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Research Themes and Current Studies

Stresses on the Emotion System

In our first core line of research, we study how stress, broadly construed, disrupts emotional processing in individuals and couples. We examine a range of potential stresses and their consequences for emotional reactivity and regulation, from effects of job stress on couple interactions to emotion in individuals with functional neurological disorders, specifically functional seizures (also called psychogenic nonepileptic seizures). Depletion of executive resources and emotional suppression or avoidance have emerged as key themes in these studies.

Specific projects include:

  • Emotional responses among those with functional (psychogenic nonepileptic) seizures*
  • Sleep quality and daily mood in veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Traumatic brain injury and emotion
  • Emotion and communication among spouses of deployed military personnel
  • Job stress, emotional behavior, and emotion control values in police couples
  • Relationship between executive function and emotion regulation
  • Cognitive and emotional responses during decision-making

*Funded through the Institute for Mental Health Research


In addition to stresses on the emotion system, we examine ingroup bonds, humor, and affection as processes that potentially counteract adverse effects of depletion, suppression, and stress. We also evaluate clinical interventions that target these underlying affective processes.

Specific projects include:

  • Effects of affectionate touch on stress, physiology, and emotion in couples
  • Effectiveness of psychoeducational interventions (“Brain Boosters” groups) for veterans with functional memory impairment
  • Strategies for effective parent-child communication about risk

Culture and Emotion

In our second core line of research, we examine emotion as a function of cultural context. Our work goes beyond an examination of ethnic group differences to investigate how processes such as ingroup match, values about emotion, and implicit attitudes shape emotional processing. We consider culture in terms of race/ethnicity, as well as in terms of other subcultures such as police and military.

Specific projects include:

  • Emotional responses to ingroup/outgroup members based on race, gender, and political orientation
  • White and Black Americans’ responses to ingroup versus outgroup humor
  • Black Americans’ anxiety responses to laboratory studies (PI: Jose A. Soto)
  • Ethnic and cultural differences in emotion suppression
  • Ethnic and cultural differences in attitudes about touch (PI: Mary H. Burleson) 


Our studies evoke actual or “real time” emotions using tasks such as partner interactions, relived emotional memories, emotional pictures/films, acoustic startles, decision-making, and simply making participants sit and wait. We measure multiple aspects of emotion and related cognitive processes:

  • Nonverbal behavior, particularly facial behavior (via observational coding and facial electromyography)
  • Autonomic nervous system physiology (psychophysiological measures include heart rate and impedance cardiography, blood pressure, skin conductance, respiration rate, and skin temperature)
  • Subjective experience, including quantitative ratings and qualitative responses
  • Neuropsychological measures, particularly tests of executive function.

Together, these studies reveal how cultural and biological forces shape emotional responses. They also expose areas of the emotion system that are fairly inflexible to change, as well as areas that may be more vulnerable to disruption—but also amenable to intervention.

Sample Student Conference Poster

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