It would normally take two students to do the research that Setayesh Radkani is doing.
Driven by an insatiable curiosity about the human mind, she worked on two doctoral dissertation projects in two different cognitive neuroscience labs at MIT. On the one hand, it studies punishment as a social tool for influencing others. On the other hand, it reveals the neural processes underlying social learning—that is, learning from others. By bringing these two research programs together, Radkani hopes to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie social influence in the mind and brain.
Radkhani has lived in Iran for most of her life, growing up with her younger brother in Tehran. The two spent a lot of time together and have been best friends for a long time. Her father is a civil engineer and her mother is a midwife. Her parents always encouraged her to explore new things and follow her own path, even if it wasn’t exactly what they envisioned for her. And her uncle helped cultivate her sense of curiosity by teaching her to “always ask why” as a way to understand how the world works.
Growing up, Radkani most enjoyed learning about human psychology and using mathematics to model the world around him. But he found it impossible to combine his two interests. Prioritizing mathematics, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Sharif Technical University in Iran.
Then, at the end of his undergraduate studies, Radkani took a course in psychology and discovered the field of cognitive neuroscience, in which scientists mathematically model the human mind and brain. She also spent a summer working in a computational neuroscience lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Seeing a way to combine her interests, she decided to orient herself and pursue the subject in graduate school.
The experience of leading a project in her engineering ethics course during her final year of undergraduate studies further helped her discover some of the questions that would eventually form the basis of her Ph.D. The project investigates why some students cheat and how to change this.
“Through this project, I learned how complex it is to understand the reasons why people engage in immoral behavior, and even more complex is how to design policies and respond to these situations to change people’s attitudes” , says Radkani. “This experience made me realize that I was interested in the study of the human social and moral mind.”
She began looking into social cognitive neuroscience research and came across a fitting TED talk by Rebecca Sachs, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, who would eventually become one of Radkani’s scientific advisors. Radkani immediately knew he wanted to work with Sachs. But she first had to get into the BCS doctoral program at MIT, a challenging hurdle given her minimal experience in the field.
After two rounds of applications and a year of courses in cognitive neuroscience, Radkani was accepted into the program. But to come to MIT, she had to leave her family behind. Coming from Iran, Radkhani has a single-entry visa, making it difficult for her to travel outside the US. She hasn’t been able to visit her family since she started her PhD and won’t be able to at least until she finishes. Her visa also limits her research contributions, restricting her from attending conferences outside the US. “It’s definitely a huge burden on my education and my mental health,” she says.
Still, Radkani is grateful to be at MIT, satisfying her curiosity about the human social mind. And she’s thankful for her supportive family, whom she calls on FaceTime every day.
Modeling the way people think about punishment
In Sacks’ lab, Radkani studies how people approach and respond to punishment through behavioral studies and neuroimaging. Synthesizing these findings, she developed a computational model of the mind that characterizes how people make decisions in situations involving punishment, such as when a parent disciplines a child, when someone punishes their romantic partner, or when the criminal justice system convicts a defendant. With this model, Radkani says he hopes to better understand “when and why punishment works to change behavior and influence beliefs about right and wrong, and why it sometimes fails.”
Punishment is not a new research topic in cognitive neuroscience, Radkani says, but in previous studies, scientists have often focused only on people’s behavior in punitive situations and failed to consider the thought processes that underlie those behaviors. However, characterizing these thought processes is key to understanding whether punishment in a given situation can be effective in changing people’s attitudes.
People put their previous beliefs into a penal situation. In addition to moral beliefs about the appropriateness of various behaviors, “you have beliefs about the characteristics of the people involved and you have theories about their intentions and motivations,” Radkani says. “They all add up to determine what you do or how you’re affected by the punishment,” given the circumstances. Punishers decide on appropriate punishment based on their interpretation of the situation, in light of their beliefs. The targets of the punishment then decide whether they will change their attitudes as a result of the punishment, depending on their own beliefs. Even outside observers make decisions, choosing whether to maintain or change their moral beliefs based on what they see.
To capture these decision-making processes, Radkani is developing a computational model of the mind for criminal situations. The model mathematically represents people’s beliefs and how they interact with certain features of the situation to shape their decisions. The model then predicts the punisher’s decisions and how the punishment will affect the target and observers. Through this model, Radkani will provide a basic understanding of how people think in different penal situations.
Exploring the neural mechanisms of social learning
In parallel, working in Professor Mehrdad Jazayeri’s lab, Radkani studied social learning, uncovering its underlying neural processes. Through social learning, people learn from other people’s experiences and decisions and incorporate this socially acquired knowledge into their own decisions or beliefs.
Humans are exceptional in their capacity for social learning, but our primary form of learning, shared by all other animals, is learning from personal experience. To explore how learning from others is similar to or different from learning from our own experiences, Radkani designed a two-player video game that incorporates both types of learning. During the game, she and her collaborators in Jazaieri’s lab recorded neural activity in the brain. By analyzing these neural measurements, they plan to reveal the computations performed by neural circuits during social learning and compare them to learning from one’s own experience.
Radkani first became curious about this comparison as a way to understand why people sometimes draw contrasting conclusions from very similar situations. “For example, if I get Covid from going to a restaurant, I’ll blame the restaurant and say it’s not clean,” says Radkani. “But if I hear the same thing happening to my friend, I’m going to say it’s because they weren’t paying attention.” Radcani wanted to understand the root causes of this discrepancy in how other people’s experiences influence our beliefs and judgments about in a different way than our own similar experiences, especially because it can lead to “mistakes that color the way we judge other people,” she says.
By combining her two research projects, Radkani hopes to better understand how social influence works, especially in moral situations. From there, she has a host of research questions she is eager to explore, including: How do people choose whom to trust? And what types of people tend to be the most influential? As Radkani’s research grew, so did her curiosity.