The lab of Dean Mobbs Ph.D. uses a mixture of brain-imaging, computational modeling and behavioral techniques to probe the neurobiological systems responsible for fear and anxiety. He is also interested in the value of social behavior and its relationship to survival. In particular, he’s trying to determine the behavioral and neural signatures behind positive social interactions—for example, those involved with altruism, empathy, and when viewing others’ success as rewarding (vicarious reward). His research also focuses on the interplay between social interaction and emotion—how fear can depend on whether you are alone or in a group (e.g. risk dilution).


Why do you study fear and social behavior and not something else?

When I first began to study psychology, affective science and social psychology both had an impact on me. I think it was the mixture of creative experiments and their ability to provide us a new window into human nature. My first paper on fear came from a simple observation when I was watching a movie called Dawn of the Dead (2004, but the 1978 version is my favorite movie!). In the movie, survivors of a zombie apocalypse are trying to enter a shopping mall, when a bunch of zombies spot them and begin to run towards them.  As the zombies got closer, the tension increases. Over lunch, I told my good friend Predrag Petrovic (a pain researcher) about creating a task where subjects are attacked by a virtual predator and that I wanted to examine what happens in the brain when the threat is close versus far away (but not the capture or pain itself). He said that it was a great idea and that I should check out the work of Michael Fanselow. I never looked back.

Ask any scientist why they study what they study and some will tell you a story, while most will tell you that the field chose them. I can honestly say that I never felt the same about other topics in psychology. If you are interested by your research questions, it makes your research more fulfilling, enjoyable and gets you out of bed earlier in the morning!

 

What are some of the challenges facing the field today? In what new directions might the field go?

In the field of brain imaging, especially fMRI, the major issues are methodological and statistical that promote false positives. The field is somewhat going through a revolution. The efforts made by neuroscientists such as Russell Poldrack are making our field stronger by establishing a set of guidelines for research (something many other fields should also do!). These include power-analysis, pre-registration, replication and the use of higher statistical thresholds. My lab has, in part, began to adopt several of these approaches.  If the field adopts these approaches, we will be in a stronger position to make more predictive models of human behavior and brain function.

A second, and less discussed, issue with the field of neuroscience and psychology is the use of ecologically invalid paradigms. I think that it is ripe time to consider new technology (virtual reality) and new ways of designing experiments to get closer to the behaviors in the real world. With this in mind, my lab has been working hard to design new paradigms that examine the dynamics of fear and anxiety. This approach is captured in several reviews and empirical papers from my lab. Finally, we need to take seriously individual different approaches to human neuroscience. Establishing a journal like Personality Neuroscience, is the start to understanding how our brains are different and how this impacts a variety of cognitive phenomena. My hope is that Personality Neuroscience will set the guidelines on how to investigate individual differences in the human brain.

 

If you could choose your top 5 favorite experiments, what would they be?

It is difficult to conclusively state my favorite experiments, but a few come instantly to mind. Milgram’s obedience experiments is the first social psychological experiment I learned about and is still one my favorite due to its simplicity, methodological rigor and implications concerning human nature. Another experiment is by my former colleague and collaborator, Walter Mischel. Walter’s Marshmallow experiments, again, uses simple and creative experimental designs to characterize children on their ability to defer gratification. The fascinating aspect of this study in the longitudinal results showing that the ability or inability to defer gratification predicts behavior as an adult. Stanley Schachter’s Affiliation study, Brehm’s work on reactance, and more recently, the late Daniel Wegner as well as Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson’s work on affective forecasting stand out as my favorite studies.

In my field, my favorite fMRI studies include Tania Singer’s empathy for pain study that set the field of social neuroscience on fire by showing that pain areas are active when a subjects is shocked, as well as when the subject views a loved one being shocked. Fliessbach’s paper on social comparison where the value of money and the amount of reward neural activity are determined by whether you have more or less money than another subject. I also love the creative work of Eleanor McGuire whose work on taxi drivers set the example for ecological approaches to brain imaging. The work of Matt Lieberman, Naomi Eisenberger, Liz Phelps, Jason Mitchell, Mauricio Delgado, Kevin Ochsner, Mathew Rushworth, Tim Behrens and Lisa Feldman-Barrett.  I am also lucky to work alongside several of my heroes and friends including John O’Doherty, Ralph Adolphs, Antonio Rangel, Colin Camerer and Demis Hassabis. More recently, I have been inspired by the work of a new crop of researchers include Jamil Zaki, Josh Buckholtz, Diana Tamir, Carolyn Parkinson, Daniela Schiller, Keise Izuma, Molly Crockett, David Rand, Erie Boorman, Luke Chang, Oriel FeldmanHall, Sam Gershman, Fiery Cushman, Mina Cikara, Lauri Nummenmaa…I could go on! Together, these and other researchers are making this a special time in the field of social and affective neuroscience.


Personality Neuroscience is a fully Open Access journal that publishes papers in the neuroscience of personality. Learn more about the journal and how to submit your article at cambridge.org/pen.

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