Motivation and Social Cognition Laboratory

The Motivation and Social Cognition Laboratory conducts basic and applied social psychological research that examines the interplay between motivation and social cognition.

Current lines of research are:

  1. Moral judgment. We are conducting studies examining processes that lead people to moral decisions that focus on following rules (deontology) versus maximizing positive outcomes (consequentialism). A second line of research investigates lay beliefs about intentionality. In other words, what do laypeople believe to be the key ingredients that make an act ‘intentional’? This work stands at the nexus of psychology, philosophy, and law. A third line of studies investigates motivational processes that may be harnessed to encourage pro-environmental behavior.

A sampling of relevant articles:

  • Xu, X., Chapman, H., Karinen, M., Peterson, J.B., & Plaks, J.E. (in press). An orderly personality partially explains the link between trait disgust and political conservatism. Cognition and Emotion.
  • Robinson, J.S., Xu, X. & Plaks, J.E. (2019).  Disgust and deontology:  Trait sensitivity to pathogens promotes a preference for clarity, hierarchy, and rule-based moral judgment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 3-14.
  • Plaks, J.E. & Robinson, J.S. (2017).  Proximal and distal intent:  Toward a new folk theory of intentional action.  Review of General Psychology,  21, 242-254.
  • Robinson, J.S., Page-Gould, E, & Plaks, J.E. (2017).  I appreciate your effort:  Asymmetric effects of actors’ exertion on observers’ consequentialist versus deontological judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73, 50-64.
  • Plaks, J.E., Fortune, J.L., Liang, L., & Robinson, J. (2016).  Effects of culture and gender on judgments of intent and responsibility.  PLOS ONE, 11(4), e0154467.
  • Robinson, J.S., Joel, S., & Plaks, J.E. (2015).  Empathy for the group versus indifference to the victim: Effects of anxious and avoidant attachment on moral judgment.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 139-152.
  • Laurin, K. & Plaks, J.E. (2014).  Religion and punishment: Opposing influences of orthopraxy and orthodoxy on reactions to unintentional acts.  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 835-843.
  • Plaks, J.E., McNichols, N.K., & Fortune, J.L. (2009).  Thoughts versus deeds:  Distal and proximal intent in lay judgments of moral responsibility.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1687-1701.
  1.  Beliefs about genetics.  With the complete mapping of the human genome in 2001, it became possible to compare people’s beliefs about genetics against the scientific data. Genomic data indicate that two unrelated people from the same racial group are about as similar to each other as two unrelated people drawn at random from the entire world. Laypeople, of course, tend to see things differently. Most people consider racial categories to be fixed, meaningful, and predictive. In recently years, we have asked the following questions
    1. Does belief in lower genetic overlap predict more stereotyping and prejudice?
    2. How does belief in lower genetic overlap relate to existing measures of both implicit and explicit race bias?
    3. Can teaching people about genetics lead to less prejudice?

Relevant articles:

  • Kang, S., Plaks, J.E,  & Remedios, J. (2015).  Folk beliefs about genetic variation predict neural and behavioral withdrawal from biracial individuals.  Frontiers in Personality and Social Psychology, 6:357.
  • Plaks, J.E., Malahy, L.W., Sedlins, M. & Shoda, Y.  (2012).  Folk beliefs about human genetic variation predict discrete versus continuous race categorization and evaluative bias.  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 31-39.
  • Malahy, L.W., Sedlins, M., Plaks, J.E., &  Shoda, Y. (2010). Black, white, or shades of gray? Racial labeling of Barack Obama predicts implicit race perception.  Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, 10, 207-222.
  1.  Lay theories about the fixedness or malleability of personality.  For over 20 years, we have consistently found that people who believe that personality is fixed (“entity theorists”) tend to understand people’s actions (including their own) in terms of broad, underlying traits or stereotypes. Several studies have shown that these people engage in selective attention and memory distortion to screen out information that contradicts their trait-based views other people or themselves. In contrast, people who believe that personality is malleable (“incremental theorists”) show greater openness to such unexpected information. In current research, we are examining how older adults’ lay theories influence their memory performance and motivation. We have also begun to explore neural process associated with these phenomena, using the lab’s electroencephalography (EEG) equipment. A sampling of relevant articles:
  • Plaks, J.E. (2017).  Implicit theories:  Assumptions that shape social and moral cognition.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 259-310.
  • Tullett, A. & Plaks, J.E. (2016). Testing the link between empathy and lay theories of happiness.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 1505-1521.
  • Xu, X. & Plaks, J.E. (2015).  The neural correlates of implicit theory violation. Social Neuroscience, 10, 431-447.
  • Plaks, J.E. & Chasteen, A. (2013).  Entity versus incremental theories predict older adults’ memory performance.  Psychology and Aging, 28, 948-957.