It is no secret that emotions are important for action. This notion resonates in my two lines of research - moral decision-making and mindfulness – where I find that affective experience, as manifest in the body is crucial in shaping our real-life decisions and behaviors. In my research, I explore how emotions influence real-time decision-making and self-control, as well as the role they play in enhancing these processes. Through a multi-method approach, combining behavioral, neural and psychophysiological measures, I have been able to explore the questions that I find most fascinating on a more holistic level.
What motivates people to act morally? What are the processes that underlie moral decision-making? In my research, I explore these questions using both behavioral and psychophysiological measures. My work suggests that affective experience is key in driving individuals to do the "right thing". The results of several studies suggest that when asked to predict their behavior in a hypothetical moral dilemma, individuals consistently underestimate their likelihood to act morally precisely because they lack the affective experience that is inherent to real-life moral situations (Teper, Inzlicht, & Page-Gould, 2011). In other words, I find that states of arousal deter people from transgressing, but that they also causes them to predict acting more morally. This "moral underestimation" effect is consistent across of variety of moral decision-making domains, including cheating on performance tasks, as well as cooperation in economic games.
So can we enhance the accuracy of individuals' forecasts? Some of my recent work suggests that individual differences in emotional awareness predict forecasting accuracy, but also that individuals produce more accurate moral forecasts when given false somatic feedback, and made to believe that they are aroused (Teper, Tullett, Page-Gould, & Inzlicht, 2015). This line of research suggests that moral decisions are dependent on emotional processes, and highlights the importance of using behavioral measures to gain an accurate understanding of individuals’ decision-making processes in real life contexts.
In a related line of work, I have found that individuals are more likely to commit moral transgressions if the transgression doesn't require an explicit action. For instance, individuals are more likely to cheat on a test if they don't have to physically press a button to reveal answers, but can simply wait for the answer to appear on the screen. In another experiment, I have found that individuals are more likely to volunteer their help if they have to choose between a "yes" and "no" button to indicate their intention. This is in comparison to individuals who can either follow a link if they want to volunteer, or simply skip to the next webpage (Teper & Inzlicht, 2011). I suspect that these effects occur because explicit transgressions elicit stronger moral emotions that then deter us from acting immorally.
In one of my ongoing projects, I am exploring the emotional and motivational underpinnings behind different types of prosocial behavior. I particularly interested in answering questions such as: what types of emotions cause people to cooperate with others? To help those in need? How do these emotions differ from those that motivate people to refrain from cheating, lying or stealing? In another project, I am exploring the effect that "negative" moral emotions, such as anger, have on moral behavior.
Mindfulness and meditation training have a myriad of positive outcomes - among which are improved self-control and emotion regulation. But how exactly does mindfulness improve self-control? What are the mechanisms by which mindfulness enhances emotion regulation? I have begun to explore some of these questions through the use of electroencephalography (EEG). The results of my research suggest that mindfulness may lead to improvements in executive function because it enhances emotional acceptance, as well as brain-based signals of conflict monitoring. In other words, I have found that mindful people show heightened neural reactions to their own errors on a task, but that they are also more accepting of these errors. This accepting attitude, in turn, leads to improved task performance (Teper & Inzlicht, 2013).
The results of this study imply that rather than dampening all emotional experience, mindfulness may actually promote a non-judgmental acceptance to stimuli in the experiential field. This sort of acceptance may be instrumental in facilitating self-control by promoting a sensitivity to cues that signal when control is needed (Teper, Segal, & Inzlicht, 2013).
In a related study, I have found that mindful acceptance predicts attenuated neural reactions in response to rewarding performance feedback on a task. This suggests that mindful individuals may be less swayed by immediate rewards, and may offer additional insight into the mechanism by which mindfulness enhances executive function (Teper & Inzlicht, 2014). Taken together, my research on mindfulness suggests that mindfulness may help curb the impulsive pursuit of immediate rewards, but may heighten sensitivity to internal affective cues that signal when control is needed.
Currently, I am interested in the role that mindfulness plays in influencing prosocial behaviors.