Brock researchers receive Insight Grants from SSHRC

Why is it that we clench our fists and growl when a mean, unpleasant acquaintance gets a promotion at work? Or we feel a sense of despair when our kind and considerate neighbour is injured in a car accident?

It’s mainly because the outcomes of these two situations do not match the behaviour of the people involved; in other words, good things happening to “bad” people and bad things happening to “good” people, says psychology professor Carolyn Hafer.

“People have a real need to see that the world is a place where people get what they deserve,” explains Hafer, whose research focuses on the “psychology of deservingness.” Such a belief system enables people to invest in long-term goals, relationships and function effectively in everyday life: “You don’t want to think that the world is a place where something horrible and random can happen to you.”

Hafer’s research program – “New directions in the psychology of deservingness” – is one of nine research programs at Brock University to receive funding under the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)’s Insight Grants program.

In this latest round, announced December 19, Brock University received more than $1.52 million over five years in Insight Grants, more than a tripling of the $435,865 Brock received in 2012. As well, the number of successful Brock research programs more than doubled, from four in 2012 to nine in 2013.

“We are very proud of the contributions our researchers are making to enrich our understanding of culture and societies,” says Associate Vice-President Research (Social Sciences and Humanities) Kevin Kee.

“Their cutting-edge research paves the way for innovative insights, improving the lives of many. Our boost in funding successes for SSHRC’s Insight Grant program further fuels our research intensiveness.”

With her $230,310 Insight Grant, Hafer has teamed up with psychology professor Sid Segalowitz, director of the Jack And Nora Walker Centre For Lifespan Development Research, to study how deeply engrained deservingness is in human psychology.

The team will present research participants with short stories of people being victims of, or benefitting from, injustices. An electrode net placed on research participants’ scalps will record brain activity of how quickly they pick up on – and react to – information contained in the stories. Electrodes placed on participants’ faces will measure facial movements associated with emotions.

“The faster the reactions, the more deeply engrained will be the psychology of deservedness,” says Hafer.

Another Brock research program to receive Insight Grant funding is psychology professor Catherine Mondloch’s research on how children read the emotions of people they encounter in everyday situations where peoples’ faces and bodies are moving around.

Emotion perception studies are usually conducted in laboratories, where children are shown photographs of people displaying various facial expressions and are then asked to describe how those people are feeling. But Mondloch is keen to take her and her team’s emotion perception research to the next level.

“If you just show isolated, static heads in the research, you are ignoring body posture and other contextual cues that we use on a daily basis to show exactly how people are feeling,” says Mondloch.

With its $314,100 Insight Grant, the Mondloch team will be using cutting-edge technology to simulate situations where emotions may not be displayed clearly.

“We can take a moving head that looks happy and put it on a moving body that looks scared – no one’s been able to do that before,” she says. The team will also, among other things, compare how various cultures identify emotions from facial and body cues.

The other research programs to be awarded Insight Grants are:

• Making/re-making Canadian families: a visual, narrative, and longitudinal study of family practices and family photographs, Andrea Doucet

• Novice ESL teacher induction in the first year of teaching, Thomas Farrell
• Greek prostitutes in context: a history of sexual labour in Ancient Athens, Allison Glazebrook
• Working holiday migrants: tourists, temporary workers, citizens, Jane Helleiner
• Young people and sport in the stigmatized neighbourhood, Erin Sharpe
• Remembering forced conscripts: the politics of memory in postwar Western Europe, Elizabeth Vlossak
• The course of academic achievement and psychosocial adjustment during and after university: processes of risk and resilience, and links to post-university outcomes, Teena Willoughby

Mondloch says previous SSHRC funding has allowed her team to create five methods of determining emotion perception and conduct innovative experiments, such as measuring how children assess, and identify, an emotion from a “neutral” face that is devoid of emotion.

“That was our great joy in receiving that money, that we can build on what we’ve been doing,” she says. “We have such a goldmine of protocols right now. We can complete what we’ve started.”

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