October 2, 2018

The Anxiety of Decision

Professor Dominic Fareri Explores the Origins of Social Interaction

Dominic Fareri, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, knows that when people make even the smallest decision—such as whether to eat a salad or burger for lunch—their actions can be traced back to their early life history. Those decisions are the building blocks of Dr. Fareri’s work. “My research seeks to understand how the social contexts of our daily environment shape our decisions,” he explained. Dr. Fareri has studied a diverse sampling of children and adults in order to parse the connection between life experience and decision-making.

In an article published in the December 2017 issue of Development and Psychopathology, “Altered ventral striatalmedial prefrontal cortex resting-state connectivity mediates adolescent social problems after early institutional care,” Dr. Fareri and six university collaborators looked at a group of children with a history of early-life adversity. The children they studied had been raised for a period of time under institutionalized care and were subsequently adopted into stable families at a relatively young age. “We were trying to understand differences in not just brain function, but emotional development as a function of those differences in early-life rearing conditions,” said Dr. Fareri.

A sampling of children and adolescents from both typical (brought up in relatively stable homes) and atypical family structures underwent functional MRI scanning. According to the authors of the research results, the participants were asked to “quickly locate a negative target (fearful face) or positive target (happy face) in an array of neural distractor stimuli (neutral faces)” during the MRI.

The researchers found that previously institutionalized youths exhibited “greater anxiety symptomology” when compared to youths with a more typical family structure. Dr. Fareri, who worked on this project as part of his postdoctoral research, said the results were in line with his expectations. “The atypical experience of previously institutionalized youths, which often involves potential threats in the environment, made this group likely to show more robust brain responses to possible threatening versus nonthreatening targets, and to respond to them,” he noted.

One of Dr. Fareri’s current studies explores the effects and outcomes of risk-taking behavior. “We are looking to see if people’s baseline tendencies to engage in risky choices will change as a function of if they are making those choices for themselves, or if they’re making them for another person, or, importantly, if they are making choices in which risks will be shared with another person,” he said. “Perhaps you’re thinking about going to a party. You have a couple of drinks and you get into your car with a friend. We’re trying to understand how the immediate social context created by peers affects decision-making.”

The interplay of risk, challenging early-life history and anxiety is a hallmark of Dr. Fareri’s work. “I’m interested in people with atypical early-life histories, because not only are they often at higher risk for things like anxiety and other internalizing and externalizing behaviors, they also have difficulty maintaining successful social relationships throughout their whole lives.”

According to Dr. Fareri, research on social decision-making can be applied to other types of investigations. “We’re trying to see if there are individual differences in people’s propensity to want to engage in social interactions as a function of negative experiences they had early in life,” he said. “This could extend into thinking about things like individuals with autism or spectrum disorders or people who have social difficulties along those lines. How might they value social interactions and social experiences differently than people with typical history and typical development?”

Next, Dr. Fareri will be working with colleagues at The City College of New York. “We’re examining social processing in individuals with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “This is related to this idea of adverse social experiences at some point in life and trying to better categorize it in a more specific clinical population.”

In the three years since Dr. Fareri began teaching at Adelphi, he’s had the opportunity to engage students through his research projects. “I have a great graduate student who’s carrying out some of this work for me. We’re looking at how people place value on different types of rewarding experiences and trying to link that with aspects of their social lives,” he said. “One of the things I enjoy about this career and job is the ability to teach students how to do research, how to go about designing a project and programming an experiment—doing everything from start to finish. That’s something I take a lot of pride in.”

“My research seeks to understand how the social contexts of our daily environment shape our decisions.”

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