Social Affiliation and Bonding

Much of my current research is informed by theoretical concepts I began developing in graduate school (e.g., Simpson, Beckes, & Weisberg, 2007) beginning with my efforts toward integrating neurobiological and social models of attachment.  Out of this theoretical work I developed a paradigm to test hypotheses regarding the roles of threat and responsiveness in the development of secure attachment schemata (Beckes, Simpson, & Erickson, 2010). This paradigm, which I refer to as social regulatory conditioning involves repeatedly presenting individuals with a threat and having a target individual display warm social signals after the threat is removed (one can think of it as a classical conditioning version of negative reinforcement). Through these experiments I confirmed the hypothesis that people develop secure associations with pictures of strangers if the pictures repeatedly follow an implicit presentation of a negative, threatening stimulus, and if the strangers display nonverbal signals of social warmth. These studies provided some of the most direct experimental evidence that a distress-relief dynamic supports secure social bonding (c.f., Beckes & Coan, in press).

More recently I have begun directly exploring the neuro-biological correlates of this effect using electroencephalography (EEG) and event related potential (ERP) analyses. In this work we have found evidence that social regulatory conditioning produces early attentional biases to conditioned faces, much like those found for images of ingroup members (Beckes, Coan, & Morris, under review). In future work I hope to neurally localize this learning process via fMRI and discern the involvement of neuro-peptides such as oxytocin and endogenous opioids.