Anna Jenkins, PhD

An interview with Adrianna (Anna) Jenkins, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
By: Michelle Johnson, September 21, 2018

Can you briefly describe the main hypothesis or research question on your mind right now?
We’re working to understand the basic cognitive mechanisms that allow people to adapt their behavior flexibly to different situations, particularly as they navigate their social environments. The social world is especially interesting for several reasons. One is that many of the most consequential and most frequent human activities are social activities. Another is that, compared to the physical world, the social world is marvelously complex, variable, and full of hidden causes, which poses an intriguing set of challenges for the brain. We’re interested in how the brain addresses these challenges and what the resulting consequences are for behavior.

One set of questions asks: what are the various cognitive processes that enable the mind to fill in gaps in the information available in our environments in order to make inferences and predictions – for example, about the contents of other people’s minds and the future outcomes of a decision — and under what circumstances are those different processes engaged? A second set of questions asks: how do the various processes that we can use for making those inferences, and the outputs that arise from them, affect our decisions? By addressing both of these sets of questions in a particular domain, we can start to create models that capture how the mind translates aspects of the social context into flexible behavior.

What are you hoping to achieve with your research?
The main scientific goal is to contribute new understanding of the basic mechanisms that allow people to adapt their behavior flexibly to different situations as they navigate the complexity of their social worlds. This means integrating ideas and approaches from areas that are often studied in relative isolation, including memory, future thinking, theory-of-mind, abstract reasoning, and decision-making. I’m working to forge meaningful connections between different levels of analysis, for example, not just to understand whether some region of the brain responds differently to x versus y but also to understand whether that difference is connected to how people think about x versus y and to what extent those differences in turn have a meaningful effect on how people behave toward x versus y, not only in controlled laboratory environments but also in the world at large.

Ultimately, these lines of basic research could have implications for several different areas. One is to better understand the nature and causes of disorders of social function, like the kinds of things that we see in developmental disorders like autism, degenerative disorders like frontotemporal dementia, or personality disorders like psychopathy. Another set of potential implications that I’ve started working on recently is in the domain of artificial intelligence. One of the big challenges in AI is to get artificial intelligence systems to have any kind of social intelligence. Some of the work that we’ve been doing recently takes steps toward bridging the gap between socially-unaware artificial intelligence and artificial intelligence that, for better or worse, might be able to “think” about the social world in a way that more resembles what humans do. A third set of implications [regards] our understanding of outcomes at the societal level. By better understanding the mechanisms that operating inside individual people’s heads, we’re able to predict particular societal outcomes.

What excites you most about your work?
I would say I’m equally excited by the structure and content of the scientific questions themselves and by the process of working together with students and other collaborators to answer them. I’m fascinated by the processes in the brain that enable us to transcend our own immediate, first-person perspective to imagine, predict, and make decisions about things that we haven’t seen, haven’t experienced, or can’t access directly. There’s a set of longstanding questions about the degree to which those processes are specialized for social cognition. Did these processes evolve for the purpose of navigating our social environments? Do they serve those functions specifically, or do they piggyback on more general-purpose cognitive mechanisms? And if so, what is the nature of those more basic cognitive mechanisms? A tremendous puzzle that has excited me from day one surrounds the role of a particular set of brain regions, known as the default mode network, and particularly one region in this network, the medial prefrontal cortex. Ultimately, though, I think working on these questions is worthwhile and exciting not only for the more immediate contributions to scientific understanding but also for the opportunities it provides to train, support, and collaborate with people who will be making those contributions in the future.

What has been your favorite interdisciplinary collaboration?
The work that I’m going to talk about [in the MindCORE seminar series] is actually the product of a fantastic interdisciplinary collaboration. I was coming from a background in social cognitive neuroscience, where I spent most of my time thinking about how we make inferences about other people’s minds, and I worked with a collaborator with a background in economics, who has a lot of experience thinking about how people make decisions. By integrating insights and approaches from these two fields, we were able to come up with a new class of models and make contributions to both that neither one could have done alone. On the economics side, we’re able to dramatically improve the degree to which computational models can explain and predict people’s social behavior. On the psychology side, we’ve generated new insights into how stereotypes modulate core computations underlying decisions about how to treat other people. That was really the product of two different disciplines coming together and trying to forge a meaningful connection, and it has been surprisingly fruitful.

What surprised you most about working in this field or in academia?
I guess the biggest surprise relative to day one as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed grad student is just how long it takes to even begin to answer a question that you have. You can have an idea, even a complex or nuanced one, in the blink of an eye, but it can sometimes take years to design a set of studies and marshal the evidence to even begin to have traction on the degree to which that idea might be right or wrong. I tend to have lots of ideas that I’d like to test. So, I think the relative timescale of thinking thoughts versus substantiating those thoughts empirically (or not substantiating them) is something that I probably failed to appreciate fully when I started. Of course, there have also been plenty of empirical findings that have surprised me, which is part of the joy of doing science.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?
One thing that I would say is to pick something and work on it intensely. Your first project doesn’t necessarily have to be the precise question that you most want to think about for your entire life or the one that is the biggest possible idea you can imagine, which means you don’t need to feel pressure to have figured out what those lifetime questions are before you get started. There will be time in your future career to pursue many other questions. But I think it is incredibly valuable to dive right in as deeply, as quickly, and as intensely as you can and have the experience of seeing some project through from beginning to end.

The other thing that I would say is try not to be too attached to any one idea, project, or person. The nature of science is that some ideas are likely to turn out to be right and others are not; some empirical approaches are likely to be useful and others are not. And you can’t always know those things ahead of time – which is of course why we need science in the first place. So, I think it’s important to be resilient to what might seem like failures and try to learn whatever you can from them in order to continue to make progress. On the other hand, starting out by finding an idea or a person’s work that you respect and find exciting is a great way to set yourself off on the right foot.

To find out more about Dr. Adrianna Jenkins’ work, you can read about her most recent research here.