A photo of Keltner teaching

Research Expertise and Interest

culture, conflict, behavior, love, psychology, emotion, social interaction, individual differences in emotion, negotiation, embarrassment, desire, juvenile delinquency, laughter, anger, social perception, negotiating morality

Research Description

Dacher Keltner is a professor in the Department of Psychology.  Throughout his career he has been interested in two animating questions. How do emotions shape human social life?  And what is the nature of human hierarchies, as manifest in power, class dynamics, and how inequality shapes the human psyche?

The Science of Emotion

He has been a central voice in making the case that emotions serve important social functions, enabling us to fold into relationships vital to survival, like friendships, groups, romantic partnerships, and parent-child attachments. Guided by this framework, he has studied  emotions like embarrassment, shame, love, compassion, amusement, and gratitude.

Beginning with his post-doctoral fellowship with Paul Ekman, he has long studied emotional expression from a Basic Emotion perspective.  He has done work documenting the universality of upwards of 20 distinct facial expressions, the richness with which people can communicate emotion in the voice, and how people communicate emotions like love, compassion, and gratitude through touch.

His work in the field of emotion has moved into new territory during the past few years.  First, continuing his collaboration with former student Alan Cowen, they have made several pioneering contributions in the study of emotion with data driven approaches.  With new Machine Learning approaches, they have documented universal expressions of emotion in the face and voice, they have charted the meaning of emotional expression in pre-Colombian art, and they have offered the richest characterization to date of the emotional meaning of music, all papers published in top journals.  These latter papers have stirred an interest in his lab in the emotional meaning and function of the arts, a central interest of mine going forward. Hhe has recently authored an overview of this new approach to emotion in a widely read theoretical venue.

In his research on emotion, he has continued with force to map the forms and functions of awe, including recent work on children, some of the first of its kind.  Building upon this basic science, and grounded in a recent review of the health benefits of awe, they have moved into the realm of awe interventions, publishing results on the benefits of awe for the elderly who take “awe walks” he designed, and for health care providers during the COVID epidemic.  He summarized this work in a recent book published by Penguin Press, AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life. More recently he has authored invited theoretical articles on emotional expression, awe, positive emotions, and the bidirectional relationship between emotions and culture.

Power and Social Class

In 2003 he published a theory of how power influences social life, that is known as the Approach/Inhibition Theory of Power.  This theory presents an integrative account of the effects of power on human behavior, suggesting that the acquisition of power has a disinhibiting effect regarding the social consequences of exercising it.

Building upon that theorizing, with collaborators Paul Piff and Michael Kraus, he has offered a theoretical account of how social class shapes human thought, feeling, and action.  In empirical demonstrations of this work, they have shown that people from more privileged class backgrounds are more likely to drive through pedestrian crosswalks and cheat on tests to win a prize, feel less compassion than those who suffer, and explain their success in terms of their own superior traits.

More recently, they have explored other issues related to hierarchical life. With Maria Monroy, they have published recent work on intersectionality – the interacting influences of race, class, and gender – on emotion recognition, a theme that he has also explored in studies of implicit bias. He has published work on how economic inequality degrades ordinary social interactions.  And building upon his decades of study of social power, summarized in a theory piece from this period of review, he has also published a new account of two strategies to acquire power, coercive and collaborative.

In the News

UC Berkeley launches new center for psychedelic science and education

Fifty years after political and cultural winds slammed shut the doors on psychedelic research, UC Berkeley is making up for lost time by launching the campus’s first center for psychedelic science and public education. With $1.25 million in seed funding from an anonymous donor, the new UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics will conduct research using psychedelics to investigate cognition, perception and emotion and their biological bases in the human brain.

Calm amid COVID-19: Gratitude

In the third in a series of short videos, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner talks about the benefits of practicing gratitude. Expressing appreciation is a key component of Keltner’s Science of Happiness course, which he has taught to inmates at San Quentin State Prison, among thousands of other students.

Calm amid COVID-19: Compassion

In the second in a series of short videos, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner discusses the benefits of compassion for others and ourselves.

Lower classes quicker to show compassion in the face of suffering

Emotional differences between the rich and poor, as depicted in such Charles Dickens classics as “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” may have a scientific basis. Researchers at UC Berkeley have found that people in the lower socio-economic classes are more physiologically attuned to suffering, and quicker to express compassion than their more affluent counterparts.

Is a stranger trustworthy? You'll know in 20 seconds

There’s definitely something to be said for first impressions. New research from UC Berkeley suggests it can take just 20 seconds to detect whether a stranger is genetically inclined to being trustworthy, kind or compassionate. See if you can guess which people shown in the video have the empathy gene.

Easily embarrassed? Study finds people will trust you more

If tripping in public or mistaking an overweight woman for a mother-to-be leaves you red-faced, don’t feel bad. A new UC Berkeley study suggests that people who are easily embarrassed are also more trustworthy, and more generous. In short, embarrassment can be a good thing.

UC Berkeley psychologists bring science of happiness to China

As the ranks of China's millionaires continue to grow, the pursuit of wealth in the nation is fast outpacing mental health and wellbeing, according to psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who are seeking to correct that imbalance and spread the science of happiness in China.

Featured in the Media

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of UC Berkeley.
June 13, 2024
Allie Volpe

Psychology Professor Dacher Keltner, who consulted on the Pixar film, discusses the science of teenage anxiety.

December 18, 2020
Emily Willingham
An analysis of more than 6 million YouTube videos by researchers at UC Berkeley and Google finds that people around the world make similar facial expressions in similar social contexts. The study brings data science to the debate about the universality of emotion categories. The lead authors, UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner and researcher Alan Cowen, used a type of machine learning to investigate whether people adopt the same facial expressions in similar contexts across cultures. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Stories on this topic have appeared in several sources, including Mind Matters News, Cosmos, SciTech Daily, The Daily Mail, the East Lothian Courier, Radio Canada, and Nature.
April 7, 2020
Psychology professor Dacher Keltner, co-director of Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, is sharing science-based strategies to cope with stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 crisis in a series of short videos to be offered over the coming weeks. His first video, released Tuesday, offers an introduction to mindful breathing. Link to video. This story originated at Berkeley News.
January 8, 2020
David Noonan
Exploring emotional responses to a wide range of both Western and Eastern music, a team of Berkeley researchers has found "evidence of universality" in the feelings evoked by different musical styles. In a series of experiments led by doctoral neuroscience student Alan Cowen and psychology professor Dacher Keltner, the researchers had more than 2,800 participants from the U.S. and China listen to more than 2,000 samples of instrumental music and then report on how each piece made them feel. Analyzing the data, they identified 13 common emotions, from anxiety, fear, and sadness to eroticism, joy, and serenity. They then transferred the data to an interactive, color-coded map that can be explored online. For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Stories on this topic have appeared in dozens of sources around the world, including Psychology Today, MindBodyGreen, IFL Science, Music Ally, Economic Times (India), Medical Daily, Irish Sun, Study Finds, The Entrepreneur Fund.
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