We spend a great part of our lives interacting with other people, and most of our mental activities are concerned with taking in information about others and sending out information about ourselves. As highly social beings we have evolved a very complex and sophisticated psychology for processing and conveying social information.
My research is about how we process and convey social information. It focuses on understanding psychological mechanisms that allow us to interact with each other and have very rich social experiences.
Social information processing and human interactions are very broad concepts that encompass much of human behavior. My attempt to engage with this extremely vast field of study has led to a few little projects that you can read more about below.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma and social information processing: New measures and behavioral phenotypes
Multiple disciplines have contributed to understanding positive and negative behaviors that appear in social interactions. This project is focused on integrating approaches from several of these disciplines: cognitive developmental psychology, behavioral economics and game theory.
In cognitive developmental psychology, the Social Information Processing model (SIP), in one of its most famous iterations by Crick and Dodge, has been proposed as a general framework for how behaviors are formulated through a series of social information steps: encoding situational cues, attributing intent, selecting goals, generating possible behavioral responses, evaluating these responses and selecting one to be enacted.
So far, this model has been mainly used to test the emergence of aggressive behavior, and different types of aggression, namely reactive and proactive aggression.
But what about positive behaviors? How is social information processed when it results in prosocial behaviors such as cooperation?
Behavioral economics and game theory have also analyzed social behaviors (both positive and negative) but using very different tools, and mostly evaluating adult behavior. For example, experimental paradigms such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) have been used to study the dynamics of two-person interactions, which can lead to mutual benefits (cooperation) or to advantage seeking or protecting self-interest (defection).
This project tries to integrate these two lines of research. By extending standard measures from game theory to the study of cognitive processes I hope to expand and improve the repertoire of measures for social information processing. Also, by studying social information processing in the context of cooperative behavior, I hope to further explore individual differences in cooperation and the thought processes that lead to positive behaviors.
This project is in full swing, so stay tuned for updates!
If you are or have a child between the ages of 9 and 11 you can help this project by participating in an online study! You can schedule an online session by following the link below:
Meta-analyses of social attention in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Many of our behaviors and cognitions depend on processing social information, which begins by allocating attention to the stimuli surrounding us in ways optimized for capturing social cues. Following this line of reasoning, it has been posited that some of the impairments observed in ASD might come from atypical attention processes. If individuals with ASD spend less time attending to social stimuli, or if they attend to social stimuli in atypical ways (for example attending less to faces and more to bodies), these differences in attention might have cascading effects for a whole range of behaviors and cognitions, such as social interactions, understanding of mental states, processing of emotions etc.
Eye-tracking technology has been used to investigate attention in ASD, but results have been mixed, showing both reduced, typical and increased attention to different types of social stimuli in ASD. Also, in real life people are exposed to social stimuli that take a variety of forms: flesh-and-blood people, movies, photos, video-game avatars, cartoons etc., but individual studies generally investigate attention to only one type of stimulus at a time, making it difficult to provide interpretations that are relevant across the board.
Thus, I developed this project around the question: overall, do individuals with ASD allocate their attention atypically to social stimuli? This question cannot be answered by a single study, but only through rigorous meta-analytical methods.
Two papers resulted so far from this project that you can view below. The first investigates whether attention to social stimuli as a whole is reduced in ASD and the factors that affect how individuals with ASD distribute their attention between social and non-social stimuli. The second paper looks in further detail at how individuals with ASD visually process social stimuli, namely what parts of a social stimulus (eyes, mouth, face, body etc.) they attend to and how that compares to the attention patterns of typically developing individuals.
I am presenting this project at the 2016 International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). You can check out my poster and my presentation abstract here.
Eye-Tracking Measurements of Language Processing: Developmental Differences in Children at High Risk for ASD
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often appears in conjunction with language deficits that extend to first-degree relatives such as siblings. This project focused on the language processing abilities of children at high risk for ASD, siblings of children diagnosed with ASD. To measure language processing we used eye-tracking technology. Here is a graphic representation of our paradigm and a plot showing our findings.
A blank screen is shown for one second, followed by a pair of pictures that the child explores freely for three seconds, after which a recorded voice instructs the child to “Look at the doggy (target noun)!” .The pictures remain on the screen for two additional seconds.
This plot represents looks at the target image. The curves represent the percentage of trials in which the children were looking at the target image as opposed to the distractor image plotted as a function of time and starting with the target noun onset. The curves show an effect of age and differences between the two groups: high-risk ASD and low risk control. The shaded regions indicate one standard deviation error bars.
Below you can find the paper that resulted from this project.
Meia Chita-Tegmark, Sudha Arunachalam, Charles A. Nelson, & Helen Tager-Flusberg
Using the Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners
Another type of social information that deeply influences our cognitions and social behavior is cultural information. The influences of culture can be hard to recognize until one is confronted with cultural diversity. This project was in part motivated by my own experiences as an international student and as a classroom teacher during a period of rapid cultural transition in Romania.
This project attempts to explore ways in which curriculum design can address the needs of culturally diverse learners and how this can help all students in the classroom.
Below is the paper that resulted out of this project.
Meia Chita-Tegmark, Jenna W. Gravel, Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa, Yvonne Domings, & David H. Rose