Northeastern University Psychologist Awarded NSF Grant to Explore How Emotions Compel Humans to Build Reciprocal Relationships

Contact: John Natale at 617-373-2802

(3-19-07) BOSTON, Mass. – A political candidate finds a briefcase full of damaging information on his opponent. While the candidate could surely capitalize by making this information public, he chooses not to. The reason: his opponent helped him two weeks prior by sticking up for him on television.

What causes this reciprocity? Is it an adherence to social code or an innate drive to do what is right?

Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno believes it’s the latter, and he just received a $340,000 National Science Foundation grant to prove it. Through a series of experiments, De Steno intends to show that when a person repays a favor, the catalyst may not be a pre-calculated motive; in fact, it may be an instinctive emotional state designed to help humans address challenges related to establishing trust and support.

Emotions guide the way humans think and act, when required to make a choice between conflicting values. According to DeSteno, his study will illustrate the distinctive role emotions play in compelling people to strengthen social bonds through acts of generosity. Subjects will be placed in scenarios where their gratitude is manipulated by risk-posing variables which may or may not counter their inclination to repay favors. For instance, participants will be forced to choose between helping others to whom they feel grateful (and accepting little economic reward), or severing ties with these people to pursue more lucrative options.

“Contrary to popular belief, our emotions aren’t there to distract us from making logical decisions,” explains DeSteno. “In fact, they often help guide us to the right ones. Something deep inside compels us to stick our necks out for others, even when faced with personal risk.
My study will explore what drives humans to bypass those risks and do the right thing.”

DeSteno’s three-year NSF grant starts in July 2007, and was awarded to him based on his previous research on reciprocity, which was published in the April 2006 edition of Psychological Science. This research provided some of the first-ever evidence identifying gratitude as a unique emotional response designed to foster and maintain reciprocal exchanges.

DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern, expects to complete the projected series of experiments over the next three years. His previous research on the behavioral influence of emotions has been published frequently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and Psychological Science, and includes studies on gratitude, jealousy, prejudice, and moral decision-making. His latest study, “Moral hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibility of Virtue” will appear in the August 2007 edition of Psychological Science.

About Northeastern: Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit