Understanding the relationships between emotions, motivation, and social participation

Model showing that understanding emotion can help improve motivation and change behavior

Using self-report, behavioral, mobile, and psychophysiological methods, we study 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 potential objective metrics that correspond with different social experiences (e.g., isolation, negative feelings when with others).

Current Projects

  • Understanding the different types of and 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

Improving loneliness and social connection

Graphic of someone using a smartphone to connect with other people

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. We are also interested in using neuroimaging to assess potential treatment-induced changes in brain activity to better understand the neural mechanisms behind these difficulties.

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, including assessing treatment-induced changes in brain activity
  • 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

Intersections of environment, cultural context, and mental health

Image of trees and a park bench in front of city skyline

Recently, our lab has begun to study the roles that environmental and cultural contexts influence our emotional, social, and physical health. For example, green space exposure (e.g., parks, gardens) 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 have also begun to 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)