Research Interests

I. Social Vision

                Social cues such as eye gaze, emotion, race, gender, and facial appearance have for decades been studied in a largely independent manner, even isolated within separate fields. This likely descends from long held assumptions that distinct sources of social information are processed along neurally distinct processing routes. This has its logic, particularly considering the rich variety of social and emotional information conveyed by the human face. Parallel processing arguably prevents perceptual bottlenecking due to an overload of social sensory input. But, in the last decade, a growing number of behavioral and neuroscientific investigations have revealed evidence for functionally driven integrative processing involving a wide array of social cues conveyed by the face, including (as one example) numerous demonstrations of perceptual interactivity between eye gaze and emotional expression (i.e., shared signal hypothesis; Adams & Kleck, 2003; 2005). There is good reason to believe, therefore, that in combination social cues convey greater adaptive value than in isolation, evoking unified representations of others that guide our impressions of and adaptive responses to them. Despite this growing evidence, current face and neural processing models do not adequately address such functional interactivity. We believe that the next critical step in our understanding of social perception resides in applying a conceptual framework that does.

                 Toward this end, we propose that a theoretical emphasis needs to be placed on the shared function of compound social cues rather than on their discrete inputs. Unlike current interpretations of discrete emotion theory, for instance, this approach can address why it is that a highly standardized anger expression should be recognized more accurately and efficiently when displayed on a hypermature (low brow, thin lips, angular) male, adult face staring directly at you versus on a “babyish” (high brow, full lips, round) female, child’s face looking away. Likewise, unlike current face processing models that focus on differentiating the “source” of information (e.g., expression versus appearance), central to this approach is the underlying meaning conveyed by such cues and their combined ecological relevance to the observer. To do this requires an interdisciplinary, multi- method approach, one that not only draws on but synthesizes various theoretical perspectives including cognitive and affective neuroscience, visual cognition, and evolutionary, social, and cultural psychology. As such, we believe this functional approach promises new insights into the cognitive, cultural, and biological underpinnings of social sensory perception. 

                The research we do in my lab bridges social and vision cognition by examining the interplay of learned social signals and direct perceptual experiences triggered by the face. Work like this, at the social-visual interface, represents a critical step toward establishing an interdisciplinary and integrative approach to social perception. To help herald this field, I recently edited a volume on the topic entitled The Science of Social Vision (Adams, Ambady, Nakayama, & Shimojo, 2010), at Oxford University Press, in which the functional approach described above is articulated in detail (Adams, Franklin, Nelson, & Stevenson, 2010). My lab examines these issues at three levels of analysis: culturalindividual, and neuroscientific. Our method is multi-pronged, focused on sub-aspects of this question involving the conjunction of gaze direction, emotional expression, facial appearance, race, gender, and age. We employ an interdisciplinary approach bringing together the complementary expertise and methodologies of cognitive and affective neuroscience, visual cognition, and social and cultural psychology. Below I highlight our work examining interactions between expressive cues such as gaze and emotion, influences of racial and cultural group memberships signaled by the face, and the direct interplay of expression and appearance.

II. Social humor

                Although not my primary research focus, I have nonetheless cultivated an interest in humor since even before graduate school. Recently, I worked with a former student of mine at Tufts, Matthew Hurley, who took my course, "The Laughing Animal. He developed his final paper for my class into an honors thesis under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Dennett and myself, which we have since further developed into a book articulating a new cognitive/evolutionary theory of humor. I hope now to further develop a 2-fold model of humor appreciation and theory of the social relation of laughter and humor, and humor's regulatory function in everyday social cognition. I am particularly interested in addressing why humor tends to target our unwanted thoughts. We know that unwanted thoughts tend to become highly accessible due to our very attempts to suppress them. Using priming methods I aim to examine the effects of primacy, recency, frequency, and chronic accessibility of humor content. These same approaches can be used to examine the microdynamics of humor in relation to the new theory put forth in our book "Inside Jokes". I believe this examination will offer insights that can eventually be applied more broadly to an understanding of the cognitive elicitation and regulation of other emotions.