Adapting to Adversity

Our research suggests that a wide array of features of our social worlds can influence how we adapt to adversity.  For example, research led by Ph.D. student Carrie Morrison indicates that what kind of home one lives in can influence responses to stress.  However, most of our research has focused specifically on the role of prosocial behavior as a stress buffer, including its roles in predicting reduced mortality and better mental health, though these outcomes depend on one’s beliefs about other people and possibly individual differences in sensitivity to the neurohormone oxytocin.  Ms. Morrison’s ongoing research seeks to investigate under what circumstances the experience of awe can reduce–or enhance–adversity, as well as the role of salient group membership in explaining and enhancing the salutary effects of prosocial behavior.  Finally, while much of our lab’s focus is on compassion for others, we have also investigated the role of self-compassion in adaptation, with research led by Ph.D. student Shane DeLury demonstrating that self-compassion could buffer the effects of a self-threat on academic performance.

Goal Dynamics of Compassion

Our lab conceptualizes the phenomenon of compassion as consisting in part of goals to help others, as illustrated by research led by Ph.D. student Lauren Ministero.  These goals can be in conflict with alternate, self-focused, goals, and the process of prioritizing compassion could lead to interesting downstream effects on self-regulation–possibly accounting for some of the stress-buffering effects of prosocial behavior.  In research led by Mr. DeLury, we found that compassion actually has the capacity to make people literally think about themselves less.  And in ongoing research funded by the National Science Foundation, our lab is investigating the effects of compassion on cardiovascular and other indicators of self-focused anxiety. We are also interested in other possible manifestations of committing to compassionate goals, such as the selection of means of helping that could only be construed as other-focused (i.e., “unifinal”) as opposed to both benefiting the self and others (i.e., multifinal).

New Perspectives on Empathy

Our lab has investigated diverse ways in which the phenomenon of empathy may lead to surprising and sometimes unhelpful outcomes.  For example, research led by lab alumna Dr. Anneke Buffone demonstrated that empathy can lead to aggressive behavior against innocent competitors, especially among those most sensitive to the neurohormone vasopressin.  Dr. Buffone also found that different forms of empathy can lead to different emotional reactions, with some types of empathy (imagine-self perspective taking”) especially likely to lead to self-focused distress and cardiovascular indicators of threat and anxiety.