2010 Janet Taylor Spence Award

James Coan

University of Virginia

What is the focus of your award-winning research?

The primary focus of my research has become the social regulation of emotion, with a strong emphasis on the neural systems that both affect and are affected by social relationships. I am particularly interested in how humans and other social animals utilize emotional behavior (facial expressions, proximity, touch, verbal communication) to regulate emotion in themselves and each other. Humans are powerful self-regulators, but self-regulation is an effortful, costly, largely prefrontally mediated process. Social forms of emotion regulation are often more “bottom-up,” in the sense that they are largely subcortical and automatic. I’ve come to think that people essentially “contract out” emotion regulation effort to their social networks for the purpose of conserving neural resources, not least those of the prefrontal cortex that can be used to solve other kinds of problems. In fact, I think this is the baseline or default human strategy for emotion regulation. I am calling this perspective “social baseline theory.”

How did you develop an interest in this area?

Many years ago, I worked with John Gottman at the University of Washington to identify emotional behaviors between romantic partners that held consequences for how their relationships ended up. Among many other things, we observed that some couples expertly use moments of positive affect as a regulatory mechanism to soothe each other even during moments of conflict. Other couples are not so good at this, and the degree to which couples can do this effectively holds consequences for their health and well being, as well as for the duration of their relationships. This led to interests in the social regulation of emotion as a broad, normative phenomenon but also as an expression of individual differences in both self-regulation and social regulation receptivity. An overriding interest in neural mechanisms underlying each of these processes led me to the study of emotion, emotion regulation, and the brain, first with John Allen at the University of Arizona and later with Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. In general, I am fascinated by the degree to which we are designed to think about and experience our lives in terms of the relationships we inhabit.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

Overwhelmingly, my biggest and most direct influences have been John Allen and John Gottman, both of whom have been unaccountably generous with me over the years. But I’ve also been lucky enough to work with people like Lee Sechrest, Beth Loftus, and Richie Davidson, each of whom influenced me powerfully in their own ways. I’ve been enriched by the work of Bob Levenson, John Cacioppo, James Gross, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Phil Shaver, and Jerry Clore. And it’s hard to overstate how much I’ve learned from my brilliant peers, both during and after graduate school. These are folks like Hal Movius, Pat and Kathy McKnight, Shelley Kasle, Lis Nielsen, Jess Payne, and Dave Sbarra. I am in awe of every one of them.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

I think the biggest advantage I’ve had is my diversity of training. John Gottman taught me about microanalytic behavior coding, and encouraged me to view emotions as processes that unfold over time and often exist in a kind of virtual space between people as opposed to only between a single individual’s ears. John Allen trained me to acquire and analyze psychophysiological data, and he’s just about the best there is at that. But John also taught me that basic methodological questions form the foundation of any psychophysiological measure’s ability to effectively inform psychological theory. He is absolutely dedicated to this perspective, and he really pushed me to think carefully about what the psychophysiological measures we used together (primarily frontal EEG asymmetry) meant, given the contexts within which those data were acquired. These were lessons Richie Davidson would help me expand upon later. In the midst of all this, I worked with Lee Sechrest on a number of interesting projects entirely unrelated to emotion and the brain, which exposed me to design and data analytic perspectives I may never have encountered otherwise. From Lee, I learned basic measurement theory and methodology, as well as an invaluable perspective on research that is hard to put into words but that amounts, I think, to approaching science with a simultaneous mixture of economy, openness, and play. To these factors, I would add that I have been very, very lucky.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Personally, I’m mainly astonished and deeply grateful. So many of my peers — not least the other recipients of this award — have accomplished so much that my mind reels just thinking about it. To be recognized in this way, in the midst of such company, is humbling in the extreme. Professionally, I’m very happy that I and my collaborators have been given this opportunity to highlight the work we are doing, and I feel more than ever that we have much more work to do.