We study the behavioral and physiological manifestations of social emotions and their implications for applied clinical research. Based on psychological concepts we develop experimental paradigms that allow the investigation of emotional processes in interactive and ecologically valid environments.
First- and third-person-perspective of social emotions
Humans as social creatures are susceptible to embarrassment, an emotion that emerges in the presence of others whenever 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. For the past few years, we have been studying the neural processes underlying (vicarious) embarrassment, its relation to other forms of social pain, and its modulation by personality. Further, we conceptually distinguished vicarious embarrassment from schadenfreude, elaborated how social closeness impacts the experience of vicarious embarrassment and how these emotions are represented in clinical populations.
Anticipation of failure, embarrassment and social anxiety
The maintenance of a positive social image in the publics’ eyes is a strong motivational force for human beings. Thus, other people’s opinions and judgements or even our own assumptions about their opinions and judgements, are so important in our daily lives that they can deeply affect how we feel, what we think, and how we behave. Our group has developed novel approaches to investigate the effects of publicity of one’s failures and the potential negative social evaluation on the experience of embarrassment as well as self-related beliefs. Currently we assess the impact of social anxiety, as an extreme form of anticipation of failure and negative social evaluation, as well as physiological stress responses in a social evaluative context.
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 authentic pride has lasting effects for our development and has the potential to drive momentum that reaches far beyound that specific situation. Losing the idea of being the architect of the 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 usually functional processes and result in an unjustified sense of control. We are currently developing novel experimental approaches to understand the neural systems that underly control beliefs, self-efficacy and pride and explain variability in human behavior and psychiatric symptoms.
Social reward, stress and immunology
Social acceptance and belonging are considered a basic motive of humans. Our group has conducted numerous investigations on the rewarding nature of social interaction to disentangle neural processes of reward anticipation and consumption, examine interindividual differences, and investigate effects of intranasally administered oxytocin. Currently, we focus on the interaction of stress, inflammatory responses and social reward processing.
Social cognition, neuropeptides and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
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.
Social processing in Virtual Reality
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 eceological 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.