Spotlight on Academics: Psychology and Neuroscience: Professor Michael Spezio and Students Travel to Europe for NSF Research Project


This past summer was a long time coming for Vanessa Hayes ’18 and Yuqing Lei ’18. As researchers in Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Michael Spezio’s lab at Scripps College for three and four years, respectively, Hayes and Lei have been developing the theoretical foundation and hard skills necessary to assist in cognitive neuroscience and decision science research on a greater scale. Finally, in June, they traveled to meet Professor Spezio at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, the teaching hospital of the University of Hamburg, Germany, for three months to work on a project funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Spezio’s lab.

Anyone who has ever been part of a group project might be interested in Spezio’s research. Spezio and his Laboratory for Inquiring into Valuation and Emotion (LIVE Lab) teamed up with the Lab for Valuation and Social Decision-Making at the University Medical Center, headed by Dr. Jan Gläscher, to study how peoples’ minds and brains function when they work together to complete a cooperative, shared task in uncertain conditions. Compared to antagonistic or competitive relationships, Spezio says successful, collaborative cooperation is an understudied topic in the field of cognitive science.

Why take this approach?

“Human evolution is largely driven by affiliation and not competition. We thought that we could potentially get a better handle on what the human mind and brain are doing if we take advantage of the fact that…most of our evolutionary and developmental experiences are affiliative,” he says.

While the study analyzes data collected from research participants’ completion of a task invented for experimental purposes, Spezio says the project has implications for complex, real-world situations, such as how individuals might collaborate to improve a college, create a vision for the State of California, or curtail a dangerous disease epidemic. There are no instruction manuals on how to succeed at these kinds of tasks, and the kinds of expertise needed changes as such projects evolve.

“We showed [for the first time] mathematically that a person whose decisions depend on making accurate predictions of the other person’s behavior actually adopts that person’s value with regard to the shared task,” Spezio says.

In their role as researchers, Hayes and Lei familiarized themselves with Bayesian cognitive modeling, a statistical approach, and then wrote computer programs that allowed them to use statistical modeling software to test whether their data agreed or disagreed with various mathematical models. Although they each had some prior experience with programming software, neither had worked with Bayesian modeling before. Hayes and Lei also learned set up and performed EEG experiments with human participants, which involved placing 128 electrodes on each research participant’s head.

“The research was very eye-opening, because there were a lot of things we had never encountered in classwork—actually working with concepts and theories, measuring, and getting to conclusions that no one else has drawn,” says Lei, who is using the data and skills she acquired over the summer for her dual psychology and neuroscience senior thesis. “I’m planning to go to grad school, which means I do need some research experience, but this was also just a really fun way to spend the summer.” Professor Spezio credits Lei with contributing an important research question, which led them to the conclusion that partners who are both cooperative or both non-cooperative will find a way to work together if the task at hand requires collaboration.

Hayes and Lei, who received Mellon Foundation grants to support their work, will be listed as co-authors of the papers that come out of this study when they are published. They have already coauthored a presentation that they gave at the July 2017 meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in London. At the conference, they also gave one-on-one presentations about the project to the field’s leading scientists, including famed neuroscientist Peter Dayan of University College London, who won the 2017 Brain Prize, neuroscience’s most prestigious award.

“It was exciting to be a part of the conversations that people who have been in this research field for 10 or 20 years are having, and to be mulling over the same ideas with them,” Lei says.

Hayes adds, “Having this more kind of grown-up experience felt like I was actually being respected for my research and as my own person. I really grew a lot.”