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Two new women professors at Psychology Institute

Ellen de Bruijn and Berna Güroğlu, both of the Psychology Institute, have been proposed for professorships by the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Güroğlu: ‘I feel honoured that the University has approved the appointment.’ De Bruijn: ‘It’s great, and really motivating, that Leiden University is doing its best to promote equality in the numbers of women professors.’ Güroğlu and De Bruijn are both passionate about their research.

Ellen de Bruijn, professor in Neurocognitive Clinical Psychology

Ellen de Bruijn

De Bruijn sees many new opportunities for putting her research in the field of clinical psychology on the map. Her line of research combines her knowledge of cognitive neuroscience, clinical, and social psychology. De Bruijn explains: ‘Particularly in multidisciplinary research it is important to foster close contacts between the various research domains, because these sorts of interactions often give rise to new insights.’ For her research in clinical populations De Bruijn works closely with mental health institutions, the LUBEC (Leiden University Treatment Expertise Centre), and several forensic psychiatric centres. She sets up EEG laboratories on location to gather data about research populations who are otherwise difficult to access.


De Bruijn’s research does not focus on a specific condition; rather the symptoms take centre stage. ‘Given that a certain symptom often plays a role in various different disorders, my research is trans-diagnostic. It takes its starting point in a particular neurocognitive process that may play an important role in the emergence of a specific symptom.’ De Bruijn wants to situate those neurocognitive processes in a social context: ‘This as an essential step, in my view. Until recently we mainly approached conditions from a non-social context, looking for possible disruptions in the relevant processes. But nearly all mental health conditions are also characterized by problems with social functioning. To really get to the bottom of a given disorder, then, we need to examine the processes involved in a social context.’

Social context

One of the processes central to De Bruijn’s research is that of making mistakes. ‘We all make mistakes, but different people deal with their mistakes very differently. What is going on in these different brains at this point? And what happens if the mistakes occur in a social context?’ De Bruijn cites the example of speed skater Sven Kramer’s lane-changing mistake at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. ‘It makes quite a difference whether you make a mistake when you’re on your own or when millions of people are looking on. Or whether your mistake has unpleasant consequences for someone else. One of the greatest fears of people with a social anxiety disorder is making a mistake in the presence of others. Individuals with psychopathy, on the other hand, are primarily focused on achieving their own goals and don’t take very much notice of whether their behaviour has negative consequences for others. So we need to take the social context into account if we are to understand these conditions better and identify precisely these symptoms.’


De Bruijn also sees possibilities for applying a symptom-oriented approach in teaching. ‘It’s much easier for students to make connections between various conditions if they understand that the same symptoms can play a role in several disorders. And certainly if they realize that shared processes and neural mechanisms may underlie these symptoms. A symptom like impulsiveness, for instance, occurs in various conditions and can be seen as a result of disturbances in the system in our brain that detects mistakes.’

Berna Güroğlu, professor in the Neuroscience of Social Relations

Berna Güroğlu

Developmental psychologist Güroğlu is fascinated by relationships of children and adolescents, especially with their peers. In her research she analyses behaviour within social interactions, measuring this behaviour in the form of decisions that have consequences for oneself and others. She uses economic games in which players are asked to share money between themselves and another player. Players are asked to choose between a distribution of two coins for themselves and none for the other player, or one coin for each player. What do you choose if the other player is your best friend? And does it change your decision if the other player is a classmate you really don’t like? 

Brain development and social behaviour in various relationships

Güroğlu researches social behaviour in relation to brain development. As a neuroscientist, she uses an fMRI scanner to study the brain activity during social interactions. What brain areas play a role in these types of decisions? Güroğlu explains: ‘We now know that adolescence is a period in which our brains undergo important development. I want to investigate the links between brain development and social behaviour by examining these links in the context of various relationships. In my research I look not only at relationships between two individuals, but also at group processes such as young people’s status within their school class. We know, for example, that there are differences in social behaviour of children and adolescents who are liked by their classmates and those who are rejected or excluded. I’m interested in the neural processes that play a role here.

Learning with your friends, learning from your friends

In the course of adolescence, social interactions and relationships become increasingly important. When young people go to school, it’s not always all about schoolwork. Sometimes all the social interactions with friends and classmates are even more important than the lessons themselves. Güroğlu is struck by how little we know about how the social context in which young people learn influences their learning processes. In the future she wants to focus on the role of relationships in learning – like learning with friends, for instance. Do children and adolescents learn better if they are with their best friend, because this is motivating  or is this distracting? And of course this is highly relevant for teachers and schools: the learning environment of children and adolescents is an highly social context, with a high level of distraction from friends and peers. If we have a better understanding of the learning processes in this social context, we may be able to use this knowledge to optimize young people’s learning environments of individuals.