A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation


Project 1: Jessica Andrews-Hanna and Joanna Arch

Project Title: Large-Scale Momentary Experience Sampling and Neurocognitive Mechanisms of Functional and Dysfunctional Prospective Thought

Abstract: Rather than being psychologically constrained to the present environment, humans have the remarkable capacity to transcend the here-and-now through the process of mental simulation. Prospective thinking – the act of mentally simulating the future – occupies a sizable portion of self-generated cognition and facilitates our capacity to effectively prepare for upcoming events and promote future well-being. Despite the adaptive potential of a future-oriented mind, however, prospective thinking in the form of repetitive worry about the future can fuel distress and poor mental health. We will perform two studies that pave the way towards ultimately promoting adaptive prospection by (a) broadly characterizing how prospective thinking functions in daily life and (b) assessing the neurocognitive mechanisms that define and distinguish adaptive prospective thinking from its less adaptive forms. In Study 1, we will develop a mobile smartphone application to establish normative estimates of the content, consequences, and correlates of prospective thinking in daily life across a large diverse sample (N=1000+). In Study 2, we will elucidate the neurocognitive underpinnings of adaptive relative to less adaptive prospective thinking by examining, across 28 healthy adults and 28 anxious adults, how prospective thinking dynamically unfolds across large-scale brain systems, and how these brain patterns relate to the content and consequences of prospective thinking in the laboratory and in daily life. By simultaneously defining and distinguishing adaptive prospection at levels of brain and behavior, these studies will provide a rigorous scientific platform to promote adaptive prospection, leading to happier, more productive, and more virtuous lives.

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Project 2: Fiery Cushman

Project Title: Social Prospection: A Predictive Coding Model of Mental State Inference

Abstract: For humans, success and even survival depend upon our ability to guess what others will do before they do it. Social prospection, the ability to reason about the possible future actions of others, relies on ability to make inferences about an internal, unobservable causal structure: goals and beliefs, preferences and personality traits. A remarkable body of evidence has demonstrated that both social reasoning recruits a specific and reliable group of brain regions. Yet, while we have a sophisticated understanding of which parts of the brain support social inference, we have remarkably little insight into how these neural substrates function at a computational level.

This project aims to fill that gap. It adapts the predictive coding framework, a computational approach that has proven transformative in other cognitive domains. Predictive coding models posit that the brain generates continuous predictions of upcoming events, and then adjusts these predictions by computing an error signal that tracks deviations between predicted and observed events. This project provides a rigorous test of a predictive coding model of social prospection, by testing (a) whether there are distinct neural populations supporting predictions and update errors within regions supporting social inference, (b) if these populations track information about multiple possible future events, (c) how information flows from one regions to other in social inference tasks, and (d) how the information encoded in these regions constrains computations performed elsewhere in the brain. In sum, this project moves beyond the “where” of social prospection, providing a new model of “how”.

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Project 3: Evelina Fedorenko and Elinor Amit

Project Title: Neural Correlates of Mental Time Travel: Evaluating the Distinct Modalities of Prospection Hypothesis

Abstract: Our ability to prospect into the future enables us to direct our actions towards long-term gain, and thus constitutes an evolutionary advantage (e.g., Seligman et al., 2013). What kind of cognitive mechanisms support prospection and how are they instantiated in the brain? Here we advance and evaluate the distinct modalities of prospection hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, grounded in construal-level theory (Trope & Liberman, 2010), prospection about the near/likely future relies on visual imagery, whereas prospection about the distal/unlikely future relies on inner speech. Prior behavioral research has provided initial support for the distinct modalities hypothesis (e.g., Amit, Algom & Trope, 2009), but fMRI allows a more direct evaluation of its key predictions. Across two experiments we will examine the responses of visual and language brain regions to prospection about different kind of events. Both experiments will take advantage of robust individual-subjects functional localization approach (e.g., Nieto-Castañon & Fedorenko, 2012) supplemented with multi-voxel pattern analyses (e.g., Norman et al., 2006). Experiment 1 will focus on temporal distance, and Experiment 2 – on the likelihood of occurrence of future events. Temporally near/likely events are predicted to produce a stronger response in the visual regions, whereas temporally distal/unlikely events are predicted to produce a stronger response in the language regions. This work will shed important new light on the mechanisms that underlie bias towards a particular representational modality for prospection about future events differing in key ways: how far in the future they are and how likely they are to occur.

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Project 4: Karin Foerde and Daphna Shohamy

Project Title: A Role for Dopamine in Prospection

Abstract: Prospection enables humans to plan and engage in purposive behavior. Research on prospection has focused on similarities between thinking about the future and the past, highlighting the role of episodic memory and its substrates in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes. Yet, strikingly absent from most of this work is a consideration of motivation, a core driver of human behavior that relies on the adaptive use of memory to guide future actions. Thus, a consideration of mechanisms supporting motivated behavior is critical for understanding how prospective memory achieves its adaptive function, and the dopaminergic system is a particularly promising candidate for this component of prospection. Our goals are to establish the specific role of dopamine in prospection and to determine the cognitive and neural mechanisms through which dopamine influences prospection. We propose that motivation increases the likelihood of engaging in prospective cognition and hypothesize that dopamine is critical for this process, such that high dopamine levels and interactions between dopaminergic and hippocampal systems will enhance prospection. The role of dopamine will be tested with Parkinson’s disease as a model, comparing prospection under low (off medication) and high (on medication) dopamine states. To elucidate the mechanisms underpinning dopamine’s influence on prospection, we will test three core functions through which dopamine could exert its effects: 1) general motivational processes, 2) interactions with hippocampal-dependent memory, and 3) discounting of the future. A deeper understanding of these neural underpinnings will improve our ability to use prospection more effectively to promote a positive human experience.

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Project 5: Simona Ghetti

Project Title: Episodic Prospection in Childhood: Development and Linkages with Achievement

Abstract: This project will examine the development of episodic prospection (the episodic simulation of personal future events) and its consequences. It will compare age-related differences in episodic prospection in 9-year-olds, 12-year-olds and young adults (N=180) to age-related differences in related constructs to examine whether children’s documented difficulties with episodic prospection are due to limitations in their knowledge about plausible future events (via semantic prospection), and/or in the ability to episodically simulate alternative outcomes to personal events (via episodic counterfactual reasoning). It will also examine the effects of episodic prospection on persistence in challenging tasks, an achievement-related behavior, to test whether this ability confers unique adaptive advantages.

Participants will be first assessed on several background cognitive skills and baseline persistence. They will then participate in a series of challenging tasks that will be interrupted and will be the object of the experimental manipulation. In subsequent sessions, participants will produce narratives anchored to the interrupted tasks and according to instructions which will vary based on experimental condition (i.e., episodic prospection, semantic prospection, or episodic counterfactual reasoning). Finally, participants will be tested again on the challenging tasks, this time without interruption. The narratives will allow us to test the hypotheses related to developmental differences in episodic prospection, semantic prospection and episodic counterfactual reasoning. The persistence exhibited on non-interrupted tasks during the final session will allow us to test the hypotheses concerning the effects of episodic prospection on achievement-related behavior. Overall, this research addresses core questions on the mechanisms and applications of prospection.

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Project 6: Igor Grossmann and Kathleen Vohs

Project Title: Adaptive Prospection: Wisdom, Intensity Bias, and Forecasting Agency

Abstract: Four experiments will test whether inducing disconnection, defined as a process of mentally distancing oneself from present experiences, produces outcomes linked to accurate forecasting: intensity bias and wise reasoning. Further we will assess forecasting accuracy via a longitudinal experiment. Intensity bias, in which people overestimate the emotional impact of an event, often includes focalism, which means to base predictions too heavily on a prior event. Hence, focalism also will be assessed. Wise reasoning reflects the fact that one’s knowledge is inherently limited and the future likely to be different from the present. All four experiments manipulate disconnection, for instance by getting people to think about themselves in the third person. Across all studies, the prediction is that the disconnection condition, compared to relevant comparison and neutral conditions, will weaken the intensity bias, soften focalism, and stimulate wise reasoning. Three experiments use verbal prospections, linguistic software, and physiology as assessment tools. For physiology, we measure heart rate during prospection to calculate heart rate variability (a marker of negative emotionality). The fourth experiment uses a longitudinal design. Tracking participants over 24 weeks, we will assess predictions and naturalistic reactions to social challenges, thereby enabling us to assess forecasting accuracy. We hypothesize that training people to disconnect in an initial session (Time 1) will curb intensity bias and unwise reasoning, in turn enabling less error-prone prospections. Taken together, this work will identify how to improve prospection by determining why some prospections bring about better realized futures than others.

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Project 7: Benjamin Hayden

Project Title: Future-Oriented Decisions in Macaques

Abstract: This project will study the basic psychology of future-oriented (i.e. prospective) decisions in rhesus monkeys. Recent studies have challenged the notion that nonhuman animals are “stuck in time” by showing provident behavior in the domain of food caching and tool use. These studies demonstrate that animals can reason about and plan for future contingencies in at least limited ways. Our work will build on these basic studies to ask whether animals have more sophisticated prospective skills. We choose to work with monkeys because their psychology is relatively well understood and because they can be trained to perform complex tasks for hundreds of thousands of trials, allowing us to make multiple manipulations and measure subtle effects. Our research will ask five closely related questions, (1) whether monkeys will pay to gain potentially useful information about future decisions, (2) whether monkeys anticipate future abstract wants, like curiosity, (3) whether monkeys can anticipate future poor self-control and choose to precommit to a beneficial long-term strategy, (4) whether they will pay a positive finite amount to engage in precommitment, and (5) whether monkeys will give up rewards in their possession, and thus overcome the endowment bias, for the possibility of larger future rewards. Our preliminary data suggest all five questions may yield a positive answer. In any case, answers to these five questions will provide a much richer and more details portrait of monkeys’ abilities to escape the present and prospect about the future.

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Project 8: Peggy Kern and George Vaillant

Project Title: The Life Beyond: Exploring the Underpinnings of Immortal Belief in the Harvard Grant Study

Abstract: What factors lead to belief or disbelief in spirituality and the afterlife, and what impact do these beliefs have on behavior, well-being, and physical health? Working with the Harvard Grant Study, one of the longest continuous cohort studies in social science, this project will investigate the extent to which prospective belief in the afterlife is related to one’s behavior, attitudes, character, and physical health. Beginning in 1938 with 268 male sophomores from the 1939-1944 graduating classes at Harvard University, the Grant Study followed these men across their lives, collecting extensive information on their mental and physical health, personality, and experiences. Across the years, the men completed extensive questionnaires, medical exams, and interviews. Questions relevant to prospective beliefs are scattered across the transcribed interviews and open-ended comments on the questionnaires. We will visit the archives and extract relevant information, and subsequently apply sophisticated analyses to understand predictors and outcomes associated with different beliefs and perspectives. The Grant Study is a unique dataset that allows a lifespan analysis of the determinants, correlates, and outcomes associated with different beliefs and perspectives about the future. Such secondary analyses can identify factors that might influence and result from prospection. By zooming out across time, the bigger picture of how lives unfold across time is revealed, in a manner that is impossible with short-term or cross-sectional studies. Patterns and associations that we discover can then be further examined in other samples, cumulatively building the science of prospection.

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Project 9: Abigail Marsh

Project Title: The Role of Prospective Altruism in Stem Cell Donation

Abstract: This project will investigate prospective altruism in unrelated allogeneic (altruistic) stem cell donors. Stem cell registries link patients with blood cancers and related disorder to altruistic stem cell donors. But as many as half of all registry members do not agree to donate when re-contacted on behalf of a patient one or more years later. This may represent a failure of prospective altruism: registrants who opt out fail to prospect accurately about their future altruistic behavior. Such failures result in lost resources, time, and lives. Investigators with expertise in psychology, sociology, policy, and stem cell registries aim to identify factors that contribute to failures in prospective altruism in stem cell donors. Participants will be assessed within 12 weeks of registration (Phase I, N = 500) and before confirmatory typing (CT), the stage at which maximal attrition occurs (Phase II, N = 250). They will complete online measures assessing prospective altruism, construals of donation, episodic imagery, evaluations of the costs and benefits of donation, and ambivalence about donation. Responses will be analyzed to identify variables associated with intention to donate in Phases I and II, that differ across Phases I and II, and/or that are differentially related to intention to donate and actual CT decisions. Results are anticipated to improve understanding of both prospection as it operates in a real-world context and of the dynamics of altruistic stem cell donation, with the aim of identifying ways of reducing future failures of prospective altruism among stem cell donors.

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Project 10: Samuel McClure and Anthony Wagner

Project Title: Drawing on the Past to Navigate the Future: Neural, Cognitive, and Affective Mechanisms of Prospection

Abstract: The ability to prospect, flexibly anticipate, and plan for the future is critical for achieving beneficial health, educational, social, and financial life outcomes. In many real-world settings, the ability to engage in prospective thought may be strongly influenced by stress. Indeed, major life stressors, such as economic, health, or social challenges, may have a particularly deleterious impact on the ability to flexibly plan for and improve our future. This project will examine how psychological stress influences the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying prospection. Given that prospection is a subjective phenomenon, the measurement of prospective thought is a fundamental challenge in prospection science. We will establish a novel approach to overcoming this challenge, developing an immersive virtual navigation paradigm and the use of advanced multivariate functional MRI (fMRI) analyses to measure prospection.

Our research will address two specific aims. Aim 1 will use novel neural measures to quantify the degree to which people engage in prospective planning, and will examine whether and how acute psychological stress restricts the complexity of prospection during planning. Aim 2 will quantify prospection during goal-directed action, and will test whether stress limits the temporal scope of prospective thought, ultimately leading to more rigid behavior that relies on habit-based memories. By addressing these aims, this project will make a critical first step toward understanding the psychological and neural mechanisms through which stressors limit our ability to draw on our past to effectively plan for the future.

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Project 11: David Rand

Project Title: Promoting Cooperation with Our Future Selves

Abstract: Making sacrifices today for the good of tomorrow is central to human existence, and prospection lies at the heart of this issue. Acting with the future in mind is key for both one’s own well-being and the well-being of society as a whole. Yet despite the importance of such future-mindedness, we are notoriously focused on the present. Most of us eat too much and save too little, and our nations are rapidly depleting our environmental and fiscal resources. In this project, we explore how findings related to promoting inter-personal cooperation can be leveraged to promote paying costs today to benefit the “you” that will exist tomorrow (intra-personal cooperation). The first aim of the project asks whether (and when) people truly see their future selves as other people. The second explores how numerous findings related to increasing interpersonal cooperation can be used to increase cooperation with this “other” person (the future self). The third examines the effect of recasting the act of helping one’s future self as a public good with consequences for others (rather than a mere personal responsibility), and harnessing the power of reputation by making intertemporal decisions observable to others. The fourth examines the role of intuition in intertemporal choice. Together, the studies outlined here will advance our understanding of prospection by investigating various individual, cultural and institutional practices that can shape intertemporal choice, promote future-orientation, and better align peoples’ present-day decisions with their future goals and desires.

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Project 12: Jonathan Smallwood

Project Title: Understanding the Uniqueness of Prospective Thought in Psychological and Neural Terms

Abstract: Conscious thought provides the freedom to consider events through the lens of imagination, and a primary benefit of this capacity is the ability to think about how events might unfold in the future. This project explores whether a primary benefit of naturally occurring future thought arises through the capacity to generate creative and original thought that is necessary to navigate the complex social environments in which they exist. With a large cohort of participants we will use experience sampling, as well as the tools of cognitive neuroscience, to explore the trait like aspects of naturally occurring prospection. Participants will participate in two laboratory sessions that will measure experience, behavior and neural dynamics and so determine: (i) The unique phenomenological features of prospection that delineate the experience as a distinct class of human thought, (ii) The psychological attributes that determine the unique capacities that future thinking brings and (iii) The underlying neural mechanisms that support this core aspect of cognition. This project will realize novel methods of exploring prospection, and develop a mechanistic account of future thinking aimed at explaining its value to the human condition. By achieving these core aims this project will provide the foundations for a science of prospection that will ensure that this exceptional feature of the human mind forms the focus of psychological and neuro scientific research over the coming decades.

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Project 13: Bethany Teachman

Project Title: Adapting Cognitive Bias Modification to Train Healthy Prospection

Abstract: Imagine tomorrow is the day of a big race. We all know people who picture themselves leaping across the finish line triumphantly, envisioning a glorious future. But what about the person who pictures not only losing the race, but also falling flat on his face and breaking his leg? Can we help this person have healthier views of his future and avoid these extreme negative representations? This project will use an adapted Cognitive Bias Modification(CBM) program to train prospection to favor the generation of healthy positive (relative to extremely negative) representations of possible future states. The 4-session, web-based intervention will train participants to expect and visualize reasonably positive future outcomes by resolving the emotional ambiguity in scenarios that set up uncertainty about one’s future state. We will select individuals who have a baseline bias toward envisioning very negative outcomes, because these individuals can clearly benefit from improving their prospection, given the health benefits expected to follow more positive prospection. Individuals will be randomly assigned to receive either CBM that promotes positive prospection, CBM that both negates negative prospection and promotes positive prospection, or one of two control conditions. Following training, we will evaluate how training alters future thinking, affective and behavioral forecasting, and actual avoidance behavior and affect during a social stressor. Thus, this project tests a cognitive strategy to improve prospection, based on the idea that repeated practice envisioning positive future, self-relevant outcomes will train healthier prospection, and in turn, enhance affect and behavioral engagement. 

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Project 14: Leaf Van Boven and Eugene Caruso

Project Title: The Phenomenological Foundations of Prospective Psychological Distance

Abstract: Prospection entails bridging the gap between the present and the future. Psychological distance is the sense of large this gap is, how far the future is from now. In this project, we will develop and test a comprehensive theory of the phenomenological foundations of psychological distance. Psychological distance is often poorly defined and confounded with objective distance, or how far the future actually is. We conceptualize psychological distance as defined and affected by the constellation of subjective experiences that coincide with people’s movement through time. This research has two aims. First, we will examine whether mere attention to future events and the fluency experienced when considering future events reduces those events’ psychological distance, independent of objective distance. For example, we will use procedures that we recently developed to direct people’s attention to specific future events, reducing those events’ psychological distance. Second, we will examine whether adopting mindsets of prospection rather than retrospection intensifies the experiences associated with psychological distance, thereby reducing psychological distance. For example, we will use a virtual reality technique that we recently developed in which people more forward (rather than backward) through space and time to increase the intensity of experiences associated with prospection, and to reduce the future’s psychological distance. These procedures will be used both to support new theoretical development, to develop interventions that reduce the psychological distance of personally important future events (such as purchasing a home, attending college, and retirement) to help people better anticipate and plan for the future.

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Project 15: Matthijs van der Meer

Project Title: Hippocampal Sequences as Prospection

Abstract: A distinguishing feature of prospection is its constructive character: we can mentally simulate possible futures which are not simply a replay of previous experience, but instead can include inferences about never-experienced scenarios. Prospection is a major influence on decision-making and interacts with affective states, but we lack an adequate working model of what factors determine the content of prospective episodes, how prospection is translated into action, and what properties of the underlying neural circuits are responsible for its generation.

Human studies have shed light on the brain areas and functional networks that support prospection, but it has proven challenging to access the content of individual prospection episodes. Similarly, only limited tools are available to probe the relationship with neural circuitry. To address these challenges, our project will study prospection in an animal model: rats solving spatial navigation problems. Remarkably, rats not only replay previous trajectories, but also mentally construct novel paths towards desired goals.

By recording neural activity from the rat hippocampus as they navigate various “shortcut” mazes, we will test first, whether such constructed trajectories can span never-experienced shortcuts. Second, we will test the influence of different factors on the content of constructed trajectories, distinguishing behavioral relevance from novelty and hardwired spatial structure. The complementary strengths of studies in animals and humans, together with the similarities in the neural mechanisms for prospection, suggest that this work will accelerate our understanding of prospection in a manner inaccessible by human studies alone.

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Project 16: Felix Warneken

Project Title: Prospection and the Origins of Prosociality

Abstract: The goal of this project is to investigate how prospection expands human potential for prosocial behavior – our tendency to act on behalf of others. One major factor limiting prosociality is a myopic view of the here and now, leading individuals to choose outcomes that are personally beneficial in the immediate context over prosocial outcomes providing opportunities for larger, more long-term social benefits. However, humans overcome this constraint with prospection - the ability to transcend the immediate situation and think about future events. Therefore, I am at investigating prospection as a critical capacity fundamental to the expression of human prosocial behavior.

I use a developmental psychological approach because by studying young children, we can witness the birth of prospection and assess its effects on prosocial behavior. What does prosocial behavior look like before children are able to prospect the future? What new forms of prosocial behavior emerge when children use prospection? Aim 1 is to measure the developmental trajectory of prospection and prosocial behavior in children by using novel experimental paradigms. Aim 2 is to test the hypothesis that higher levels of prospection are correlated with greater prosocial behavior by investigating individual differences in prospection and prosociality across children. Aim 3 is to test the hypothesis that greater prospection leads to greater prosocial behavior by directly increasing children’s prospection skills and measuring its effects on prosocial behavior. By conducting the first comprehensive investigation of children’s developing skills for prospection, we will gain important insights into the foundation of human prosociality.

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Project 17: Phillip Wolff, Eugene Agichtein, and Bridget Copley

Project Title: Linguistic Hints to Causal Models of the Future

Abstract: Future-oriented thinking has been found to be associated with a range of positive characteristics, such as higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, health, social behavior, and academic performance. A close analysis of future-oriented language may help explain why such benefits are present. It has long been known that languages provide a wide range of ways of talking about the future. Recent work suggests that these different ways of talking about the future are related to the causal properties of a situation, in particular, to the properties of internal and external control, intentionality, and obligation. The current research examines how these properties of causation might give rise to the positive benefits that have been observed previously in the literature. This will be accomplished through the development of techniques for the automatic extraction of future-orientated language, which will allow a large-scale comparison of future-oriented thinking and various emotions and behavioral practices. The current research will extend the use of these automated extraction techniques to analyses of the future orientation at the cultural level through large-scale mining of text in Twitter feeds. The project will also examine how such orientation can be affected by the occurrence of major events (e.g., mass shootings; major sporting events), as reflected in changes in the expression of the future in tweets after such an event (mass shootings; major sporting events). Lastly, the proposed research will examine future orientation as it may change over time through an analysis of historical corpuses (e.g., The Oxford English Dictionary).

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Project 18: Liane Young, Brendan Gaesser, and Elizabeth Kensinger

Project Title: Harnessing Episodic Simulation to Facilitate Prosociality

Abstract: This project aims to illuminate the cognitive and neural mechanisms by which prospection can be used to foster prosociality in typically functioning adults. We seek to apply the psychology and neuroscience of prospection to real world issues and explore a novel functional account of prospective cognitive processes such as episodic simulation. Specifically, we will conduct four studies that investigate the mechanisms by which episodic simulation can be used to facilitate empathy for people in need, testing whether the quality of episodic representation mediates this empathic effect (Study 1), whether this empathic effect interacts with -or is independent from- the ability to consider other people’s thoughts and feelings (i.e., theory of mind; Studies 2 and 3), and how episodic processes can be leveraged to help actual people in need (Study 4). This project will reveal how episodic simulation and memory can be used to foster empathy and prosocial behavior in healthy young adults, and, importantly, guide future research targeted at alleviating empathic deficits in patient populations (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s disease). More broadly, this project will lay the foundation for research at the intersection of prospection, memory, and moral psychology.

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