Our research focuses on how social interactions and the feedback we receive from within such interactions shape our understanding of ourselves and others. We assume that any current belief we hold about ourselves and others is tied to the affect we experienced during our past social interactions.
Affected beliefs, social feedback and social anxiety
Maintaining a positive social image in the eyes of others is a strong motivational force for people (see Müller-Pinzler et al., 2015). 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 affect 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 self-efficacy beliefs (see Müller-Pinzler et al., 2019; Müller-Pinzler et al., 2021). These research questions are especially relevant in the context of clinical conditions such as social anxiety or depression, where feedback is processed in a valenced/biased/affected way and may reinforce self-referential negative beliefs. In other ongoing projects, we investigated how acute stress affected social learning processes (Czekalla et al., 2021), how observation by others impacts social learning (Müller-Pinzler et al., 2019), or how learning is different if we learn such information about others.
Self-efficacy, controllability, 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 associated affect (e.g. 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., 2020).
Novel methods to examine social interactions
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 (Krach et al., 2013).
Stress, immunology and microbiome
It has been shown that stress causes an activation of the immune system and that chronic stress is often associated with subclinical systemic inflammation. This inflammation is considered a risk factor for many somatic diseases but has also been shown to be significant in the field of psychiatric disorders. Our research group therefore investigates interactions between the stress and immune systems in mental diseases such as depression or addiction. As systemic inflammation induces “sickness behavior” which includes social withdrawal, we put a special focus on how neural processing of social interactions is affected by stress and inflammatory parameters.
Social reward and oxytocin
Social acceptance and belonging are regarded as fundamental goals behind human behavior (Krach et al., 2010). However, several psychiatric disorders are associated with social withdrawal or problems in social interactions. In our studies, we focus on the rewarding aspects of social encounters (see Rademacher et al., 2010 or Spreckelmeyer et al., 2009 for the Social Incentive Delay task) and on altered neural reward processing in psychiatric conditions. In this context, we also examine modulatory effects of the neuropeptide oxytocin on social reward processing in psychiatric samples. As part of a BMBF-funded, multi-center project we examined the acute effects of intranasal oxytocin treatment in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (www.asd-net.de; Mayer et al., 2021). Furthermore, we are currently investigating the interaction of stress, endogenous oxytocin and social reward processing in alcoholism in a project funded by the Else Kröner-Fresenius-Stiftung.
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. 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 (Müller-Pinzler et al., 2015). 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” or more recently as “cringe” in the German language (see e.g. Paulus et al., 2013, Mayer et al., 2020 or Mayer et al., 2021). For the past few years, we have been studying the neural processes underlying the observation of cringeworthy behaviors (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).
Our lab is interested in (at least) two kinds of meta-science: on the one hand, we approach meta-science from a methodological perspective. Here, we focus on questions related to the reliability or replicability of fMRI data (e.g. Frässle et al., 2015), effect size measures (Paulus et al., 2013) or the interpretation of fMRI findings (Bedenbender et al., 2011). On the other hand, we approach meta-science from a perspective of implications. Here, we focused on questions regarding implied culturalistic/neo-racist (Martinez Mateo et al., 2012, Martinez Mateo et al., 2013a; Martinez Mateo et al., 2013b), racist (Heinz et al., 2014), essentialist or sexist (Sayyad & Krach, 2020) concepts of fMRI research. In several other meta-science projects from our lab we targeted potential drawbacks and misconceptions of the achievement-oriented academic system (see e.g. “The impact factor fallacy”; Paulus et al., 2016 or how the “Journal impact factor shapes scientists’ reward signal in the prospect of publication”; Paulus et al., 2015).