Emily Falk

University of Michigan


What does your research focus on?

What makes ideas successful in persuading individuals and in affecting larger populations? Sometimes we don’t even realize that an idea has embedded itself in our mind and is influencing our behavior. In my lab, we use tools from social psychology, communication studies, and neuroscience to understand social influence and successful communication more broadly. At present, much of our research focuses on health communication, and topics relevant to the design of better interventions, programs, and policies. For example, our lab links neural activity (e.g., in response to health messages) to behaviors in the real world (e.g., health behavior change). We find that such neural activity can predict later behavior change over and above participants’ own self-reports of how they responded to the messages.

We have also found that neural activity in one group of participants in response to certain stimuli (e.g., to anti-smoking ads) can predict behavioral responses in completely different groups of participants at the population level (e.g., calls to a quit-smoking hotline). We are also interested in why some ideas are catchier than others. Successful ideas can spread quickly through social networks and into the larger culture, yet researchers have had difficulty isolating features that predict the popularity of ideas. Our work examines neural activity in targeted brain areas to predict both the persuasiveness, and the catchiness, of ideas, as well as other dimensions of success. Our recent work also extends to how the neural bases of influence may change or remain stable across development, and how simple interventions (e.g., self-affirmation) impact processing of persuasive messages.

What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?

I was drawn to this line of research because I’m interested in ways of making people healthier and happier. Following an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and a Fulbright Fellowship in health policy, I wondered whether neuroscience methods might be able to give us new leverage on a problem that is really challenging — understanding and predicting behavior change. The work is exciting to me from a basic science standpoint because it addresses fundamental questions about why people are influenced in some situations and not others, and why some messages are more persuasive than others. Brain activity helps us understand and predict responses to different forms of social influence that are difficult to predict otherwise. It is exciting to me from an applied standpoint because we are getting traction on a meaningful, real-world, problem; modifiable health behaviors, including poor diet, physical inactivity, and tobacco and alcohol consumption in adults, and risk-taking in the presence of peers in teens, are leading causes of morbidity and mortality. Interventions that improve these behaviors are critical. By combining tools from neuroscience, social psychology, and communication science we can get a clearer picture of the mechanisms that make people more or less open to change, which ultimately leads to the design and selection of better interventions.

Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?

My research builds on foundational work in social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, public health, and communication science. As such, researchers from across these disciplines have influenced my thinking. In particular, I am especially inspired by the early social psychologists who chose scientific problems based on real-world problems they observed and wanted to help mitigate. In addition, the direct mentorship I have received at each stage of my career has been phenomenal. Most centrally, Matthew Lieberman was my doctoral adviser and continues to be a fantastic mentor, collaborator, and role model. My early research agenda was also influenced by faculty in health psychology, cognitive psychology, and public health at UCLA. At Michigan, I have continued to receive phenomenal mentorship from colleagues across disciplines, as well as inspiration and instrumental support from a core group of researchers within the Research Center for Group Dynamics. Finally, my students (http://cn.isr.umich.edu/people.html) have become a central force in developing the lab’s research agenda.

What’s your future research agenda?

Our lab is continuing to explore what makes ideas successful in persuading individuals and in affecting different larger populations. Building on this basic idea, we are expanding our focus in a few key areas:

  • Population-level media effects — In recent work (Falk, Berkman & Lieberman, 2012, Psychological Science), we went beyond prediction of individual behavior change to examine neural predictors of the success of health messages in larger populations (effects of health campaigns within larger media markets). Our lab is now collaborating with a number of public health organizations to conceptually replicate these findings with a broader range of health messages, in diverse populations, and to more precisely pin down the psychological mechanisms responsible for message success and failure.
  • The Spread of Ideas — Other recent work (Falk et al, in press, Psychological Science; Falk et al, in press, Frontiers in Neuroscience) examines neural processes involved in the successful spread of ideas from person to person. We are now building on these studies to predict virality in different contexts and to test theories about the successful spread of ideas more broadly.
  • Peer influence in adolescence — Adolescence is a developmental period in which we are particularly susceptible to social influence and to ideas from peers. In new work (in collaboration with The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and NICHD) we have begun to explore neural predictors of receptivity and resistance to peer influence in adolescence, with a focus on health-relevant behaviors. We are also particularly interested in how the basic neural mechanisms of social influence change across development.

What publication are you most proud of?

The first paper in which we demonstrated that neural activity could predict longitudinal health behavior change gave us confidence to pursue the program of research I’ve described above:

Falk, E. B., Berkman, E., Mann, T., Harrison, B., & Lieberman, M.D. (2010). Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 8421–8424.

The basic finding is that activity in the medial prefrontal cortex in response to persuasive messages predicts important behavior changes following message exposure. I am proud of this paper because the basic finding replicates across different types of health behaviors, different contexts and situations, different levels of analysis (e.g., individual versus vs. population-level effects), and in the hands of different labs.

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