2020 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Amitai Shenhav

Brown University
Shenhav Lab

Please briefly describe your research interests.

I’m interested in what makes thinking hard, and why we still do it anyway. More specifically, my lab studies the neural and computational mechanisms that intersect decision-making (determining the right course of action) and cognitive control (pursuing the right action despite competing inclinations). We use a combination of computational modeling and measures of behavior and neural activity to understand what makes cognitive tasks effortful, including what makes decision-making effortful; when and how people determine that mental effort is “worth” the investment; and what makes some people more willing to invest cognitive effort than others.

What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?

I came to graduate school wanting to understand how affect informs decision-making (e.g., how moral judgments are shaped by emotional reactions to harming others), but after a few years I found myself fascinated by the reverse question: Why is it that decision-making itself generates an affective response? Why do decision points seem to be some of the most effortful stages in completing our daily tasks, and why can choices involving several great options still elicit a great deal of anxiety? I shifted towards exploring the mechanisms underlying these forms of “win-win” choice conflict, combining insights I had gained through my research on affective and decision-related processes. But as I read more I realized that I was missing a key piece of this story, which had simultaneously become apparent in a parallel line of work from a different research area.

Researchers studying cognitive control had also been interested in forms of conflict (primarily those related to competing goal-directed vs. prepotent responses, as in the Stroop task), as potential indicators of the demand for increased control. As in the decision-making world I’d been inhabiting, cognitive control researchers had also grown interested in the affective responses engendered by these types of conflict, and by the mental effort required to engage in higher levels of cognitive control. However, a key question remained largely unanswered: What motivates people to overcome conflict or other sources of cognitive demands? That is, how does someone decide that mental effort is worth exerting?

These questions have formed the core of my research program since that point. On the one hand, they have served as the foundation of my lab’s effort to address new questions at this intersection of motivation, decision-making, and cognitive control. At the same time, they have provided a framework for re-visiting the questions that led here in the first place, such as what role cognitive control plays in shaping cost-benefit decision-making. So while the journey that led me here was anything but linear, the twists and turns along the way have served to define my research and my approach to science.

Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?

I’m going to cheat and tell you about two, not only because I’m bad at making choices (I am) but also because these reveal two ways in which our work has benefited from working with a diverse set of collaborators.

First, I’m proud of how much we have been able to build on past work through collaborations with experts with similar interests and complementary skillsets. For instance, we have a model of how people weigh the costs and benefits of control, which continues to take on new life and new research directions as a result of collaborations with experts in related areas of machine learning, cognitive and systems neuroscience, and social and clinical psychology. These collaborations have enabled us to formalize seemingly complex interactions between affect and motivation (e.g., why exerting effort can feel both costly and rewarding); address long-standing debates (e.g., what is the role of control in self-control); and quantify the strengths and limitations of existing tools for teasing apart underlying mechanisms (e.g., how good is a given task/manipulation at estimating someone’s cognitive capacity vs. motivation).

At the same time, some of the projects I’ve been most proud of have come from having to reexamine previous work in a particular field (including from our own lab) based on new insights gained from talking to colleagues in different fields. For instance, in my early research I interpreted reward-related signals in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as reflecting the subjective value of one’s options as they are being weighed for a decision. Our recent studies have shown that there are in fact multiple reward-related signals within vmPFC (and its sub-regions) that are unrelated to one’s immediate choice but instead reflect processes that are potentially external to the choice process, including affective appraisals of these options and/or meta-cognitive monitoring of one’s decision. This research was spurred by an unexpected dissociation in our original studies of choice conflict, but was driven by collaborations and discussions with colleagues who approach constructs like ‘value’ and ‘choice’ through very different lenses.

More generally, I’m incredibly proud of how much my lab has been shaped and re-shaped by my trainees. Whether through the new areas of expertise or interest they came in with or through the new tools they become expert in once in the lab, they have collectively broadened the scope and increased the rigor of our research.

What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?

My first research mentor, Michael Silver, helped ignite and sustain my early interests in research while I was in college and immediately thereafter as a research assistant. Even though the research I did at the time was far afield of the work I would later pursue, I am forever indebted to him for setting an example for the kind of researcher and mentor I still strive to be.

The research I’ve carried out since starting graduate school has been inspired and shaped by the brilliant mentors I’ve had the fortune of working with, including Josh Greene, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Wendy Mendes, Moshe Bar, Randy Buckner, Jon Cohen, and Matt Botvinick. In spite of their diversity of backgrounds, they all shared two qualities. First, each of them is able to offer some of the deepest and most authoritative insights within their respective fields. Second, each of them is known for breaking barriers within their fields and blurring boundaries across fields, uncovering deeper structure that bind some psychological constructs together and tear others apart. As a result, in addition to providing me with valuable training on the skills needed to be a researcher and academic, they also taught me how to think about problems more holistically and from a number of different perspectives. Collectively, they taught me that it’s not only important to approach a problem through different lenses but to have the drive and chutzpah to convince others to also try on a different set of lenses than what they are accustomed to.

While my training would not have been possible without the support of these mentors, the research itself would not have been possible without additional support from collaborators and colleagues, including Dave Rand, Uma Karmarkar, Wouter Kool, Sebastian Musslick, Mickey Inzlicht, Ben Hayden, Brian Knutson, Elliot Ludvig, Kevin Miller, Bob Wilson, Oriel FeldmanHall, Falk Lieder, Tom Griffiths, Aaron Bornstein, Michael Frank, Matt Nassar, Dima Amso, and David Badre. The creativity and intellect of each of these people is matched only by the generosity with which they’ve given time and mental effort to our projects and to me individually. While these people were helping my sustain my research, I also benefited from the moral support and encouragement of countless other colleagues, labmates, friends, and family, especially my wife Sheila, who has been a constant source of support since the start of my research career, and has never stopped reminding me of the value of my efforts.

I’m also incredibly grateful to my current and former trainees, who are the lifeblood of our research. Not only do they often do the lion’s share of the work for each of our projects, they also teach me how to be a better researcher and mentor, and they provide each other with intellectual and emotional support. They include graduate students (Harrison Ritz, Laura Bustamante, Jason Leng, Mahalia Prater Fahey), postdocs (Romy Frömer, Debbie Yee, Ivan Grahek), postbac research assistants (Mark Straccia, Carolyn Dean Wolf, Maisy Tarlow), and dozens of amazing undergraduate research assistants.

What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?

One of the reasons we want to understand the mechanisms that drive decisions to engage in cognitive effort is to understand how these mechanisms differ for individuals who have difficulty motivating themselves to perform cognitively demanding tasks. Such motivational impairments are pervasive across psychiatric and neurological disorders, including individuals with depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s, and can be severely debilitating. Our goal is to identify which of a variety of deficits determine these impairments (and/or their subtypes), by combining our modeling with behavioral and neural data we collect using tasks that target different aspects of how people process incentives in their environment.

In addition to understanding how these mechanisms differ across individuals, we are also eager to understand how they develop within an individual over time. In particular, we want to better understand how one’s childhood environment helps shape perceptions of the incentives to engage in different forms of effort. We have started to look at how these early experiences shape adult cognition, but in the coming years we hope to extend this research into earlier stages of development as well.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

As someone who affiliates with a number of different areas and fields of research, it is very reassuring to have the recognition that our research is of interest not only within but across each of these. I hope that this award provides a similar degree of reassurance to other early career researchers who are debating whether to undergo the risk and effort associated with branching into new areas or straddling multiple disciplines at once. By the same token, for my trainees and others like them who don’t fit easily into a single classification, I hope that this serves as a reminder that they will always have a place and a home within the broader community of psychological scientists.