Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Incoming Assistant Professor

University of Western Ontario, August 2024

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University of California, Berkeley - Institute of Personality and Social Research (IPSR)
The Pennsylvania State University - Ph.D., Psychology

University of Iowa - M.A., Psychology

University of Toronto - B.Sc., Neuroscience & Psychology
Compassion, Empathy, Morality, Neurodegenerative Disease, Political Psychology, Social Neuroscience

About Me / Professional Trajectory

I was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario (Canada) where I lived for over 23 years. I graduated from the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus (UTSC) in 2013 after completing degrees in Neuroscience and Psychology. While at UTSC, I was a research assistant and lab manager for Dr. Elizabeth Page-Gould's Embodied Social Cognition Lab and Dr. Michael Inzlicht's Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience for 2 years. Outside of academics, I was involved with the Scarborough Campus Student Union and Department of Student Life, contributing to the incoming first year orientation for three years (one as the lead student coordinator) and an organizational lead member of the campus' South Asian Alliance (SAA) student chapter for several years.

I was accepted into my PhD program in Psychology at the University of Iowa in 2014, where I worked with Dr. Daryl Cameron in the Iowa Morality Lab. At Iowa, I obtained NIH T32 training funds in the newly created Behavioral Biomedical Interface Training Program (BBIP). Through this program, I completed funded rotations in the Neurology Department with Dr. Daniel Tranel to learn how to conduct human lesion comparison studies, as well as with Dr. Jan Wessel to hone my prior experience using electroencephalography (EEG) methods.

My lab relocated to Penn State University in 2016, where I completed my Ph.D. in Psychology with a minor in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. I was also a member of the BRIDGE Diversity Alliance and helped launch the Graduate Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion. These are two student-run organizations which collaborate with faculty advisors to support the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of graduate students across the Psychology Department as well as the larger College of Liberal Arts.

After completing my Ph.D., I obtained a Postdoctoral Fellowship position working with Dr. Robert Levenson's lab at UC Berkeley. I currently examine the long-term outcomes of familial caregiving for loved ones with neurodegenerative diseases, what predicts outcomes for caregivers once caregiving ends depending on potential alterations in their care recipients' emotional function, and the neural and psychophysiological indicators of the quality of the relationship between caregivers and their care recipients. I use methods in psychophysiology, eye-tracking, and neuroscience to answer these novel questions.

Outside of my research, I maintain a regimented early morning gym schedule and enjoy searching for local breweries and coffee shops. When not exploring the outside, I engage in the occasional binge-watching of Family Guy, the Simpsons, Brooklyn 99, or the Office.

Research Lines

How Mental Effort Influences Decisions to Experience Empathy and Compassion

When seeing someone in the distance asking people for spare change, or viewing a charity ad depicting people suffering on TV, how do people decide to engage with these people using empathy and compassion, or avoid these experiences altogether? I apply effort-based decision-making (EBDM) frameworks to examine whether people would select into opportunities to experience empathy - sharing in the feelings and experiences of other people as if they were their own, compassion - feeling a warm and caring concern that may not necessarily involve sharing that person's suffering, or avoid these experiences by remaining emotionally detached so they can objectively evaluate the external situation. Through exploring the factors that shape people's decisions to cultivate or avoid empathic and compassionate responses, I uncovered that mental effort is a potent contributor to the reasons people may avoid these experiences altogether. I investigate where mental effort emerges in these responses, as well as how we can overcome those costs to increase social engagement.

Relevant Papers and Works in Progress:

Cameron, C.D., Scheffer, J.A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Anderson, S. (in press). Motivated empathic choices. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2022.04.005

Scheffer, J. A., Cameron, C. D., & Inzlicht, M. (2022). Caring is costly: People avoid the cognitive work of compassion. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(1), 172-196. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001073

Cameron, C. D., Conway, P., & Scheffer, J. A. (2022). Empathy regulation, prosociality, and moral judgment. Current Opinion in Psychology, 44, 188-195. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.09.011

Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962-976. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000595

Reconsidering the role of effort in moral emotions

The Neural Substrates of Decisions to Experience Empathy

Leveraging a neurobiological approach and using patient models, I am investigating the neural substrates that potentially dictate people's decisions to engage in empathy. I am investigating whether individuals with lesions to the amygdala or ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) would show differences in their propensity to select into opportunities to cultivate two forms of empathy. Amygdala damage is often implicated in issues experiencing and identifying fear in others and avoiding physically threatening situations. Damage to the vmPFC is often linked with issues of empathy, guilt, and altered moral reasoning that resembles those with psychopathic tendencies.

Both regions contribute to people's ability to share in and understand the emotional experiences of other people. Therefore, I wanted to study whether individuals with lesions to these regions would show differences in their willingness to cultivate empathy, and further explore whether differences would emerge when choosing in the context of a more affective form of empathy - experience-sharing, or a more cognitive form of empathy - involving imagining another person's emotional experience.

Another relevant group of individuals with possible empathy issues are those with frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Neurodegeneration of socioemotional neural substrates, including the insula, is often seen in FTDs. This can alter the representation of emotional events, such as experiencing disgust, in ways that guide socially appropriate behavior. I am investigating the neural substrates impacted by neurodegeneration in people with FTDs, how this alters their emotional function, and how this may predict lesser willingness to engage in cultivating empathy with their caregivers.

Relevant Papers and Works in Progress:

Scheffer, J.A.*, Reber, J.*, Cameron, C.D., & Tranel, D. (in preparation) Empathic propensities in amygdala and vmPFC lesion patients: Damage to social decision- making neural regions does not associate with decreases in empathic motivation. *Equal author contribution

Scheffer, J.A., Chen, K.H., Yee, C., Grimm, K., Merrilees, J., & Levenson, R.W. (in preparation). Cardiovascular changes in anticipation of emotional events in people with neurodegenerative diseases predicts improvements in caregiver emotional well-being after caregiving has ended.

Scheffer, J.A., & Cameron, C.D. (in preparation). Social emotions demand mental labor.

Intergroup relations and misperceiving the motives of others

Investigating the Other Side of Interpersonal Empathy

We may often attribute another person's socioemotional responses to be less adaptive than our own. This can be due to differences in backgrounds, values, or even political affiliations. I examine the perceptions of the people on the other side of an interpersonal empathic encounter, for how they view the person who cultivates empathy for them. I focus on interpersonal dynamics which often require cooperation in order to facilitate effective relationships, such as with political opponents, potential majority group member allies to marginalized minorities, and caregivers of people with neurodegenerative diseases with altered socioemotional function.

Relevant Papers and Works in Progress:

Scheffer, J.A., Cameron, C. D., McKee, S., Hadjiandreou, E., & Scherer, A. M. (2022). Stereotypes about compassion across the political spectrum. Emotion 22(3), 466- 478. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000820

Chen, K.H., Scheffer, J.A., Wells, J., Yee, C., Merrilees, J., & Levenson, R.W. (in preparation). Relationship quality buffers the association between emotional reactivity abnormality in persons with neurodegenerative diseases and lower well-being in family caregivers.

Scheffer, J.A., Womick, J., Cameron, C.D., & Gray, K. (in progress). Exploring the impact of describing social disparities within and across racial group lines.

Lewis, K.A., Scheffer, J.A., & Vescio, T.K. (in progress). Empathy and Feminist Standpoint Theory: Impact of shared identity and understanding on empathic targets' feelings and perceptions of empathizers.

Examining minority perspectives on being the targets of moral emotions