“What is it that leads us to be nice or to sacrifice or do something moral even when we’re tempted not to?”


An interview with Cendri Hutcherson, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto

By: Michelle Johnson, September 28, 2018

Do you have a real-world example that could ground the most recent research question(s) you’re thinking about?

I often have the experience where I’m sitting on my couch and then I think, “I kind of would like something to snack on.” So, I go to the refrigerator and I’m like, “Ooh, ice cream.” I maybe start to open the freezer door, and then even as I’m doing that I’m thinking, “I really shouldn’t. It’s not good for me. There’s too much sugar, etc.” And then you reluctantly shut the freezer door and maybe go get some baby carrots. I’m desperately interested in that transformation, that process of why it feels so often that we have these self-control dilemmas where you start off wanting something that’s bad for you, and then how do we transform that into good behavior?

The second example is similar but in the social domain. So, you’re walking down the street and you see a homeless woman on the sidewalk asking, “Please give me some money, my kids are starving.” And then there’s maybe the temptation to just keep walking—for many reasons, not just because you’re a selfish person. But I’m interested in, again, that transformation—what is it that leads us to be nice or to sacrifice or do something moral even when we’re tempted not to?

What about this work most excites you?

I like to say it’s the pretty brain pictures, but that’s probably not really true. What excites me is that I feel we’re just at the beginning of a process of being able to capture those dynamics using essentially computer simulation, computer models. The idea, basically, is if you can write a program that fails in self-control, then you might actually understand why people fail at self-control sometimes. And the better we specify those models so that they capture all those real-world dynamics—so that they capture when people fail, when they succeed, when it doesn’t even feel like trying versus when it does—then we can predict how to help people.

Do you see that as the next big step in the field?

Right now, a lot of the models that we have are mostly about laboratory behavior because it’s so easy to study. Of course, the world is not that simple, fortunately or unfortunately. We are starting to have computing resources, software resources, that allow us to take in these massive amounts of data, either about millions of people and how they act in aggregate on shopping sites, twitter, etc., or about a single person by having millions of data points about them (like what they eat, how they’re feeling at breakfast, lunch and dinner, what their gut is doing, etc.). In the past, if you had that much data, it wouldn’t matter because functionally you couldn’t process it in any meaningful way. But I think we’re starting to get to the point where we can use things like machine learning and big data, these data analysis tools, to compress that in ways that we might be able to use.

Have you had an interdisciplinary collaboration you’ve really enjoyed or a potential collaboration you’re excited about?

I’m really interested in trying to build the bridges between things like psychology and more biological measures because we know that there are these incredibly tight mind-brain interactions. I’m collaborating with somebody in Europe, [and we’re] trying to understand a little bit about how the gut microbiome interacts with dietary behavior. But I think there’s all this stuff coming out now starting to establish links that previously had been “old wives’ tales,” like how being happy might lead to cancer resistance because maybe there are links between the reward system and the functioning of the immune system and therefore [links] to the ability to fight off cancer or other diseases.

Do you have any advice for people interested in entering the field?

There’s something incredibly powerful about reaching out and being open to talking with people who are doing things that intimidate you or who you’re like, “Oh man, these people are way smarter than me.” If you’re a student who’s [thinks], “I don’t know what I want to do next,” go ask questions. Some people may ignore you because they’re busy or they’re tired, but most people like being asked questions. I think the trick is to let go of your pride just a little bit and say, “If I don’t ask the question, I’m not going to learn.” So go for it.

To learn more about Dr. Hutcherson’s lab and her work, click here.

To go back to the “Interviews with Scientists” page, click here.