Human beings are social animals adapted for group living and understanding this fact is essential for understanding the brain, mind and behavior. My research examines how collective concerns—ranging from our group identities to our moral values and political ideologies—shape our thoughts and actions. I take a multi-level approach to these issues, moving from the function of brain regions to large-scale collective action and behavior in social networks (see Cikara & Van Bavel, 2014 for a review). My work has highlighted the dynamic nature of human cognition, offering novel insights into the social nature of evaluation, attention, categorization, memory, and decision-making. 

The Pervasive Influence of Social Identity on Cognition

For nearly a century, psychologists have sought to understand the automatic and controlled processes that allow people to evaluate their surroundings. Research on implicit cognition suggests that stereotypes and prejudice can operate automatically and efficiently without conscious control. For instance, racial cues activate stereotypes and evaluations within milliseconds of encountering an individual and these evaluations are difficult to suppress once they are activated. These initial evaluations can lead to biases in a wide variety of domains, including hiring, mortgage lending, and legal decision-making. This division between automaticity and control reflects a dual process approach that has become the dominant paradigm for understanding a wide range of psychological topics, from prejudice and stereotypes to moral judgment.


In my initial work on this topic, I conducted a set of experiments examining the possibility that arbitrarily assigning people to a mixed-race group might override their initial, implicit racial biases. This work built upon previous research showing that people quickly identify with social groups and favor in-group members, even in the absence of social interaction, stereotypes, or competition over resources. We found that merely assigning people to a mixed-race group led them to express a preference for in-group versus out-group members (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2009). More importantly, this preference was apparent on implicit measures—overriding racial bias. In other words, White participants who were assigned to a group had an automatic preference for both Black and White in-group members. In a separate control condition, people who merely saw the two mixed-race groups still showed evidence of racial bias—suggesting that people need to actively identify with a group to experience this shift in their automatic evaluations. This work was the first to show that a shift in social identity could eliminate implicit racial bias.


To gain a better understanding of the psychological process underlying these shifts in evaluation, we conducted a series of neuroimaging experiments using a similar methodology. We assigned people to a mixed-race group a few minutes prior to a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) session. Previous research had found that the amygdala—a small structure in the anterior temporal lobe engaged in affective processing—was associated with implicit measures of racial bias. We examined whether mere membership in a mixed-race group could elicit in-group bias in amygdala activity, regardless of the race of the targets (Van Bavel et al., 2008). As predicted, the amygdala exhibited greater activity to minimal in-group versus out-group members and there were no effects of race. We also observed greater activity in the fusiform gyri—a region of the occipitotemporal lobe involved in face processing—to in-group versus out-group members. This latter finding led us to design a follow-up study on the Fusiform Face Area—a subregion of the fusiform gyri that is involved specifically in facial recognition and perceptual expertise. Replicating our previous research, we found greater activity in the Fusiform Face Area to in-group versus out-group members (Van Bavel et al., 2011). Moreover, participants with greater in-group bias in Fusiform Face Area activity also had greater in-group bias in a subsequent recognition memory task, suggesting that this region might mediate downstream behavior. Together, these experiments helped shed light on the neural processes underlying in-group bias and further established that even seemingly trivial identities can shape implicit perception and evaluation.


Although the amygdala and fusiform face area have been implicated in very rapid—and even unconcious—responses to faces, any inferences about automaticity were limited by the fact that fMRI is poorly suited for examining the time course of information processing. To better assess whether social identity can tune the initial stages of person perception, we employed electroencephalography (EEG)—a technology that offers millisecond temporal resolution. A pair of EEG experiments confirmed that the effects of social identity can alter information processing within approximately 100 milliseconds of seeing a face. Specifially, we found evidence of enhanced processing of in-group versus out-group members in the P100 waveform (Van Bavel et al., in prep). Replicating the previous research, there were no effects of race on the P100. The faces were presented in random order and no cues to group membership preceded the faces, suggesting that learning the group membership of the faces was sufficient to alter perception during the earliest components of face processing. This work is our best evidence to date that identity concerns can alter the initial stages of social cognition, overriding patterns of racial bias that are widely characterized as automatic responses to visually salient cues (like skin tone and afrocentric features).


Building on these results, we sought to understand the social motives that drive in-group bias by assessing the effects of race and group membership on recognition memory. Consistent with our previous research, we found that people had greater memory for in-group members, regardless of race (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2012). In other words, membership in an arbitrary mixed-race group was able to eliminate the own-race memory advantage—an effect that has been described as one of the most robust phenomena in the social sciences. Further, this memory advantage for in-group members was largest among participants who were highly identified with the in-group (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2012) as well as those who had a very high need to belong (Van Bavel et al., 2012). In sum, mere categorization into a group was not itself sufficient to elicit in-group bias unless it was combined with identification with the group or other social motives. Further, we found that in-group bias was itself fairly easy to eliminate: when participants were assigned to a role on their team that required them to spy on the out-group, they had enhanced memory for out-group members. Thus, even the motive to be a good group member can be channeled in many different ways depending on group norms and expectations. 


In light of the pervasive effects of group membership on perception, evaluation, and memory, some researchers have suggested that race is literally erased. We re-analyzed data from several neuroimaging experiments to see if this was indeed the case. Specifically, we used multi-voxel pattern analysis to see if race could be decoded from distributed patterns of neural activity in the visual system (Kaul, Ratner, & Van Bavel, 2014; Ratner, Kaul, & Van Bavel, 2013). While traditional univariate analyses provided no evidence of race-based responses in the fusiform or early visual cortex, multi-voxel pattern analyses suggested that race was indeed represented within these regions. Thus, while people may not judge in-group members by the color of their skin, they are nevertheless encoding race. This suggests that social identities may guide automatic elements of perception and evaluation even when aspects of race (e.g., physiognomic features) are still represented in the visual system. In that sense, this research offers hope that a shared identity might be a more important prerequisite than color blindness when it comes to treating people from another race equally.


In the past few years, my lab has expanded our work to examine the relationship between social identity and a host of other psychological processes and consequences. In one line of research, we have examined how in-group and out-group members capture rapid attention in a dot-probe task (Brosch & Van Bavel, 2012). This work helps esablish the flexibility of emotional attention—moving beyond models that argue automatic emotional cueing is guided by an inflexible fear module. In other work, we have shown how social identity guides empathy and how cooperation between groups can broaden empathy towards out-group members (Cikara, Bruneau, Van Bavel, & Saxe, 2014). We also found that presenting participants evidence that the social networks of in-group and out-group members are interwoven can reduce the intergroup empathy gap that emerges in competitive groups. This research helps to understand the psychology underlying intergroup conflict and paves the way for potential interventions. 


We have examined how perceptual evidence and social group membership influence mental state attribution. In a series of experiments, we presented participants with a continuum of facial morphs ranging from humans to inanimate figures (e.g., dolls) who were described as models based on in-group or out-group members. We found that participants had more stringent thresholds for perceiving minds behind out-group faces in both minimal and real-world groups such as political parties (i.e., Democrats and Republicans; Hackel, Looser, & Van Bavel, 2014). In other words, participants require less humanness in an in-group face to infer that they have mental state capacities. Consistent with our previous research, this intergroup bias was largest among highly identified group members. This research suggests that top-down social cues influence the interpretation of bottom-up perceptual evidence regarding the presence of another mind, which can have important behavioral consequences.


Our lab has recently expanded this research to other forms of value and decision-making. We have been developing a theoretical framework for characterizing contributions of social identity to value-based decisions—with a focus on computational processes by which social concerns can influence representations of subjective value (Hackel, Wills & Van Bavel, under review). For instance, we have examined how group membership shapes altruistic decision-making (Hackel, Zaki, & Van Bavel, 2017). We had participants complete an altruistic decision-making task in which they could assign rewards to themselves or one of two targets who ostensibly belonged to the participant's in-group or an out-group. As predicted, highly identified participants were willing to sacrifice their own rewards to allocate money to in-group members (but not out-group members). In a follow-up neuroimaging experiment, we found that in-group (vs. out-group) altruism was associated with greater activation in ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with representations of subjective value. Moreover, regions of the striatum associated with receiving large rewards for the self were also active when participants saw in-group members receiving rewards. These findings suggest that vicarious feelings of reward toward in-group members might underlie altruist decision-making. 


In other work, we proposed a model that characterizes how identities shape interpretations of the physical world  (Xiao, Coppin, & Van Bavel, in press). In one line of work, we found that participants estimate that the locations of threatening out-groups are much closer than the locations of non-threatening out-groups (Xiao & Van Bavel, 2012) and that this feeling of proximity heightens discrimination (Xiao, Wohl & Van Bavel, 2016). With collaborators in Switzerland, we found that Swiss participants who are primed with their national identity experience the smell of chocolate—a source of national pride—as more intense than non-Swiss participants or Swiss participants who are primed with their individual identity (Coppin et al., revise and resubmit). Similarly, Canadians primed with their national identity enjoy the taste of maple syrup more than when they are primed with their individual identity and Southern Americans report that grits and chicken fried steak are tastier when they are primed with their regional identity rather than individual identity (Hackel, Wohl, Coppin, & Van Bavel, 2018). This latter research speaks to the pervasive influence of social identity on cognition and may have important implications for understanding and motivating healthy eating behavior. 


In the last few years, I have begun to apply this research to the domain of political beliefs. The rise of polarization in the US and around the globe has begun to threaten liberal democracy. We recently published a series of papers to explain how political identity can lead people to value party dogma over truth. Our Identity-Based Model of Belief (Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018) explains (1) why people willingly align their beliefs with political parties and (2) how partisan identities alter information processing from reasoning, to memory, implicit evaluation, and possibly perceptual judgments. This integrative model describes why party affiliation exerts such a strong impact on people’s judgments that they often abandon their cherished values and beliefs in favor of party loyalty (see also Van Bavel et al., in press). We have also followed up this work by examining how linguistic factors—like moral emotional language—can exacerbate political conflict (Brady et al., 2017; 2019). When discussing hot button political issues, like same-marriage, climate change, or gun control, we found that the use of moral emotional words (e.g., hate, disgusted) are more likely to go viral on social media. However, this same language is also likely to be associated with the greatest degree of polarization (or homophily) in social networks as these messages are only shared by fellow partisans. This work has led to use to study the role of identity and attention in online political discourse using a combination of large-scale Twitter analyses and laboratory experiments. 


The Dynamic Nature of Moral Cognition

Over the past 15 years, several models of morality have challenged the longstanding view that reasoning is the sole or even primary means by which moral judgments are made. According to these intuitionist models, moral judgments are very often produced by reflexive mental computations that are unconscious, fast, and automatic. From this perspective, affective responses are automatically triggered by certain moral issues and provide a strong bottom-up influence on judgments and decision-making. As such, the role of moral reasoning has been relegated to the role of post hoc justification or corrective control, but not the causal impetus for an initial moral judgment. In our view, these dual process models fail to capture the dynamic nature of human cognition. As such, we recently proposed an alternative, dynamic model of moral cognition (Van Bavel, FeldmanHall, & Mende-Siedlecki, 2015).


We argue top-down processes ranging from construal to reasoning often shape moral intuitions as they unfold (Van Bavel et al., 2015). For instance, we have shown that most actions can be construed as if they belong in the moral domain or not (Van Bavel et al, 2012). To take one example from our research, the simple act of riding a bike can be seen through the lens of morality (e.g., is it a morally appropriate thing to do?), pragmatics (e.g., is it the most convenient or inexpensive option?), or hedonics (e.g., do I enjoy the experience of riding a bike?) How people construe an action influences how it is evaluated. Specifically, we found that moral evaluations were faster, more extreme, and more strongly associated with universal prescriptions—the belief that absolutely nobody or everybody should engage in an action—than non-moral (pragmatic or hedonic) evaluations of the exact same actions. A follow-up neuroimaging experiment confirmed that moral evaluations recruit different neural processes than those involved in non-moral evaluations (Van Bavel et al., in prep). This suggests that brain regions implicated in moral evaluations, like the ventral medial PFC, are sensitive to top-down construal and may reflect the process of rendering a moral judgment, rather than the specific content inherent in moral dilemmas. Moreover, we found that activation in these same brain regions is associated with individual differences in moralization: people who chronically construe issues through the lens of morality rely on this process for all forms of evaluation. This work reveals that our intuitions about right or wrong may have as much to do with the lens we impose on the situation as the concrete features of the action itself. The basic process of determining whether something is in the domain of morality seems to be a fundamental, if overlooked, aspect of moral psychology.


We have recently examined whether deliberating about one’s values and beliefs may not only justify or correct for an initial emotional intuition, but also sensitize one to certain actions or events before they occur—a process we term moral tuning. To test this hypothesis, we encouraged participants to go with their initial gut response or not before responding to the popular trolley/footbridge moral dilemmas (Kappes & Van Bavel, in prep). Previous studies using this task have instructed people to go with their “first response” and found that people have an emotional response that makes it difficult for them to push one person off a footbridge to save five others—a pattern that is frequently cited as evidence of a dual process model of morality. However, when we drop the instruction to go with their “first response”, the pattern of results is reversed and people are much more willing to push one person off the bridge. Analyses of reaction times as well as process-dissociation analyses suggest that this framing manipulation may have shaped the automatic “deontological” responses rather than controlled “utilitarian” processes. Subsequent experiments using neuroimaging and mouse tracking suggest that these framing manipulations influence the computations in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex—which has been argued to represent emotional intuitions—and the initial hand movements engaged during decision making in these dilemmas (Kappes, Kaggen, & Van Bavel, in prep). Taken together, these findings support the notion that top-down influences can tune the initial intuitions that guide moral judgment—even in the absence of corrective control.


To provide a more stringent test of the moral tuning hypothesis, we have adapted a number of tasks to capture the effects of moral reasoning and goals on people’s initial reactions to morally relevant stimuli (see Gantman & Van Bavel, 2015, for a review). For instance, we have found that moral motives may heighten awareness of moral words (Gantman & Van Bavel, 2014). In fact, we have new evidence using elecroencephalography suggesting that this advantage emerges within the first three hundred milliseconds—but may occur after basic semantic encoding (Mathewson, Gantman, & Van Bavel, under review). In a set of recent studies, we found that activating or satiating moral motives (e.g., a sense of justice) can alter attention to moral stimuli (Gantman & Van Bavel, 2017). As such, we are growing confident that reasoning and other top-down processes may be able to guide whether or not people become aware of morally-relevant stimuli. (Although it was not the goal of this research and is beyond the scope of this statement, these findings have helped spark a fascinating debate about the cognitive penetrability of perception). We believe this research will help provide the empirical foundations for a shift towards dynamic models of moral cognition that incorporate top-down influences in the initial phases of moral judgment and decision-making.


Political Ideology and System Concerns

People not only hold favorable views towards themselves and their own groups, but also the overarching system in which they live. As such, people are motivated to justify and maintain the overarching social system. Although system justification and social identity motives are often aligned for members of advantaged groups, there are contexts in which system justification motives may overshadow individual and group-based concerns. Our recent work has examined these system-level motives in the domain of person perception when they differ from traditional social identity motives.


The tendency to categorize multiracial individuals according to their most subordinate social group is referred to as the principle of hypodescent. Building on previous research showing that political conservatives are more supportive of the traditional social order and accepting of inequality than liberals, we hypothesized that political ideology would moderate racial categorization (Krosch, Berntsen, Amodio, Jost, & Van Bavel, 2013). In a series of studies, participants categorized a series of morphed faces that varied in terms of racial ambiguity. Self-reported conservatism (vs. liberalism) was associated with the tendency to categorize perceptually ambiguous (i.e., mixed-race) faces as Black. Consistent with the notion that system justification motives help explain ideological differences in racial categorization, the association between conservatism and hypodescent was mediated by individual differences in opposition to equality. 


We also reasoned that U.S. conservatives should be more motivated than U.S. liberals to maintain racial divisions that are part of the traditional American social system, but not those of an irrelevant system. Therefore, in follow-up research we activated system justification concerns directly by manipulating the salience of the American (vs. Canadian) social system and examined the relationship between ideology and racial categorization (Krosch et al., 2013). We hypothesized that the relationship between ideology and biased racial categorization would be stronger when participants were classifying “American” than “Canadian” faces. As predicted, the relationship between ideology and hypodescent was stronger when our U.S. participants categorized American than Canadian faces. This finding helped rule out the possibility that the link between conservatism and racial categorization was simply a matter of racial prejudice. Rather, it bolstered the argument that this bias was driven by system justification motives: conservatives were only motivated to engage in hypodescent for mixed-race individuals who were part of their own system (i.e., American faces). 


We recently expanded this research to the domain of political neuroscience (Jost et al., 2013; 2014). For instance, we recently conducted a neuroimaging experiment to assess whether these ideological differences in racial categorization were driven by perceptual, evaluative, or decision-making systems (Krosch, Jost, & Van Bavel, in prep). We invited a large, ideologically diverse sample of participants to complete a race categorization task. Consistent with previous research, activity in the amygdala and anterior insula were positively correlated with both the objective Blackness of the faces and racial ambiguity (i.e., mixed-race). Importantly, individual differences in political orientation moderated the relationships between objective face racial ambiguity and insula activity, such that conservatism was associated with stronger insula activity in response to mixed-race faces. There were no such ideological differences in lower-level perceptual systems (e.g., fusiform gyrus) or higher-level decision-making systems (e.g., mPFC). This research illustrates one way in which neuroimaging can help tease apart psychological processes that are difficult to disentangle using behavioral measures. It also clarifies how, why, and when multiracial individuals are likely to be categorized as members of a subordinate racial group—a phenomenon that may enhance their vulnerability to discrimination and exacerbate existing inequalities.


At present, there is considerable debate in political psychology about the origins of political ideology (see Jost, Noorbaloochi, & Van Bavel, 2014; Jost, Nam, Amodio, & Van Bavel, 2014). We recently completed a pair of large-scale structural neuroimaging studies to examine the neural correlations of system justification and examine changes over time. In the first wave of research, we found that participants with stronger system justifying tendencies had greater grey matter volume density in the bilateral amygdala (Nam, Kaggen, Campbell-Meiklejohn, Jost, & Van Bavel, 2018). Moreover, individual differences in the amygdala mediated the relationship between system justification and political activities (e.g., social protest) up to a year into the future. We are currently scanning these same participants almost three years later to see how exposure to different academic coursework (and other, extracurricular activities) may be associated with changes in their brain structure and their political ideology. This line of research will help us better understand how features of the social context can shape brain structure by examining changes over time and linking them to downstream political behavior. Finally, we are complementing this work by examining how brain damage to specific regions (e.g., the amygdala) may change system justification needs and political behavior. Together, this work will help shed light on one of the most basic questions in political psychology.



Taken together, this research has shown that social identification may exert a powerful role over most aspects of social cognition, shaping what are often described as automatic or inflexible reactions to stimuli. The fact that collective concerns shift from one situation to another and shape our actions and behaviors represents a challenge to models throughout the field of psychology and underscores the social nature of human cognition (Packer & Van Bavel, 2015). Our multi-level approach has already shed light on a number of central topics in psychology, including person perception, implicit evaluation, moral judgment, and political ideology. It is our hope that understanding how collective concerns dynamically shape cognition may not only offer important insights into issues ranging from the nature of social evaluation to political conflict.