As in our research on human memory, we tackle cognition in an active way that involves asking “What is it for?” instead of “What is cognition?”. We have shown that memory is tuned to specific fitness-relevant domains such as survival, the retention of animates (as compared to inanimates), finding a sexual partner, and retaining potential sources of contamination.
The goal is to understand the constraints and propensities of human memory. We approach decision processes similarly and have shown how irrational behavior can emerge from biologically evolved mechanisms in nonhumans. The same mechanisms that generate adaptive behavior can also generate deviations from rationality when the environment does not mirror the main statistical features of the environments to which behavior is adapted. Our contention is that such irrationalities are valuable tools to understand the adaptive significance of cognitive mechanisms. Our work on social-cognitive processing examines how feelings of familiarity influence cognitive processing and relate to how “ease information” is processed. A subjective experience of familiarity increases stereotyping and shapes judgments of truth across diferent contexts.
A ground-breaking contribution of our unit is the search for old and evolutionarily conserved chemosensory transmitters (body odors) that allow intraspecies communication (humans) and interspecies communication of emotions (from humans to pet dogs) by means of human odors produced under conditions of fear and happiness. Given the pivotal role of emotional processing in mental health, we have also studied the behavioral and neurophysiological substrates of emotional processes.
We use threatening stimuli that are deeply rooted in evolution (snakes and aggressive facial expressions of conspecifics) as a model and have demonstrated that the processing of these stimuli is prioritized over emotionally innocuous ones, even when presented in conditions escaping conscious access. In addition, the communicative function of human chemosensory stimuli has meant using body odors as context for emotional events, showing that they modulate arousal and cognitive-emotional skills.
A major accomplishment of the WJCR has been addressing broader translational research questions. We have initiated a broad research program to harness the applications of psychology for improving children’s and young adults’ skills and emotional adjustment and promoting their competencies and health. This can be seen in the projects that evolved in active collaboration between members of the WJCR and the Portuguese Ministries of Health and of Education, the World Health Organization, and some of the most relevant international organizations in the evaluation and development of programs for young people: TEMPEST, RICHE, Youths Sexual Violence, Health Behavior In School Aged Children, PISA-D, BePositive- Positive Youth Development, ES’COOL, Dream Teens, and so forth.
The format and methodologies of this research are quite diverse, including surveys, intervention programs, skills- and competency-promotion programs, health-promotion and disease-prevention programs, among many others. A related focus has been on psychological adjustment processes to personal or social crisis in diferent populations, including active aging, new forms of family, psychological adjustment in resettled refugees, posttraumatic growth in cancer, and food literacy.
This cluster focuses on family and peer influences on social development and on the psychobiological bases of social development. With respect to family and peer influences, the special interest is on (a) the role of the father and (b) a social-network perspective. We have shown that both security of attachment to the father and peer acceptance are significant predictors of children’s later self-esteem. The focus on social networks in preschool children has yielded a unique data set revealing that peer social competence is related to the type of social networks to which children belong. A further example is the outcome of research on 1453 children from the United States and Portugal (in collaboration with Prof. Brian Vaughn, Auburn University) showing that social engagement with peers is a fundamental aspect of social competence. The research on the psychobiological bases of social development supports the temporal consistency of salivary oxytocin measures in preschool children as well as the association between oxytocin levels and positive engagement with parents, specifically in play interactions with the father. These findings advance the importance of a relational network perspective on development.