Social Cognition, Morality, and COVID-19

There is a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in the world right now, and for good reason. COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has spread at an exceptional rate and disrupted daily life and devastated communities around the world. However, this is no time for panic, pettiness, or despair. This is a time to come together, to gather our wits, and for everyone to pitch in and do what they can to make our communities safer and more compassionate places to live.


In light of the ongoing global pandemic, our lab is combining our research efforts on imagination, morality, empathy, and perspective taking to launch a new branch of studies in collaboration with a team of international researchers that aims to better understand and predict health attitudes and behaviors related to the effects of COVID-19.


As species go, humans are pretty wimpy creatures. We are not particularly fast, and we have no armored scales or sharp claws. Our strength comes not from our physical prowess, but from our tremendous capacity for social consciousness and collective actions. Together we can do and get through just about anything, including a global pandemic.

Remembering the Past to Imagine the Future

Our ability to imagine future events (i.e., episodic simulation) is intricately linked to our ability to remember past events (i.e., episodic memory). For example, memory provides the source of details (e.g., places, people, and objects) that can be flexibly recombined into a novel representation of an imagined future event. This line of research examines the shared cognitive architecture of episodic simulation and memory and how these processes change with advancing age. 

Imagination, Memory, and Prosocial Decision-Making

Prevailing theories have emphasized the role of imagining future events in guiding planning and prediction of personal events. This line of research, however, examines a social function of imagining future events in motivating decisions to coordinate working with and helping others. In particular, it seems that as an imagined or remembered helping scene (i.e., the visuospatial context) becomes more vividly represented, the perceived plausibility of the helping event increases, enhancing decisions to help others in need. Interestingly, people are sometimes unable to remember a helping event related to the current situation of need, as they have not experienced that situation before. Yet, people are able to imagine a helping event for a larger range of situations, underscoring a flexible advantage of imagination over memory in guiding prosocial decision-making. Imagination allows us to overcome the narrowness of our past, enabling us to help in situations we have never directly experienced before. While we have started to shed some light on how imagination and memory can impact prosocial decision-making, there is much work to be done uncovering the underlying mechanisms and exploring their effect on social interactions and relationships more broadly.

Interaction between Scene Imagery and Theory of Mind

This line of research examines the independence and interaction of scene imagery (i.e., assembling and maintaining a visuopspatial context) and theory of mind in guiding social cognition. Specifically, we recently found evidence that visuospatial imagery can dynamically couple with theory of mind when making decisions to interact with others. Precisely when and under what conditions these processes will interact remains a topic of ongoing investigation. 

Real-world Moral Behavior

Extant research on morality heavily relies on analysis of moral vignettes, questionnaire data, and thought experiments. Recognizing the limitations that arise from the measures used in these studies, this line of research examines more ecologically valid measures of moral behavior (e.g., online donations). This project investigates how imagination and memory in particular can foster real-world charitable behavior as well as investigating online moral behavior. These findings have implications for developing new strategies to promote actual helping behavior with positive social and health benefits in everyday life.


Our research program draws on an array of methods to investigate the social functions and cognitive mechanisms of imagination, memory, and future thinking. The heart of our research relies on behavioral manipulations and measures online and in the lab. To some extent, our work also uses neural methods to elucidate the basis of these processes in the brain. In addition to experiments that investigate functions and mechanisms, an ultimate goal of our research is to apply these findings to real-world behavior. Specifically, we are working to translate these findings to promote well-being and prosocial behavior in collaboration with charitable organizations. 

Our lab is dedicated to promoting best practices in open science and replicability. As such, we aim to make all the experimental materials and data that we collect in the lab publicly accessible (see publications for links to study-specific materials and data). Moreover, as of 2019, our lab policy is to pre-register study designs and analysis plans.