Research Projects

I am interested in how people understand the emotions and other mental states of those around them.

In my work, I take an interdisciplinary approach grounded in cognitive science and affective science, along with tools from computer science (machine learning; natural language processing; social network analyses) and behavioral economics (economic games and analyses). I am also interested in applications of my research, be it in computer science/robotics (affective computing / robotics), or in potential clinical contexts.

Here are a few projects that I am currently working on:


Affective Cognition

When we see someone miss a bus, receive a present, or walk with a skip in their step, we have no difficulty inferring their emotions, their thoughts, and even what they might do next. The ability to effortlessly perform such reasoning, Affective Cognition (reasoning about affect), is crucial to our everyday lives.

Underpinning affective cognition is a set of rich knowledge about emotions, encapsulated in laypeople's intuitive theories of emotion. That is, in people's minds, what are emotions? What causes emotions? What do emotions cause people to do? See here for a more detailed writeup.

I approach these questions from a variety of different approaches:

  • I build computational models of laypeople's affective cognition.
  • I study reasoning across many different contexts (e.g., "near-misses"), reasoning about others across psychological distance, reasoning about emotion-driven actions, etc.
  • I study how children acquire such rich knowledge about emotions.
  • I study how such reasoning may be impacted by affective disorders.

Helping me along this exciting journey of understanding affective cognition are a bunch of amazing collaborators, including: Noah Goodman, Jamil Zaki, Mika Asaba, Hyowon Gweon.

Representative Publications:
Ong, Zaki, & Goodman, Cognition, 2015
Ong, Goodman, & Zaki, Emotion, 2017
Ong, Doctoral Dissertation, 2017


Empathic Accuracy

When people reason about the emotions of those around them, how accurate are these inferences? In these set of projects, we am interested in how accurate are people in evaluating the emotions of those around them.

My collaborators and I investigate empathic accuracy using challenging, naturalistic contexts. In addition to computational modeling, we also study empathic accuracy (i) with neuroscientific approaches, (ii) across age-groups and cultures, and (iii) in populations with mood disorders.

This work is done with many awesome collaborators, including: Jamil Zaki, Erika Weisz, Alison Mattek, Isabella Kahhale, June Gruber, Anat Perry, Amanda Morrison.

Representative Publications:
Devlin, Zaki, Ong, & Gruber, Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2016


Social Support in a real-life dorm (PNAS)

A social support network in a real-life dormitory. Nodes (circles) represent students, and edges (arrows between nodes) represent support seeking.
[Figure from Morelli et al, 2017]

Analyzing Social Support in an online network

An ego-centric network examining how social support spreads outwards from the focal node (in the center).

Empathy and Social Support in real-life and online social networks

I use social network analyses to look at how emotions, empathy, and social support propagate within social networks.

Main Collaborators: Sylvia Morelli, Matthew Jackson, Jamil Zaki.

Representative Publications:
Morelli, Ong, Makati, Jackson, & Zaki, PNAS, 2017


Prosocial Behavior via Empathy norms (PSPB)

Average donation behavior after participants were exposed to either an empathic or a non-empathic social norm.
[Figure from Nook et al, 2016]

Prosocial Behavior

I'm interested in what factors motivate people to be nice to others.

Main Collaborators: Jamil Zaki, June Gruber, Xuan Zhao, Erik Nook

Representative Publications:
Ong, Zaki, & Gruber, ‎J. Abnorm. Psych., 2017
Nook, Ong, Morelli, Mitchell, & Zaki, PSPB, 2016
Ong, undergraduate honors thesis, 2011


Past projects in physics and optics (from 2012 and earlier)

In the past, prior to my starting graduate school, in roughly reverse chronological order, I have done research in behavioral economics, vision, condensed matter physics, optics, and material science. I've written up some of my previous, completed projects in optics and physics, below.


Laser Speckle Characterization
Laser Speckle Characterization

I developed a method of analyzing anisotropy in speckled images, by analyzing the power spectral distribution in a polar-coordinate representation.
[with Sanjeev Solanki, Xinan Liang, Xuewu Xu]

Enhanced Brownian diffusion of colloidal dimers in an oscillatory shear flow
Brownian motion of collodial dimers in a shear flow.

We investigated how applying an oscillatory shear flow affects the Brownian motion of collodial dimer particles (based on the geometry of the dimer particle).
[with Brian Leahy, Xiang Cheng, Itai Cohen]

Vacancy and dislocation dynamics in colloidal dimer crystals
Vacancy and dislocation dynamics in colloidal dimer crystals

We examined how the structure of a collodial crystal (having symmetric dimers in a crystal of spheres) affects the dislocation dynamics of the crystal.
[with Sharon Gerbode, Itai Cohen, and others]