Current Research

Our Research

Work in the Hidden Talents Lab focuses on youth (13-19 year olds) who have experienced substantial social and economic adversity. We collect data in public schools and various afterschool programs in the Salt Lake City area. Our research investigates social and cognitive adaptations to harsh environments, and how these adaptations could be used to enhance learning outcomes. The emphasis of the traditional deficit approach is on “what’s wrong with youth” who grow up under harsh or unpredictable conditions. Our work is instead strength-based and asks: “What’s right with these youth?” We hypothesize that individuals who develop in challenging environments specialize their social and cognitive abilities to match high-adversity contexts (Ellis, Bianchi, Griskevicius, & Frankenhuis, 2017; Frankenhuis & de Weerth, 2013). The Hidden Talents Lab thus studies potentially stress-adapted skills such as reasoning about social dominance, learning about danger, and empathic accuracy. Our current studies focus on executive function components that may be enhanced among stress-adapted youth. We are specifically studying attention shifting (a component of executive function that involves efficiently switching between different tasks) and working-memory updating (tracking changing information and replacing older information that is no longer relevant). This work has broad social implications: the better we understand the executive functions of stress-adapted youth—including their strengths—the more effectively we can tailor education, jobs, policy, and interventions to fit their needs and potentials.