What does your research focus on?
I study the cognitive and neural bases of social cognition and behavior, but that’s not very specific! For the past several years, my research focused on empathy and social cognition: how we make sense of and respond to other minds. In graduate school, I examined what’s known as “empathic accuracy” — one individual’s ability to insightfully assess another individual’s emotional states over time. I’m still deeply interested in empathy and social cognition, but more recently, I have set my sights not only on how we think about other people, but also how we behave towards them, and specifically why people so deeply value “being on the same page” as others (interpersonal alignment), and helping others (prosociality). I approach these topics through a wide variety of techniques — including neuroimaging, game theoretic tasks, psychophysiology, and experience sampling — and do my best to “follow the phenomenon” across disciplinary boundaries.
What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?
Growing up, I lived with my mother and grandmother, who are both from Peru; I also spent summers in Lima for much of my childhood. Peruvian culture is highly collectivistic, and the emotional lives of people there are intimately tied to the fortunes and emotions of those around them. Of course, this is the case all around the world, but the interdependent psychological makeup of the Peruvian side of my family always struck me as deeply meaningful. During high school, I read An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks and started considering what Crick called “The Astonishing Hypothesis” — that everything about us resides somewhere in the physical makeup of our brain. Although this may sound more like “The Banal Hypothesis” 20 years later, it completely blew my 15-year-old mind, and I vowed to join the world of neuroscience. In college, I asked my first neuroscience professor whether I might bring together these two interests by studying empathy in the brain; he wrote off this idea as silly, because empathy requires two people, whereas fMRI scanners can only fit one. I was swayed by this argument at the time, but have since wizened up.
The phenomena I study excite me because they seem so central to what makes us tick as a species. Humans are the world champions of understanding each other and working together, and it’s these abilities that allowed us to win the cross-species competition for global domination. At the same time, neuroscientists largely neglected these skills until the advent of “social neuroscience” in the last 10-20 years. Working as part of a new and growing field at this point in time is, to me, the best job in the world.
Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?
Scientists’ careers are made by their relationships with research mentors, and in this respect I’ve been incredibly lucky. Kevin Ochsner was my primary mentor in graduate school, and when I started in 2005, we were both relatively new to the world of empathy research. We explored this domain together, honing our intuitions, making predictions, running studies, and repeating this cycle throughout the years. Niall Bolger was the other key member of my graduate advising team; he provided me with generous, (very) patient training in statistics, and also helped deepen my training in social psychology. Throughout this time, I also became close friends with Jason Mitchell, who later became my postdoctoral advisor. Jason is an amazingly precise experimentalist and writer, and he helped me sharpen these key skills over recent years. But more importantly than developing skills or mastering content, all of my mentors helped me model and intuit who I wanted to be as a researcher, and which scientific approaches and principles mean most to me.
What’s your future research agenda?
One of the best things about starting my own lab is that I no longer have to answer that question alone! Moving forward, much of the work I do will be inspired by the wonderful trainees in the lab. That said, some lines of research about which I’m especially excited right now include: (1) using Bayesian modeling to examine social cognition and emotion perception as rational forms of inference, (2) examining the role of empathy, interpersonal connection, and prosocial behavior in supporting healthy relationships and individual well-being, and (3) working on interventions to increase empathy within individuals, in populations with psychiatric disorders, and between groups in conflict.
What publication are you most proud of?
Zaki, J. (in press). Cue integration: A common framework for physical perception and social cognition. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
This paper represents the culmination of years of thinking about how the “building blocks” of social cognition come together to provide individuals’ with a coherent sense of others’ minds. In it, I leverage research from sensory perception to propose a broad model in which social perceivers integrate multiple social cues and processes — much like information from different senses — into a stable account of what others are feeling. This model, in turn, suggests that social cognition could be formally modeled as a form of complex inference using a Bayesian approach, work that my lab is now doing. Also, this paper includes an unusual amount of history, and prompted me to read a lot of theory pieces from the mid 20th century, during which the science of social cognition underwent a revolution. It’s incredibly gratifying to tour the past in this way, and realize (1) the speed with which our field is growing, and (2) that no matter what your big idea is, someone else probably wrote about it more eloquently in 1957.