Advisory Board

Molly J. Crockett

The Science article Deal or No Deal? said

What if your friend had a large apple pie but gave you only a sliver? Would you throw the piece on the floor in protest? Maybe, depending on your brain chemistry. New research suggests that such emotional decisions can be influenced by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Researchers have linked low levels of serotonin in the brain to various mental states, including depression and impulsive, irrational behavior. A team headed by neuroscience Ph.D. student Molly Crockett of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. wondered whether the neurotransmitter would affect how people play the ultimatum game, an experiment used by economists that shows how people’s economic decisions are sometimes irrational.
In the game, a “proposer” is given a sum of money, part of which he or she offers to share with a “responder”. If a responder turns down the offer as too low, then neither player gets any money. What the ultimatum game reveals is that even though a responder would always gain by accepting the offered share, he will sometimes cut off his own nose to spite his face, as it were, punishing a proposer by rejecting an unfair offer.

Molly J. Crockett is a PhD student in the Department of Experimental Psychology, Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge.
Her research focuses on the neural basis of self-regulation and impulsivity — what brain mechanisms allow us to control our thoughts, feelings, and actions? She’s investigating self-control from the perspectives of both associative learning theory and neuroeconomics. To explore these questions, she is using pharmacological manipulations, fMRI and genetic analyses. Dysfunctions in these neural systems contribute to a wide range of psychopathology, including OCD, ADHD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Her research aims to enhance our understanding of self-control in the healthy brain in order to inform the development of better treatments for psychopathology.
Molly coauthored Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli: Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences; however, the mechanisms by which affect labeling produces this benefit remain largely unknown. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest a possible neurocognitive pathway for this process, but methodological limitations of previous studies have prevented strong inferences from being drawn. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of affect labeling was conducted to remedy these limitations.
The results indicated that affect labeling, relative to other forms of encoding, diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images. Additionally, affect labeling produced increased activity in a single brain region, right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Finally, RVLPFC and amygdala activity during affect labeling were inversely correlated, a relationship that was mediated by activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These results suggest that affect labeling may diminish emotional reactivity along a pathway from RVLPFC to MPFC to the amygdala.
Molly also coauthored Serotonin Modulates Behavioral Reactions to Unfairness: Serotonin (5-HT) has long been implicated in social behavior and impulsivity, but the mechanisms through which it modulates self-control remain unclear. She observed the effects of manipulating 5-HT function on behavior in the Ultimatum Game, where players must decide whether to accept or reject fair or unfair monetary offers from another player. Participants with depleted 5-HT levels rejected a greater proportion of unfair, but not fair offers, without showing changes in mood, fairness judgments, basic reward processing, or response inhibition. Her results suggest that 5-HT plays a critical role in regulating emotion during social decision-making.
Originally from Irvine, California, Molly earned her B.A. in Psychobiology at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). She loves to travel and she hopes to explore many new parts of the world over the next few years. Music is one of her greatest passions, she is a member of King’s Voices, the mixed-voice choir of King’s College in Cambridge. Learn about the books that have influenced her.