The Bernhard Lab is an undergraduate-driven lab that uses social and cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience to investigate the questions that interest us. Our primary goal is to provide a graduate-level research experience to undergraduates, with many students developing and implementing their own project from inception to manuscript preparation.
Much of the research we do in the lab focuses on better understanding two phenomena. First, we investigate instrumental harm – or harmful behavior designed to achieve some kind of goal. Instrumental harm is ubiquitous in human interaction: We punish others to get them to change, we make moral tradeoffs that require harming some individuals to help others, we make decisions about allocating resources, often in ways that may seem unfair to some but might be advantageous to ourselves or others, we ask individuals to pay heavy personal costs to provide benefits for the greater good. In our lab, we seek to understand the mental processes that drive such behavior, how we perceive others who engage in instrumental harm, and how those perceptions affect how we interact with them.
We also investigate how hypothetical thought is instantiated in the brain. Humans entertain non-actual states of the world almost constantly throughout our days. We imagine both immediate and distant futures, we reflect on ways the past could have gone but didn’t, we envision eating different meals when trying to decide what to have for dinner, we read stories and watch movies we know are not true. Despite the pervasiveness of such thought and its central role in so many of the most important decisions we make, we know almost nothing about what happens in our brains when we are thinking about the world beyond the here and now. We use functional neuroimaging and behavioral research to shed light on this question.