Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Catherine Hartley

New York University

Research focus
Learning lays the foundation for the development of motivated behavior, shaping children’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Catherine Hartley’s research examines developmental changes in the diverse learning, memory, and decision-making processes that support adaptive responding in the face of positive or negative environmental challenges (e.g., goals or threats) and the factors that facilitate or constrain these developmental changes for a given individual (e.g., environment, upbringing, genetics). She uses an array of methodological techniques to pursue these questions including neuroimaging, psychophysiology, computational modeling, and genetics, in conjunction with experimental paradigms that draw upon both animal learning and economic decision theories.

My plans for the fellowship period
During the fellowship period, I will focus on two central lines of research. The first will examine the neural and cognitive development of goal-directed learning – or the ability to take intentional action to bring about beneficial outcomes. Our ongoing work has shown in the face of challenges, younger individuals are often more prone to rely on habitual behaviors or learned Pavlovian reactions in lieu of deliberate goal-directed actions. We will seek to understand the cognitive processes and brain circuitry that give rise to this developmental bias, as well as how and in what contexts children and adolescents come to rely on goal-directed learning.

A second line of research will examine how control over positive and negative events alters cognitive and emotional functioning in children and adolescents. Our past work suggests that in adulthood, exposure to uncontrollable reinforcement, whether positive or negative, can promote automatic reactive responding, whereas controllable reinforcement promotes goal-directed proactive behavior. We will extend this work to examine how control biases subsequent learning and decision-making in childhood and adolescence, with the hypothesis that control over environmental stressors and rewards may be a critical factor promoting the typical development of goal-directed cognition and emotional resilience.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
This work will lay the foundation for effective educational and clinical interventions by improving our understanding of the learning processes and environmental factors that promote the development of effective self-regulation, adaptive decision-making, and psychological resilience. It has global relevance for understanding the cognitive and emotional developmental trajectories of children reared in diverse types of low-control environments (e.g., urban or rural poverty, exposure to trauma or violence, excessive parental control) and could inform the design and implementation of developmentally optimized approaches for altering these outcomes.