September 25, 2015

In Friends We Trust

Why trust your friends? Dominic Fareri, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Adelphi’s Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, was part of a select group of cognitive neuroscientists to design a study to look for an answer. 

Plenty of research over the years has examined trust as a construct, Dr. Fareri said, but most of it looked at trust from the perspective of learning about somebody new. Much less has been done around trust in relation to existing friends


Dominic Fareri, Ph.D., assistant professor at Adelphi’s Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies

To explore that particular angle, Dr. Fareri and his colleagues designed a trust game—a paradigm drawn from behavioral economics––that included a social relationship manipulation. At the start of each trial, after being placed in a neuroimaging scanner, each participant was given $1 and could then decide to keep it all or share/invest it with their assigned partner: alternately a close friend, a stranger or a computer. If the person chose to share the money—a sign of trust—the partner would get triple the amount ($3), which they could share evenly with the participant or keep all for themselves.

As expected, participants trusted their friends significantly more. Dr. Fareri and his team found that the reason was not so much the prior history with the friend—as others have previously theorized—but the social value of the friendship bond. That was a reward in itself, as neuroimaging and computational modeling of participants’ decisions revealed. “We found areas of the brain in the reward circuit were more active when the friend reciprocated trust than when the stranger or computer did,” Dr. Fareri said. “The brain seems to be involved in computations of social reward” that take into account close relationships.

That fact can explain some of the reasons we continue to trust people in daily life and how our relationships can influence our behavior, he added. “There’s something unique and rewarding about relationships; they can carry extra value that influences how we behave.”

Using neuroscience in this way—to help us understand our everyday interactions—is Dr. Fareri’s main research interest. New to Adelphi this semester, he was drawn in part by the uniqueness of the Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies. “Other schools have psychology departments, but the fact that this is a separate school—it’s one of the only places I know of,” he said. He looks forward to playing a role in Adelphi’s new neuroscience program, and he is excited about the mix of faculty who are his new colleagues. “There’s a strong clinical focus but also faculty interested in the social and developmental questions I’m interested in,” he said, and he anticipates future collaboration and brainstorming. 

Dr. Fareri hopes to devise courses tailored around questions in social neuroscience, decision-making and the brain. “In terms of research, I’d like to pursue related questions so students who come to work with me in the lab would get to experience running experiments looking at social factors and decision-making,” he said. Rewards pertaining to social media also interest him—Facebook and Instagram could provide considerable research material there—and he hopes to explore how those are working in our brains these days, as he finds ways to apply the tools of neuroscience to our daily lives. 

Read the abstract of Dr. Fareri’s study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.


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