Our Approach to Research

If people are infinitely interesting, then they are equally difficult to study. As a species, we are capable of exhibiting a vast range of behaviors whose meanings and origins are not always obvious. How do we explain these behavioral complexities?

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Typically, we talk about sets of underlying mental states and processes that are thought to motivate and guide behavior. For example, someone acts the way they do because they are happy, “are going on autopilot”, want to impress you, etc.  Strictly speaking, however, these mental states and processes are invisible.  So how do we study what we can’t directly measure?
The answer is that we look for tell-tale evidence of their operation in observed behaviors, self-reported experiences and the structure and function of the brain.  To then explain how and why people do what they do, we describe behaviors at three levels of analysis.  At the top, social level, we measure and describe behaviors and experiences.  At the bottom, neural level, we measure and describe the structure and function of the brain.

Critically, the middle cognitive level represents the psychological processes (e.g. a memory retrieval process) and mental representations (e.g. the content of the memory) we can’t directly observe, but are given rise to by the brain and express themselves in behavior.  In this way we might explain why and how we have particular emotions, are social beings or are capable of exquisite self-control (or the lack thereof) in terms of the operation of networks of brain systems that support particular psychological processes that in turn give rise to specific behaviors and experiences.
All of our research is motivated by this multi-level, interdisciplinary Social Cognitive Neuroscience approach.  This approach is so important for our work that for over a decade the lab was named for it (i.e., the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab). Over time, however, we realized that we see affect and emotion as the core around which our social lives are built.  As such, we updated our name to the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience - or SCAN - Lab to reflect this emphasis.  For further discussion and history of the social cognitive neuroscience approach, as well as its relationship to affective neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, and social neuroscience, see Ochsner & Lieberman, 2001 or Ochsner, 2007.