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VR Dilemmas



I adopt a cross-disciplinary approach to psychological science where theory and methods are incorporated from across the behavioral sciences. My background includes training in primatology, psychological anthropology, evolutionary psychology, social psychology and psychophysiology.

Fear, Aggression, and Ethnic Enmity

Because aggression in intergroup contexts is more likely to be perpetreted by men, men and women from in-groups have adapted to threats from out-group men in different ways. As such, it is expected that neurophysiological responses in threatening intergroup conflicts will be represented differently between men and women, and and should be manifested in separate psychological systems between men and women. Motivated by this framework, my collaborators and I have predicted and found that conditioned fear to images of men and women belonging a racial group other than one's own resists extinction when the exemplars are male, but not female. Sex differences in the level of arousal between men and women are not typically found. However, we find that dispositional fearfulness is related to the effect among female research participants but that aggression predicts the effect for men.  

Furthermore, whether subjects endorsed cultural stereotypes of the racial outgroup did not affect their levels of residual fear. We plan to conduct further manipulations of the ingroup and outgroup targets in future experiments including age, socioeconomic status, nationality, and even minimally defined social categorizations to test the limits of the generalizability of these findings. In doing so, we hope to find key developmental or cognitive attributes that modulte the nervous system responses underlying xenophobia. Current work includes exploring the effects of reproductive endocrinological changes across the menstrual cycle on intergroup bias.

Moral Judgment and Action in Immersive, Virtual Environments

The human mind's mechanistic properties are operative in all aspects of human decision-making, and moral judgment and action can be understood in these terms as well. Such mechanisms are believed to operate on decision rules that generate our moral judgments, and are built into our nervous systems as moral intuitions that feel subjectively "right" or "wrong". Because natural selection is the only known process to produce complex design, our moral intuitions can be seen as psychological representations of the forces of nature that have produced kin altruism, reciprocity, ingroup loyalty, dominance hierarchies, sexuality, and the avoidance of disease. These selective forces have shaped the human mind, such that the design and purpose of the mechanisms that generate moral judgment and action can be known by careful experiments that simulate the contexts that shaped them.

Given the ethical problem of conducting research on morality using human subjects in some of life's most important domains (i.e. food, sex, and death), most psychological work on morality examine it in mundane behaviors (e.g. sending an envelope in the mail) or in hypothetical declaratives (e.g. the "trolley" problem). However, recent advances in immersive virtual environment technology (IVET) allow for experiments on sensitive topics to be conducted in artificial, but realistic 3-D environments. Such technology has been found to be effective in eliciting physiological and behavioral responses similar to those that occur in the real world, but without lasting psychological stress. Experiments are currently under way that seek to uncover the computational rules that underlie moral emotion, reasoning, judgments and behavioral outcomes in intergroup contexts in a "virtual world". For a demo, click here.

Life History, Temporal Discounting and Minority Underachievement

I'm also interested in bridging the conceptual gap between the two standard theoretical camps that seek to understand minority underachievement. Socio-cultural approaches regard the behaviors of the low-status minority groups as emanating from “oppositional norms” rife with deviant values and self-defeating attitudes, perpetuating actions that inhibit social mobility. In contrast, rational actor approaches presume that people pursue their goals effectively based on their life prospects, and hold coherent and justified beliefs relevant to achieving those ends. I'm currently laying the theoretical and empirical groundwork that seeks to link these two views with a synthesis that describes the behavioral patterns as computational outputs of life history strategies that can yield high payoffs, but may also lead to even worse outcomes.

From this perspective,  behaviors such as dropping out of school, not saving money, early parenthood, and aggressively defending against slight affronts to one’s reputation may reflect the output of psychological mechanisms designed to steeply discount the future as a function of the appropriate weighting of present rewards against future investments depending on one's life stage, socioeconomic circumstances, and social categorization as a member of a stigmatized group. As such, the adjustment of discount rates in relation to these variables is just what should be expected from a normally-functioning human mind that evolved to cope with unequal outcomes, and to take risks when necessary. I'm currently conducting investigations that explore how structural variables such as neighborhood income inequality and violent crime indices are related to perceptions of racial bias, vulnerability to danger, and uncertainty, and how these psychological variables might then be related to a host of important life outcome variables.

Students interested in working with me should check out my lab group webpages


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