Understanding the relationships between emotions, motivation, & social participation

Photos of various images and arrows that represent the idea that understanding emotion can help improve motivation and change behavior
Image by Dr. Mote, utilizing creative commons license images

Our lab is primarily interested in the ways that emotions are related to motivation and social participation difficulties, with a focus on understanding these relationships in people with serious mental illness. For example, people with schizophrenia report less pleasure in anticipation of future positive experiences but report similar in-the-moment positive emotion experiences as healthy people. These differences in emotion experience appear to be related to the motivational difficulties also observed in the disorder – when we do not anticipate (or look forward to) future positive experiences, we may also show less motivation and goal-directed behavior towards positive experiences (such as social interactions). Additionally, our lab focuses on the specific emotion of loneliness and its relationship to social participation difficulties in people with and without mental health concerns.

One specific method we utilize frequently is ecological momentary assessment, also known as the experience sampling method, to understand in-the-moment, context-specific social and emotional experiences in our research participants. Through a website or a smartphone app, participants respond to brief questions multiple times a day outside of the lab, allowing them to report on their experiences as they occur in their daily lives. Using this method, we are able to examine predictors of social pleasure in daily life in people with and without mental health concerns. We also analyze social sensing metrics (e.g., GPS, ambient audio) to explore how they that correspond with different social experiences (e.g., isolation, negative feelings when with others).

Current Projects

  • Understanding the different emotions related to effortful goals people with and without schizophrenia report in their daily lives
  • Examining whether certain positive or negative emotions experienced during social interactions are related to more motivation for future social goals in the context of a novel mobile health intervention for people with schizophrenia
  • Understanding differences in state versus trait loneliness using ecological momentary assessment in a nonclinical population

Loneliness in the body & other connections between mental & physical health

Cartoon image of a hand holding a bar, where left side of the bar hangs a heart, and the right side of the bar hangs a brain
Image via Max Pixel

Mental and physical health are inextricably linked. If you’ve ever felt the physical effects of stress (like your heart beating very fast, sleep disruptions, or a stomach ache) or been in a good mood after you exercise, you know that our minds and bodies work together to make us feel better or make us feel worse. For example, we know that loneliness contributes to early mortality in both people with and without mental health concerns, suggesting that loneliness and other negative emotions take a physical toll on our bodies. Additionally, people with schizophrenia often have co-occurring heart health issues that appear to be related more to the consequences of their mental illness than to other factors (e.g., side effects of medications).

Using psychophysiological methods (i.e., sensors that measure bodily responses such as heart rate and sweat), our lab studies these and other relationships between our minds and our bodies. For example, we use ambulatory physiological tools – such as a remote, wireless, battery-powered heart rate sensor – combined with ecological momentary assessment to understand how moment-to-moment fluctuations in bodily responds may be related to who we’re spending time with, what we’re doing, and how we feel.

Current Projects

  • Studying the relationship between momentary experiences of loneliness and heart rate variability (an indicator of heart health) in people with schizophrenia using ecological momentary assessment and remote psychophysiology tools
  • Understanding the connections between personal experiences of racism, mental health risk factors, and psychophysiological indicators of stress in Black/African American adults

Intersections of environment, cultural context, & mental health

Environmental and cultural contexts have large influences on our emotional, social, and physical health. For example, greenspace exposure (e.g., exposure to parks, gardens, etc.) has been shown to be related to improved mental wellbeing, but few studies have used ecological momentary assessment and social sensing metrics (e.g., GPS) to understand the relationship between mental health symptoms, social wellbeing, and green space exposure in people with serious mental illness – a project that is currently ongoing.

We also study the ways that one’s cultural context may be related to specific mental health symptoms. Black Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder than white Americans, with some research suggesting that racial bias plays a role. It may be that certain clinical assessment tools that assess psychotic symptoms are not sensitive to culturally appropriate expressions of stress or discrimination, thus potentially over-pathologizing normative experiences in some communities over others. Thus, we have begun to study the differences in psychosis experiences between Black and white Americans with serious mental illness. We are also interested in other aspects of identity (e.g., gender) and their relationship to mental health outcomes.

Current Projects

  • Qualitative analysis of differences in paranoia experiences between Black and white Americans living with schizophrenia
  • Understanding the effects of green space exposure on mental health symptoms, mental wellbeing, and social experiences, including utilizing social sensing metrics (e.g., GPS)

Improving loneliness & social connection

Graphic of someone using a smartphone to connect with other people
Image via WSI E-Marketing

Our lab is interested in developing and evaluating psychosocial interventions that address the emotional and social difficulties in people with and without mental illness, with a focus on digital health interventions (e.g., smartphone apps, computer-based interventions). This includes interventions informed from basic affective and motivation science, cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and social skills training to help people with bipolar I disorder, schizophrenia, paranoia symptoms, and difficulties with social isolation.

Current Projects

  • Examining the efficacy of a computer-based cognitive behavioral therapy program to address paranoia and social anxiety in people with serious mental illness
  • Analyzing the outcomes from a novel smartphone app intervention to address social motivation in people with schizophrenia
  • In collaboration with a Boston-based small business, we are assessing the ways that a community and web-based start-up is helping people who are experiencing loneliness, social anxiety, and depression to improve their social lives