I am a social and cognitive scientist. Currently, I am a Research Professor at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences in Germany, at the recently founded interdisciplinary Institute for Urban Futures. I have ongoing research collaborations at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and the research cluster Languages of Emotion (Free University of Berlin).
Basic Research: Dynamics of Social Interaction and Emotion
My research focuses on trying to understand the dynamics of social interaction and emotional experience, bridging multiple levels of explanation from the neural to the cognitive-affective to the social and cultural. Accordingly, I have an interdisciplinary perspective on social psychological phenomena, incorporating theories and methods from neighbouring disciplines such as sociology and cognitive neuroscience. I often use computational models and simulation techniques such as neural networks or agent-based models to try and handle the complexities inherent in a dynamical, multilevel approach to social psychology. However, I usually complement these methodological tools with the more classical empirical strategies of a social psychologist, by rigorously grounding models in empirical data and testing model outcomes and predictions with experiments and behavioural observation.
Applying Social Psychology to Promoting Sustainable Urban Futures
I think that social psychology has lots to offer to help better understand and address some of the current enormous challenges to societies in general and cities in particular. Therefore, I strive to apply the basic insights about emotional processes, social behaviour, and communication to problems related to sustainable urban development (e.g., climate change mitigation and adaptation, demographic change, growing inequality). I believe that changing people’s minds and behaviours is as much of a challenge as the development of new technologies if we want to achieve a better life in our cities and a sustainable future for humanity.
Current Research Projects
My research program is currently structured along three themes.
Computational Models of Affective Processes in Social Interaction
My collaborators and I have developed computer models of social psychological phenomena like automatic social behaviour versus intentional action, emotions, and identity verification as multilevel processes that involve biological, cognitive, and cultural constraints. Ongoing projects include POEM (for “semantic POinter theory of EMotions”), a neurocomputational model of human emotions (with Paul Thagard, Ivana Kajić, and Terry Stewart), and BayesACT (“for Bayesian Affect Control Theory”), a model of identity dynamics and uncertainty in social interaction (with Jesse Hoey, Kim Rogers, and others). In a new applied research project funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, we will use BayesACT to enable assistive technology to interact more smoothly with people who suffer from cognitive disabilities.
The Affective Structure of Language and Discourse
Research has shown consistently that language and emotions are closely interrelated. Based on this insight, my collaborators and I try to understand how emotionally grounded semantic structures constrain our social interactions, political beliefs, and susceptibility to persuasion through discourse. For example, we have recently examined cultural consensus versus socio-economic variation in emotional meanings of social concepts related to authority and community, fundamental dimensions of human sociality. The research was published in PNAS. Currently, my colleague Marian Dörk and I are preparing a project to capitalize on interactive data visualization techniques to get better insight into how discourse is constrained by conceptual-affective structures. Among other goals, we hope to develop tools that would enable decision-makers and activists make better sense of social media discourse in the context of sustainable urban development.
Understanding Innovation Diffusion and Technology Adoption: Electric Vehicles
My collaborators (especially Ingo Wolf) and I have looked at people’s cognitive and emotional representations of electric cars and bicycles, using qualitative and quantitative methods (focus groups, surveys). Based on these data, we have developed individual-level models of people’s transportation decisions and a city-level agent-based model of innovation diffusion. We have used the model to simulate different possible scenarios of the adoption of electric vehicles by future consumers, in order to assist policymakers in developing better strategies for sustainable development. A preliminary paper is available on arXiv. Currently, we are working on expansions of the model to answer questions about technology adoptions and sustainability transitions more broadly.