Project 1: Social Mindfulness

Social mindfulness is being thoughtful of others in the present moment, and considering their needs and wishes before making a decision.  An example would be a situation where Paula and Peter enter the school canteen for a drink. While waiting for Peter to join, Paula sees that there is only one orange drink left, and three lemon drinks. If Paula wants to be polite, she’ll just order a lemon, so Peter has still something to choose from.  Straight-out ordering the orange drink without consulting Peter first would actually take this option away.

This example illustrates two important points.  First, social mindfulness represents low-cost cooperation. Second, social mindfulness involves a “social mind” that recognizes the needs and wishes of others in the present moment.  Without this, people may not even see the others’ preferences. The kind of prosocial behavior associated with social mindfulness requires that people (a) see what others may want, and (b) act accordingly. Research on social mindfulness has examined whether it is a product of automatic behavior, with no to very little thought, or deliberation, involving a fair amount of thought. While we initially had conceptualized it as behavior that involves some deliberation, evidence suggests that it could be either (e.g., Mischkowski et al.,  2018). Neuroscientific studies by our group have uncovered that consistent acts of social mindfulness and social hostility both involve the mentalizing network, but it is especially social hostility that involves strong activation of the prefrontal cortex (Lemmers-Janssen et al., 2018). Such evidence, while tentative, also suggests that it is especially the flip side of social mindfulness that involves deliberation. Clearly, these experiments capture a very basic topic – whether social mindfulness, as a form of low-cost cooperation, is “the default” or not.  New research may well uncover that people display social mindfulness (and perhaps alternative forms of kindness or politeness) with a large degree of automaticity, even though the boundary conditions need to be illuminated as well. This is exactly that the current research seeks to accomplish.

Selected publications

  • Lemmers-Jansen, I. L. J., Krabbendam, L., Amodio, D. M. , Van Doesum, N. J., Veltman, D. J., Van Lange, P. A. M. (2018).  Giving others the option of choice: An fMRI study on low-cost cooperation. Neuropsychologia, 109, 1-9.
  • Lemmers-Jansen, ILJ, Fett, AKJ, Van Doesum, NJ, Van Lange, PAM, Veltman, DJ & Krabbendam, L (2019), Social mindfulness and psychosis: Neural response to socially mindful behavior in first-episode psychosis and patients at clinical high-risk. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 47, 1-13.

Project 2: Improving ecological validity of developmental neuroimaging research

Modern neuroscience research, including neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electro-encephalography (EEG), has provided valuable insights that advanced our understanding of brain development as well as social and learning processes. However, translating such insights to real-life learning situations is not straightforward. One of the main challenges is the low ecological validity of neuroimaging studies.

In this project, we explore four approaches that increase the ecological validity of neuroimaging experiments: 1) using more naturalistic stimuli and tasks, 2) moving the research to more naturalistic settings by using portable neuroimaging devices (see project 3), 3) combining tightly controlled lab-based neuroimaging measurements with real-life variables and follow-up field studies, and 4) including stakeholders from the practice at all stages of the research. This project aims to optimize the use of neuroimaging approaches for SENSA to increase ecological validity of our studies and thereby their relevance and applicability to the learning practice and society.

Selected publications

  • van Atteveldt N., van Kesteren M.T.R., Braams B.R., Krabbendam L. (2018). “Neuroimaging of learning and development: improving ecological validity”. Frontline Learning Research Vol 6 No. 3 Special issue 186 -203.
  • Altikulaç S., Lee N.C., van der Veen C., Benneker I., Krabbendam L., van Atteveldt N. (2019). “The Teenage Brain: Public Perceptions of Neurocognitive Development during Adolescence”. Journal of cognitive neuroscience 31 (3), 339-359.

Project 3: Exploring the possibilities of portable neurotechnology for educational research and practice

In the past few decades, cognitive and educational neuroscience have produced a rich body of research on memory, learning and social interaction, but for the most part the translational value of this work to classroom practices has been limited. A major challenge for translation is that neuroscience research is typically conducted in artificial and highly controlled laboratory settings (see project 2). Interestingly, recent developments in portable neurotechnology (e.g. electroencephalography or EEG) now allow taking neuroscience research out of the lab and into working classrooms and other real-life settings. In SENSA, we explore and develop this technology particularly for the purpose of studying real-life social interactions in the context of learning and development. For example, portable EEG technology enables measuring brain activity from multiple children simultaneously while they interact, this is also called hyperscanning. In such experiments, the measure of interest is brain-to-brain synchronization. Higher synchronization between brains is associated with coordinated perception, joined attention and action, synchronization of cognitive processes and group engagement. 

Project 4: Veni project Jellie Sierksma

Migration is on the rise worldwide. Despite attempts to promote social solidarity, xenophobia and discrimination persist. Bias affects children from a young age onwards and has detrimental effects on their social and academic development. A promising solution is to encourage prosocial behavior across ethnic group boundaries. However, research findings on children’s interethnic prosociality are mixed: children sometimes help out-group peers less than in-group peers, but sometimes just as much or even more. In this project a new theoretical framework is examined in which it is argued that to truly understand how and when prosocial behavior can overcome prejudice and discrimination, scholars should move beyond the focus on more or less helping and instead examine the type of help children provide to in-group and out-group peers. The project proposes that helping can be a way to perpetuate existing status differences between groups: Children (6-12 years) might help out-groups in non-empowering ways (e.g., short-term solutions, correct answers) and this in turn might translates into low self-perceived ability in those that receive help. Combining insights from developmental, social and educational psychology, a new theoretical framework is tested using innovative behavioral methods across novel and actual ethnic groups.

Selected publications

  • Sierksma, J. & Shutts, K. (2019). When helping hurts: Children think groups that receive help are less smart. Child Development, in press.
  • Sierksma, J., Lansu, T.A.M., Karremans, J.C. ,& Bijlstra, G. (2018). Children’s helping behavior in an ethnic intergroup context: Evidence for outgroup helping. Developmental Psychology, 54, 916-928. Doi: 10.1037/dev0000478.

Project 5: Veni project Barbara Braams

Adolescence is a period associated with an increase in risk-taking behavior. Risk-taking behavior can be expressed in many ways, such as drinking alcohol, reckless driving and risky sexual behavior. Although some amount of risk taking behaviour is normative and necessary for development, excessive amounts of risk taking can have long-lasting adverse consequences for health. 

My previous work and the work in the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience in general has provided insight into the mechanisms of risky decision making in adolescence. The next step is to bring this work from the lab to the real world.

In this project we focus on explicitly testing which lab measures best relate to real-world behavior. We use daily diaries to assess real-life behavior in combination with a set of different measures and tasks in the lab to test which of these measures best relates to real-life behavior. Excessive risk taking can be prevented with tailored intervention programs. To target the delivery of these prevention efforts to those individuals who would benefit most, it is essential to identify which individuals are at risk for excessive risk taking.

More information about the project (in Dutch) can be found at

Selected publications

  • Braams, B.R., van Duijvenvoorde, A.C., Peper, J.S., & Crone, E.A. (2015). Longitudinal changes in adolescent risk-taking: a comprehensive study of neural responses to rewards, pubertal development, and risk-taking behavior. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(18), 7226-7238. Link to pdf.
  • Braams, B.R., Davidow, J.Y., & Somerville, L.H. (2019). Developmental patterns of change in the influence of safe and risky peer choices on risky decision‐making. Developmental science, 22(1), e12717. Link to pdf.

PhD project 1 – Rebecca van Rijn: Adolescent prosocial risk taking: the effect of social context


Adolescence is a time of life associated with increases in risk taking behavior. Risk taking behavior is a product of a complex interplay of different factors, including influences from the social context. Real life statistics have shown that adolescents especially show increased risk taking when they are with their peers. For instance, adolescent risky driving is increased by 200% when one peer is in the car and 250% when there are two or more peers in the car. This effect has also been shown in laboratory studies showing increases in risk taking behavior in a social context where peers are present and observing behavior. This effect is most pronounced in the adolescent age group. These studies show that peers can have an influence on adolescent decision making.

Most of the focus on risk taking behavior in adolescence has been on negative effects of risky behavior. However, recent insights indicate that increases in risk taking can also be in the prosocial and positive risk taking domain. Prosocial risk taking behavior is defined as behavior that benefits another person, but also comes with a risk for the social status, a financial risk, or a physical health risk. The focus of this project is to understand how sensitivity to the social context is related to prosocial risk taking behavior. Understanding the influence of the social context on prosocial risk taking can be of great value for encouraging prosocial behavior among adolescents.

Selected publications:

  • Do, K. T., Moreira, J. F. G., & Telzer, E. H. (2017). But is helping you worth the risk? Defining prosocial risk taking in adolescence. Developmental cognitive neuroscience25, 260-271.
  • Armstrong-Carter, E., Do, K. T., Moreira, J. F. G., Prinstein, M. J., & Telzer, E. H. (2021). Examining a new prosocial risk-taking scale in a longitudinal sample of ethnically diverse adolescents. Journal of adolescence93, 222-233.

Postdoc project – TuongVan Vu: How prosociality is learned on the individual and group levels

Background and goal:

The focus of this project is to investigate decision-making processes related to prosocial and sustainable behaviors (e.g. social mindfulness behaviors and environment-protecting behaviors) both on the individual level and the group level. How, from whom, and in which environment do children and young adolescents acquire an understanding for these types of prosociality and learn to perform such prosocial behaviors? Methodologically, this project aims to integrate insights from social psychology, developmental psychology, behavioral economics, and cultural anthropology. The aim is to gain an interdisciplinary perspective on decision-making processes on the individual level as well as the emergence and social learning of (sustainable and prosocial) behaviors on the group levels (e.g., family, school, community, etc.). On the individual level, the mechanisms by which sustainable and prosocial behaviors could be learned will be studied using insights from formal modeling of social decision-making and social learning processes borrowed from behavioral economics and cultural evolution studies. On the group level, first, investigation will be made on the formation of cooperative, future, and collective mindsets (based on previous works of Prof. Paul van Lange). Second, implicit theories about one’s ability (i.e. having a fixed vs. growth mindset) will also be studied to explore possible influences on target population’s decision-making (based on previous works of Prof. Nienke van Atteveldt). For example, only those who hold growth beliefs about one’s capacity for contributing against climate change or discrimination may execute these behaviors. Understanding the processes involved in how such prosocial and sustainable behaviors are learned will pave the way for how prosociality can be encouraged and incentivized.