Translational Science

The ability to regulate cognition, emotion, and behavior represents a core capacity of human functioning. Examples of this from daily life include rebounding from mistakes, resisting distraction, and dampening negative emotions. Research in the CPL aims to 1) shed light on their underlying mechanisms and 2) examine their clinical significance in terms of their roles in the development, maintenance, and treatment of anxiety and depression. Our lab utilizes a multi-method approach, including central and peripheral psychophysiology, behavior (reaction time / accuracy), self-report, and salivary hormone collection, and draws from multiple disciplines (biological, clinical, cultural, cognitive, developmental, neuroscience, and social/personality psychology). The goal of our research is to examine how phenomena play out across different levels of analysis and build integrative models of how they operate. To this end, we have four primary research areas: error monitoring, emotion processing/regulation, attention allocation, and mindset research.

1. Error Monitoring

A major component of our research focuses on how motivation and emotion influence the neural and behavioral mechanisms of error monitoring and how these processes go awry in psychopathology. Error monitoring refers to the process of recognizing when errors occur and implementing appropriate adjustments in behavior to prevent future errors from occurring. In our lab, we study error monitoring using very simple tasks with event-related brain potentials (ERPs), which are electric signals of brain activity elicited by particular stimuli and events. We focus on two ERPs that occur after errors – the error-related negativity (ERN), perhaps the brain’s first response to an error (elicited within 50ms after committing an error), and the error positivity (Pe), which is thought to reflect the conscious recognition of and attention allocation to errors (elicited between 200-500ms following an error). Our lab also focuses on the behavioral adjustments that occur after errors – including the slowing down or response time following errors, or post-error slowing (PES), and the adjustments in accuracy following errors, or post-error accuracy (PEA).

Our research indicates that these error-monitoring indices are useful in refining current models of psychopathology and mapping out physiological correlates. For instance, we find that elevated levels of trait anxiety are associated with enhanced ERN, reduced Pe, and unaffected performance (Moser, Moran, & Jendrusina, 2012). More specifically, it is the “anxious apprehension/worry” dimension of anxiety that is correlated with the ERN, not the “psychological/fear” component of anxiety (Moser et al., 2012). More recently, we integrated our findings to provide a theory that delineates how motivation influences the relationship between anxiety and error monitoring, called the compensatory error monitoring hypothesis (CEMH; Moser et al., 2012, 2013, 2014). The CEMH addresses the paradox between exaggerated error monitoring in anxious individuals on the one hand and the failure of anxious individuals to improve behavior on the other. We have speculated that this “neurobehavioral signature” of worry reflects inefficient processing, by which anxious individuals rely on increased effort to maintain an adequate level of performance (Moser, Moran, Schroder, Donnellan, & Yeung, 2013, 2014). We consider this inefficient because anxious individuals appear to rely on more cognitive resources to achieve the same performance as non-anxious individuals.

We also found that the anxiety-ERN relationship is specific to females (Moran, Taylor, & Moser, 2012), and is not present in males. This has prompted a relatively new line of research aimed at understanding gender differences in the relationship between anxiety and error monitoring processes. For instance, we are now addressing how sex hormones (e.g. estrogen) across the menstrual cycle impact the anxiety-ERN relationship through the support of a NIH-sponsored grant with Dr. Kelly Klump (Moser, Kneip et al., in prep).

Furthermore, we have also begun to focus on the developmental trajectory of the anxiety-ERN relationship through a number of different studies. In collaboration with Dr. Judith Danovitch at the University of Louisville, we are examining the ERN in school-age children and relating it to a number of indices of social-cognitive functioning and parenting behaviors, through funding from the Fuller Theological Seminary/Thrive Center in concert with the Templeton Foundation. Additionally, we have begun work with Dr. Kate Fitzgerald at the University of Michigan, to examine error-related mechanisms that might help differentiate anxiety and depressive problems in children. Likewise, we are collaborating with Dr. Emily Durbin to further examine how the anxiety-ERN relationship changes across development, is transmitted across generations and interacts with other processes (e.g. fear reactivity) through a NIH-sponsored grant.

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2. Emotion Processing and Regulation

The abilities to generate and regulate emotional experiences are important to psychological well-being. We must first appreciate how emotional processes work well in healthy functioning in order to understand how it goes awry in anxious and depressed people. Therefore, we have been actively engaged in research that aims to enhance our understanding of the mechanisms involved in various forms of emotion regulation. We use both ERPs and peripheral psychophysiology indices such as facial muscle movement (EMG) to understand how these processes unfold over time and how they are influenced by personality, psychopathology, and cultural factors. We believe these measures can be used to help refine current models of emotion regulation and psychopathology. Much of this work utilizes the Late Positive Potential (LPP), a sustained ERP that is sensitive to both emotional content and to strategies to increase or decrease emotional responding (e.g., Moser, Hajcak, Bukay, & Simons, 2006). Our research suggests the LPP is both a reliable index of emotion regulation processes (Moran, Jendrusina, & Moser, 2013) and is sensitive to individual differences in the tendency to think differently about emotions to modulate them and worry (Moser, Hartwig et al., 2014).

In collaboration with Dr. Shinobu Kitayama at the University of Michigan, we have examined how brain processes of emotion regulation unfold over time among individuals from different cultural backgrounds (e.g., Murata, Moser, & Kitayama, 2013). More recently, we have collaborated with Dr. Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, to examine how different types of emotion regulation strategies relate to these brain processes and individual differences in mental health and functioning (Kross…Moser, & Ayduk, 2014). Furthermore, in collaboration with Dr. Ethan Kross, we recently received funding from NSF to further test these emotion regulation strategies to alleviate anxiety and improve decision making in the face of a real-world stressor about contracting the life threatening disease, Ebola.

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3. Attention Allocation

How does the human visual system determine what receives attention? Do we attend to the most visually salient object? Do we attend to the stimulus most relevant to our survival? Or can we choose, at will, what receives attention and what is ignored? This line of research concerns how humans control attention and how emotion affects attentional control. We are particularly interested in how anxious people control their attention in the face of distracting information. Previous research demonstrates that anxious individuals exhibit an attentional bias for threatening information – that is, anxious people preferentially attend to threatening information even when doing so is counterproductive. Furthermore, this processing bias is thought to play a significant role in the development of anxiety disorders as well as their maintenance over time.

Our research suggests that these attentional biases operate more broadly than previously thought. Specifically, anxious people not only attend to threatening information but are also more distracted by visually salient information. To combat this enhanced distractibility in anxiety, we have begun to examine the effects of attentional control training. In collaboration with Dr. Andrew Leber at Ohio State University, we have recently completed a study confirming that simply training attention away from perceptually salient stimuli with a computer-based program can reduce distractibility and related anxiety symptoms (Moser, Moran, & Leber, in revision). This research opens up new possibilities for cost-effective, easily disseminable adjunct or stand-alone treatments for anxious individuals.

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4. Mindsets

A more recent interest in the lab is concerned with how individuals think about their abilities and self-attributes, such as their own intelligence or emotions, and how this relates to error monitoring. Decades of social-psychological research suggest that in general, individuals who think their abilities can change are more able to face and adjust to setbacks in performance. Our own research has shown that growth minded people embrace mistakes as opportunities to learn and increase attention and effort that does not directly translate into improved performance. However, further research suggests that growth minded people are less anxious (Schroder, Dawood…& Moser, in press).

Results from our other studies have suggested that a growth mindset is associated with “proactive” responses to errors (Moser, Schroder et al., 2011) and that experimentally inducing a growth mindset also leads to proactive cognitive control (Schroder…& Moser, 2014). Together, these results provide insight into how we might intervene to promote a more proactive approach to task performance in anxious individuals. We are also interested in how beliefs about other attributes such as anxiety and depression are associated with psychological problems and decisions regarding treatment (Schroder, Dawood, Yalch, Donnellan, & Moser, in press). Ultimately, we hope to have a better understanding of how messages about abilities influence brain activity related to performance, as well as mental health decision-making.

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