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Difficulty with emotions and lack of trust: Mariska Kret's Vidi research

‘What a relief,’ was psychologist Mariska Kret’s reaction to the news of her Vidi grant from the national science financier NWO. The grant makes it possible for her to carry out new research into emotions and trust in patients with a social anxiety disorder and patients with autism.

Emotions are important when making decisions based on trust, as a decision is often made on the basis of a feeling. Which of your fellow travellers do you ask to watch your bag for you? Which crèche do you trust with your child’s welfare? We make decisions based on trust every day. But what if you find it difficult to recognise emotions? Or, indeed, to trust people. That is why Kret is interested in researching the link between emotions and trust in patients with a social anxiety disorder and patients with autism. Is that related to whether or not someone can effectively mirror emotions?

Recognising emotions and building trust

The Vidi grant offers a great follow-up to Kret’s Veni research into recognising emotions and building trust, which she expects to complete in October after three years spent measuring emotions in healthy people through pupil mirroring. For that research, she has conducted a variety of experiments in the lab and expanded the study to include activities outside the university. Her research group CoPAN (Comparative Psychology and Affective Neuroscience) collected data from a dating experiment during the Lowlands music festival. The experiment also yielded several dates at Leiden’s Nacht van Kunst en Kennis (‘Night of Arts and Science’), as well as a wealth of data that confirmed their hypotheses. Mirroring not only builds trust; it also increases a person’s attractiveness. The better the match between the physiological reactions of the test subjects in the time allowed, the more likely they were to exchange mobile numbers.

Emotions and connection in a clinical setting

Kret explains: ‘My new research focuses on the same kind of measurements of emotions, but this time translated to clinical practice. Synchronisation of pupil size sparks activity in parts of the brain related to social activity, suggesting that it is a simple connecting mechanism. We see it in adults, apes and babies. But because the link between emotions and trust is so strong, it can be helpful to measure emotions and connection in a clinical setting. What do you do with other people’s emotions? How do you process them? People with autism and social anxiety find it difficult to make eye contact. How do they manage, considering the subtle information contained in interactions with other people? Maybe they get it elsewhere. Earlier research with students has shown that people with social anxiety gain information from hand gestures, so I want to broaden the measurements to include body language, blushing and the synchronisation of physiological responses.’ 

A stressful path

Cognitive psychologist Kret is not afraid to look beyond her own discipline. She travelled all the way to Japan for a post-doc position, after which she transferred her Veni from Amsterdam to Leiden, where she has full freedom to develop her lab group. Kret also conducts research into how great apes process emotions. She received an international Templeton grant for this research, on the recommendation of no less a personage than ape expert Frans de Waal. In Apenheul, Evy van Berlo is carrying out a project with bonobos and orang-utans. Kret encourages her young team members to join in the scientific race: ‘It’s a stressful path, but go for it.’ For her part, Kret can now take on two post-docs and two or three PhD candidates.

Alone and afraid: Emotional disorders in social anxiety en autism

Patients with social anxiety disorder and autism spectrum disorders have difficulties trusting others. Trust often depends on the accurate recognition of emotional expressions, something patients also find difficult. The current project investigates whether both deficits can be explained by an underlying deficiency, namely, in the mimicry of expressions.
NWO-Vidi of 800.000 euro for 86 researchers

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