What does your research focus on?
I’m interested in how individuals differ in their responses to emotional stimuli, how these emotional responses are affected by social factors, and the consequences of these patterns of responding for mental and physical health. I’m currently pursuing these interests in three separate lines of research. First, I study basic emotional processes like the negativity bias, the propensity to respond stronger to unpleasant than to pleasant events, and how they differ across individuals. For example, we have found that neurotic individuals show larger and more extended skin conductance responses to emotional (particularly unpleasant) images, suggesting that they are both more reactive and less able to regulate their responses, a pattern that could affect physical health over the lifecourse. Second, I’m investigating emotional processes involved in social exclusion, or the feeling that one’s social connections are lacking. Using fMRI, we have found that both chronically lonely individuals and participants experiencing acute social exclusion in the laboratory show decreased activation of the mentalizing network (e.g., TPJ, mPFC) when viewing pictures of people in distress. Third, I’m applying some of my work on interactions between emotional and social cognitive processes to study race bias, or negative feelings toward outgroup members.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I became interested in emotion research as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, after taking a class with Nancy Stein. Emotions are critical for survival, they guide our behavior in adaptive (and sometimes maladaptive) ways, and they exert a broad influence on psychological processes. I was also drawn to the interdisciplinary, multi-method approach that is inherent to the study of emotion, and that is illustrated so well by John Cacioppo’s (University of Chicago) work. I continue to be excited by learning new methods (most recently, structural neuroimaging) and applying them to test the psychological questions that I’m pursuing.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I have been lucky to have worked with an amazing set of people over the course of my career. John Cacioppo, my graduate advisor, continues to be an inspiring mentor, a model researcher, a strong collaborator, and a good friend. Richie Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jeff Larsen of Texas Tech University, Jackie Gollan of Northwestern University, Gary Berntson of the Ohio State University, Penny Visser of the University of Chicago, Howard Nusbaum of the University of Chicago, Larry Barsalou of Emory University, and Steve Small of the University of California, Irvine have all greatly contributed to my growth as a researcher, a thinker, and an academic. Finally, I am incredibly fortunate to belong to a department that provides strong mentorship and that continues to support my development as a scientist.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
Whatever success I have achieved is due to my wonderful mentors and collaborators. Science is not an independent enterprise, and the kind of interdisciplinary approach that characterizes my work relies heavily on relationships with other talented individuals. My students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, are also critical for my intellectual growth and success. I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with some amazing students – Sarah Henderson, Maital Neta, Rob Chavez, Katie Powers, and Zachary Ingbretsen, to name a few (all future Rising Stars!).
What’s your future research agenda?
One new focus that has emerged in my laboratory in the past few years concerns the positive consequences of the experience of ambivalence, or feeling good and bad at the same time. Many researchers have proposed that ambivalence is unstable and unpleasant, as it fails to provide behavioral guidance. New research, however, has begun to suggest that ambivalence also promotes behavioral flexibility, which may be important both for psychological well-being (older people report more ambivalence, which could lead to increased positivity even in the face of unpleasant events), as well as cessation of addiction behaviors (smokers that report more ambivalence are more likely to quit).
In a separate line of research, I’m interested in trying to understand how chronic (loneliness) and acute (social rejection) experiences of social exclusion are similar and/or different. The literature generally tends to group these experiences together, without considering the psychological processes that may differ between them. Ultimately, differences in these psychological processes may help shed light on reparative mechanisms that are effectively (or ineffectively, as the case may be) engaged.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Have fun! Academia is an amazing lifestyle — you get to ask and answer questions that you care about. You get to work with smart, talented, interesting people. Take advantage of your intellectual freedom. Stay curious and remain open to new ideas. And when you get three manuscript/grant rejections in a week (which you will), remember these things and dig deep into the passion you have for research.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career
Norris, C. J., Gollan, J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). The current status of research on the structure of affective space. Biological Psychology: Special Issue on Emotion, 84, 422-436.
I am proud of this paper because it allowed me to summarize, unite, and extend much of the research that I’ve done on basic emotional processes in a single, common structure. In addition, we proposed a number of new hypotheses regarding how emotion functions, which have ultimately provided me with a scaffolding for future research. The opportunity to expand the theory that guides much of my research was a privilege and provided the occasion to reflect on what the field of emotion research has accomplished and what questions remain.