Decision Making in Social Contexts

In everyday life - and especially while interacting with others - decision making situations are highly complex and unstructured. For example, if we want to decide how trustworthy or angry a person is, we have to integrate information such as facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and the pragmatics of language (figurative speech, sarcasm, irony, etc.). The ability to understand and infer other peoples' thoughts, feelings, and intentions is referred to as "social cognition" or "theory of mind." Based on this understanding of the mental states of others, we make predictions about their behavior and adjust our own behaviors in response. Furthermore, we use this ability to make judgments as to whether certain behaviors represent violations of moral or social norms.

The ability to experience empathy represents another way we understand and predict other people's behavior. Empathy extends social cognition (cognitive perspective taking) by adding an emotional component: we feel for others. Specifically, when we see somebody in pain we do not only understand his or her situation cognitively, we will also likely share that feeling to a certain degree. In our group, we are interested in both the cognitive as well as emotional factors that contribute to social decisions. One of the questions we are currently trying to understand is how individual differences in emotional reactivity or in the ability to cognitively process emotions affects decision making in social contexts. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other psychophysiological measures (skin conductance and pupillometry), as well as in-house developed psychological tests that are relevant to everyday life, we are trying to elucidate how and where in the brain of healthy individuals social decisions are processed. Moreover, to complement our understanding of the "social brain," we are studying social cognition in neuropsychiatric patients such as Borderline and Antisocial Personality disorder, or Autism Spectrum Conditions.


Hauke Heekeren
Isabel Dziobek
Markus Bahnemann
Kristin Prehn
Katja Mériau
Sandra Preißler

Key References

Dziobek, I., Rogers, K., Fleck, S., Bahnemann, M., Heekeren, H. R., Wolf, O. T., & Convit, A. (2007). Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger syndrome using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Nov 8 [Epub ahead of print].

Prehn, K., Wartenburger, I., Mériau, K., Scheibe, C., Goodenough, O. R., Villringer, A., van der Meer, E., & Heekeren, H. R. (in press). Influence of individual differences in moral judgment competence on neural correlates of normative judgments. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Heekeren, H. R., Wartenburger, I., Schmidt, H., Prehn, K., Schwintowski, H. P., & Villringer, A. (2005). Influence of bodily harm on neural correlates of semantic and moral decision-making. Neuroimage, 24, 887-97.

Dziobek, I., Fleck, S., Rogers, K., Wolf, O. T., & Convit, A. (2006). The 'amygdala theory of autism' revisited: linking structure to behavior. Neuropsychologica, 44, 1891-9.