Con­tact: John Natale at 617–373-2802

(3–19-07) BOSTON, Mass. — A polit­ical can­di­date finds a brief­case full of dam­aging infor­ma­tion on his oppo­nent. While the can­di­date could surely cap­i­talize by making this infor­ma­tion public, he chooses not to. The reason: his oppo­nent helped him two weeks prior by sticking up for him on television.

What causes this reci­procity? Is it an adher­ence to social code or an innate drive to do what is right?

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity psy­chol­o­gist David DeSteno believes it’s the latter, and he just received a $340,000 National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion grant to prove it. Through a series of exper­i­ments, De Steno intends to show that when a person repays a favor, the cat­a­lyst may not be a pre-​​calculated motive; in fact, it may be an instinc­tive emo­tional state designed to help humans address chal­lenges related to estab­lishing trust and support.

Emo­tions guide the way humans think and act, when required to make a choice between con­flicting values. According to DeSteno, his study will illus­trate the dis­tinc­tive role emo­tions play in com­pelling people to strengthen social bonds through acts of gen­erosity. Sub­jects will be placed in sce­narios where their grat­i­tude is manip­u­lated by risk-​​posing vari­ables which may or may not counter their incli­na­tion to repay favors. For instance, par­tic­i­pants will be forced to choose between helping others to whom they feel grateful (and accepting little eco­nomic reward), or sev­ering ties with these people to pursue more lucra­tive options.

Con­trary to pop­ular belief, our emo­tions aren’t there to dis­tract us from making log­ical deci­sions,” explains DeSteno. “In fact, they often help guide us to the right ones. Some­thing deep inside com­pels us to stick our necks out for others, even when faced with per­sonal risk.
My study will explore what drives humans to bypass those risks and do the right thing.”

DeSteno’s three-​​year NSF grant starts in July 2007, and was awarded to him based on his pre­vious research on reci­procity, which was pub­lished in the April 2006 edi­tion of Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence. This research pro­vided some of the first-​​ever evi­dence iden­ti­fying grat­i­tude as a unique emo­tional response designed to foster and main­tain rec­i­p­rocal exchanges.

DeSteno, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of psy­chology at North­eastern, expects to com­plete the pro­jected series of exper­i­ments over the next three years. His pre­vious research on the behav­ioral influ­ence of emo­tions has been pub­lished fre­quently in the Journal of Per­son­ality and Social Psy­chology and Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence, and includes studies on grat­i­tude, jeal­ousy, prej­u­dice, and moral decision-​​making. His latest study, “Moral hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flex­i­bility of Virtue” will appear in the August 2007 edi­tion of Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence.

About North­eastern: Founded in 1898, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity is a pri­vate research uni­ver­sity located in the heart of Boston. North­eastern is a leader in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, urban engage­ment, and the inte­gra­tion of class­room learning with real-​​world expe­ri­ence. The university’s dis­tinc­tive coop­er­a­tive edu­ca­tion pro­gram, where stu­dents alter­nate semes­ters of full-​​time study with semes­ters of paid work in fields rel­e­vant to their pro­fes­sional inter­ests and major, is one of the largest and most inno­v­a­tive in the world. The Uni­ver­sity offers a com­pre­hen­sive range of under­grad­uate and grad­uate pro­grams leading to degrees through the doc­torate in six under­grad­uate col­leges, eight grad­uate schools, and two part-​​time divi­sions. For more infor­ma­tion, please visit www​.north​eastern​.edu.