David A. Sbarra

This is a photo of David A. Sbarra.University of Arizona, USA


What does your research focus on?

My research is about how people recover from social separations and cope with loss experiences. I study divorce and romantic breakups as models for understanding how people deal with difficult or stressful life events in general. My research program has two main arms: (1) Prospective change: the variables that predict emotional recovery over time and the psychological mechanisms explain why some people do well or poorly in the wake of a loss experience, and (2) determining how psychological responses to loss are associated with health-relevant biological responses and the ways in which psychology and biology change together as people face difficult relationship transitions. With this basic foundation, there are many natural extensions of my research, and we study risk for major depression following divorce, the behavioral manifestations of attachment-related loss responses, gender differences in response to loss, and basic emotion regulation processes using multiple methods. As a clinical psychologist, I also have an abiding interest in using basic science to help improve the lives of people who are struggling with difficult relationship transitions.

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

Prior to the end of graduate school, my research was fairly scattered, and I was a bit scared that I wasn’t pursuing a clear set of interesting research questions. My advisor, Bob Emery at the University of Virginia, used to get after me to be “a mile deep and an inch wide” with respect to my research. (Mostly, my work was an inch deep and a mile wide.) Toward the end of graduate school, however, I saw an important opening to understand how people “recover” from divorce. I was interested in attachment processes, developmental methods, stress/coping, and the study of resilience, and I thought I could put all these topics together in a meaningful way to study how people grieve lost relationships. Once I started doing so, the questions just kept flowing, and this has sustained me well over time. I never set out to be a “divorce researcher” per se; rather, I found that studying social disruptions in adults gave me the chance to integrate my diverse interests quite nicely. I still have a bit of an identity problem. Although I consider myself a clinical psychologist first and foremost, a lot of my research doesn’t fit neatly into contemporary clinical psychology; therefore, I also consider myself a “wannabe” health and social psychologist. As psychological science progresses, we’re seeing that older disciplinary boundaries are quite permeable, and I have found that it is mostly beneficial to stand at the intersection of different research traditions.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

Cindy Hazan and Rick Canfield at Cornell University turned me on to research. I started working in Cindy’s lab my junior year of college and we continue to collaborate to this day. If Cindy had not offered me a position in her lab (when I had absolutely no experience), I am not sure what I’d be doing right now. At the University of Virginia, I had two excellent mentors. Bob Pianta was my first advisor, and he provided me with a tremendous research foundation in developmental psychopathology. I moved out of this research area, but the lessons I learned remain valuable today. For most of my time at Virginia I worked with Bob Emery, and he served as my primary mentor in graduate school. Bob’s work is very creative and he taught me how to come up with good research ideas. He also modeled what it means to be a complete academic. While at Virginia, I was lucky to spend time with time with other great people, and I was deeply influenced by Eric Turkheimer, Tom Oltmanns, John Nesselroade, Jerry Clore, and Joe Allen.

At the University of Wisconsin, where I did my clinical internship, I had several great mentors who helped me make the transition from being a grad student to a professor. Greg Kolden and Al Gurman were especially important to me during this time.

I find tremendous inspiration from the people I work with regularly. At Virginia, Emilio Ferrer and I used to discuss research during long runs outside of Charlottesville; we still work together, but the running has slowed over the years. Jim Coan and I built a great personal and work relationship over Friday afternoon beers at the University of Wisconsin terrace. Jim Reilly and I spent nearly every day together in graduate school; although our research was never on the same topic, I learned a ton from him. Here at Arizona, I have the best colleagues in the world, and I sometimes can’t believe they offered me a chance to join the faculty. John Allen, Dick Bootzin, Varda Shoham, Michael Rohrbaugh, Matthias Mehl, and Emily Butler are all friends and collaborators.

Before we ever met, George Bonanno’s work really inspired me. His thinking had an impact on me in many ways, and I feel the same way about my time with John Cacioppo, Bob Levenson, Phil Shaver, James Gross, and Greg E. Miller. All of these people have been incredibly kind to me. To the extent that I can, I’ll pay this kindness forward in the field.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

My relationships. What did you expect me to say?! Whatever success I have, to the extent that I have any, I owe to my family. My parents taught me to be curious, open, and passionate; they instilled in me a love for books and for learning, and they showed me that hard work pays off professionally. My brother is a source of inspiration, too. I don’t think about my family when I go to work in the morning (who does?!), but I define myself in terms of what they’ve taught me, and I try to act in a way that would make the people in my life proud. Above all, I have a wonderful wife. She helps me be as good as I can be, she keeps me balanced and accepts my many shortcomings, and she kicks my butt when I get off track.

What’s your future research agenda?

In a recent meta-analysis from my lab (involving nearly a million people and 100,000 divorces) we concluded that there’s a large prospective association between divorce and risk for early death. I am committed to understanding why this is so. Is this association a causal consequence of ending a marriage? If so, what are the mechanisms? I am desperately trying to move my work into the area of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and use PNI paradigms to answer these questions by linking psychological responses to marital separation with biological changes that have clear health relevance. The latter point is incredibly important. There’s growing consensus in the field that simply studying changes in biology is not enough to make statements about health; thus, we need to investigate biologically plausible models that are calibrated in a manner that have clear health relevance (cf. Miller, Chen, & Cole, 2009). I am open, too, to the idea that the meta-analytic effect I described above is not causal, but rather represents third variable selection processes (e.g., hostility predicts the future likelihood of both divorce and the development of cardiovascular disease). I am collaborating with people to explore this idea. Finally, I am excited about a new project with Mark Whisman at the University of Colorado. We’re writing a grant together to see if we can improve physical health outcomes by improving relationship quality via couple therapy. If so, this will provide important experimental evidence that improving relationships can improve health.

Any advice for even younger psychologists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

For those just entering grad school, it’s important to develop good work habits. The ability to write well doesn’t come from for free. It requires dedicated work, and grad school is the time to do that work. I’m only in my seventh year as a professor, but I’ve already seen problems with procrastination and binge–purge writing destroy some promising graduate careers. I recommend the following article for anyone starting out: Nisbett, R. E. (1990). The anti-creativity letters: Advice from a senior tempter to a junior tempter. American Psychologist, 45, 1078–1082. Tim Wilson gave this article to our social psychology class my first year at Virginia, and I have treasured it ever since.

For those people about to receive their Ph.D., it is obvious that the future of psychological science is all about integrative work that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. Post-doc work in imagining, epigenetics, PNI, cognitive aging, and/or many other areas will open doors in this respect. I did not do a post-doc, and as much as I like my current position, I think my research would be much stronger if I had taken a few more years to extend my expertise.

What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

Sbarra, D. A., & Hazan, C. (2008). Coregulation, dysregulation, and self-regulation: An integrative analysis and empirical agenda for understanding attachment, separation, loss, and recovery. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 12, 141–167.

This is a review paper that I started while in graduate school. Working on this paper helped me prove to myself that I had something unique to say about relationships. When I have trouble getting a paper published, I reflect on this piece (and what went into it, including working on it in four different states, four different countries, and, literally, in a closet in Ithaca, NY) and get a little bit of strength.

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