symtpoms in the social domain.
Social emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame or guilt
Humans as social creatures are susceptible to various social emotions that emerge in the presence of others. Embarrassment is the consequence if one behaves in a bearish, inept way. Public settings do not only lead to feelings of embarrassment for one’s own misadventures, but can also be the source of embarrassment about other people’s flawed behavior. This phenomenon has been termed empathic or vicarious embarrassment and coined as “fremdscham” in German language (see e.g. Paulus et al., 2013). For the past few years, we have been studying the neural processes underlying (vicarious) embarrassment (Paulus et al., 2013), its relation to other forms of social pain, and its modulation by personality (Krach et al., 2011). Further, we conceptually distinguished vicarious embarrassment from schadenfreude (Paulus et al., 2018), elaborated how social closeness (Müller-Pinzler et al., 2016) or meditation (Laneri et al., 2017) impacts the experience of vicarious embarrassment and how these emotions are represented in clinical populations (Krach et al., 2015; Stroht et al., 2019). In a recent collaboration with researchers from Michigan State University and Frankfurt am Main we linked cringeworthy behaviors of US representatives to embarrassment spikes on Twitter and reasoned about the implications and consequences (Paulus et al., 2019).