I am a social psychologist, though my research is interdisciplinary. With collaborators from psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, I investigate cooperation and helping, as well as cognitive enhancement. I mainly use behavioural experiments, but increasingly, I incorporate normative analyses and neuroscientific tools into my research as well.
If we want to reach important, larger goals we often need to act together in a group. Different challenges such as making a wise decision in a quarrelling committee or fighting poverty require that we cooperate and help each other. We would need, for example, to share information we know or money we own. However, we often fail to do so – as documented by countless examples like disastrous committee decisions and persisting global poverty.
From my PhD on, I have been interested in group functioning from a ‘teamwork’ perspective: which processes keep members of small groups from cooperating in a way that they can perform well? What hinders them to share information in an unbiased way and to reach good group decisions? And I’m working on group functioning, supported by my PhD students and PostDocs, from a ‘prosociality’ perspective: Do we help others due to genuine concern for them or rather because we want to build a reputation as a good person? Which preferences and biases keep us from helping and how can we overcome them?
I think there are some general psychological mechanisms that determine whether or not people decide to cooperate and help, may it be the decision to share one’s information in a committee or to give one’s money to charity. I am also starting to look at the physiological factors involved in cooperation and helping, because I do think that we should be open for empirical methods from different fields, as well as for philosophical reasoning, if we want to fully understand and to improve the functioning of social groups. I hope my research can contribute to improving cooperation and helping in real-life cases – as we aim to do in our project on fighting infectious diseases.
There is a growing interest in medical technologies that can alter the human brain. It seems possible not only to treat mental impairments but also to improve certain mental capacities above and beyond their ‘natural state’. My second research topic, which I mainly worked on in my 3-year PostDoc, is what the media call ‘brain doping’: pharmacological substances that can improve cognitive performance in healthy people.
I have a social psychological perspective on cognitive enhancement. People perceive well-established enhancers like caffeine as uncontroversial, yet the social perception of new ‘smart drugs’ like methylphenidate or modafinil is very different. In my research, I look at this social perception, its causes and its consequences: How do people morally judge cognitive enhancement, users of ‘smart drugs’, and drug-enhanced performance? Which justifiable concerns, but also biases drive these judgements? How do these judgements relate to the ethical debate on cognitive enhancement and the actual pharmacological (side-)effects of these substances? Recently, I started thinking about the link between my two research topics: how could it affect the functioning of a cooperating group, when some members take ‘smart drugs’? Does this make the whole group perform better? We have good reasons to believe it doesn’t.
With my empirical research on judgements of the general public, I hope to assist my colleagues from moral philosophy in formulating recommendations for policy-makers how to deal with cognitive enhancement. More generally, however, I think that these ‘smart drugs’ are a fascinating case that allows us to study psychological reactions to new technologies some people in a social group have access to while others have not.