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Researcher's Multidisciplinary Team Awarded Federal Grant to Study What Makes Humans Trust Each Other

Three-year project to involve cutting-edge human-robot social interactions

A multidisciplinary team lead by David DeSteno, Associate Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, has been awarded a $720,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate what mechanism individuals use to assess the trustworthiness of unfamiliar others.

The three-year project will utilize experiments involving both human-human and human-robot social interactions to uncover the microdynamics that underlie trust and cooperation in novel partnerships, which represent opportunities to expand economic and social networks.

“We believe that despite previous theories pointing to a small set of nonverbal cues as the key to unlocking the intentions of a partner, the mechanism that helps us judge the trustworthiness of others is based on a dynamic ‘dance’ whereby partners engage in nonconscious mimicry that, through the use of embodied mental representations, allows each partner to simulate the feelings of the other,” said DeSteno, Principal Investigator on the grant. “In short, mimicry not only informs intuitions about the trustworthiness of a partner, but as it iteratively unfolds, it can enhance cooperation through increasing feelings of empathy.”

The research team, comprised of internationally recognized experts in behavioral economics (Dr. Robert Frank, Cornell University), social robotics (Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, MIT Media Lab), and social psychology (David Pizarro, Cornell University), will integrate theoretical perspectives and methodologies from several disciplines in an attempt to uncover the intuitive and nonconscious psychological processes that lead individuals to make accurate judgments about the trustworthiness of novel partners, and, thereby, engage in the initial phases of relationship building.

DeSteno’s team will carry out eight studies designed to examine the interplay of emitted nonverbal cues, mimicry, and embodied representations in decisions to trust within the context of playing behavioral economic games. Several experiments will include the use of newly developed social robots as interaction partners for humans. The robot will predict the trustworthiness of human partners based on “embodying” their actions in its own simulators.

The researchers believe that by putting their theories to the test, they will potentially offer a paradigm shift for investigations with respect to studying how the human mind is designed to deal with the central adaptive challenge of whom to trust.

“Our research will not only have scientific impact for several fields of scholarship, the collaborations will lead to building interdisciplinary infrastructures for studying many phenomena relevant to human social interaction,” added DeSteno.

The team plans not only to disseminate findings across several scientific disciplines, but to the public at large. The individual prior work of the respective scientists has been repeatedly featured in major media outlets,including The New York Times, Newsweek, and ABC News.

The grant is part of the 2008 competition in the NSF’s Human Social Dynamics (HSD) Priority Area. The HSD initiative seeks to encourage research by multidisciplinary teams in order to stimulate breakthroughs in knowledge concerning human action and development as well as organizational, cultural, and societal adaptation and change.

For more information, please contact Renata Nyul at 617-373-7424 or at

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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

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