Skene Research

  1. Genetics of social integration and social cognition in free-living macaques: This project examines genomic variants associated with social network position and social cognitive traits in a colony of free-living rhesus macaques on the small island of Cayo Santiago near Puerto Rico. Extensive pedigree data and the ability to track individual animals consistently over time makes it possible to evaluate the interactions of genotype, developmental history, and social experience in the development of social traits in these animals.
  2. Genetic correlates of economic and prosocial preferences in humans: We have examined correlations between common genetic variations and individual variation in economic preferences (tolerance or aversion for risk aversion, loss, and ambiguity) and prosocial traits (altruism, empathy) measured with a series of experimental games and questionnaires. Continuing studies are using exomic and whole-genome sequencing to identify additional genomic variants associated with variation in those traits.
  3. Self-selection for risk and social cognitive traits in different professions: This project tests the hypothesis that individuals with particular combinations of risk preference and social cognitive traits will self-select for different professions or societal roles. As a first test of this hypothesis, we are examining the distribution of scores for prosocial cognitive traits traits in students entering law schools compared to other graduate/professional students. In a longitudinal study of these students, we will examine whether scores on these traits at the beginning of law school predict neural responses during laboratory studies of social decision making and later real-world choices to pursue different areas of legal practice, such as criminal prosecution vs. transactional law.
  4. Neural responses to acquittal of a guilty person vs exoneration of wrongfully accused: Over the last 20 years, exonerations of more than 300 persons convicted of serious crimes in the United States has led to a growing recognition that wrongful convictions are not as rare as previously believed. A critical question is why prosecutors and jurors in these cases became convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” of a defendant’s guilt, despite objectively inconclusive evidence. This project examines neural responses to the description of a crime and presentation of evidence suggesting a particular defendant’s guilt, followed by either an outcome (defendant was convicted or acquitted), or strong exculpatory evidence. Neuroeconomic models of decision-making in other contexts suggest that such a delayed presentation of exculpatory evidence may generate a “reward prediction error” signal in the brain that contributes to the “discounting” of defense evidence by prosecutors and jurors.