Research

My research examines how language, perspective, and context can reflect and promote basic psychological processes—from emotion regulation to persuasion to identity conflict. Here are some of my findings:

What are the basic mechanisms that allow people to regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviors?

Emotion regulation has largely been conceptualized as a deliberate process that requires effort. In my research, I have focused on how the structure of language itself may support emotion regulation, by allowing individuals to shift from their default, immersed perspective to a more distanced one.

For example, with my collaborators, I have studied ways in which people can shift the words they use to reflect on the self:

  • Using “you” to address themselves directly (“Ariana, you can do better next time”); or
  • Using “you” to refer to people in general, even as they reflect on their own, deeply personal experiences (“You win some, you lose some”).

Both of these shifts enhance psychological distance in different ways:

  • The first allows people to take a step back by addressing themselves as if they were someone else.
  • The second allows people to broaden their perspective by casting their own experience as emblematic of a broader, more universal phenomenon.

In both instances, this distance helps people think differently about their negative experiences, and feel less negatively about them.

My research in this area has two broad implications:

  • People intuitively use these these linguistic shifts when faced with the need to regulate their thoughts, feelings or behaviors – providing researchers with a window into people’s emotion regulatory processes.
  • These shifts can be used as levers to actively promote people’s ability to regulate their negative emotions.

Can subtle shifts in language affect people’s interpretations of norms?

My collaborators and I have found that both adults and children selectively use different pronouns to express norms and preferences:

  • Using the generic usage of “you” to express norms (“In Ann Arbor, you wear maize and blue on game day”) and
  • “I” to express preferences (“I like to get to the Big House early on game day”).

In the context of discerning unfamiliar norms, our evidence suggests that people rely on generic “you” to inform their judgments of how normative a behavior is.

Comparing:

  • Norms described with the generic usage of “you” (“You sit in the front seat in taxis here”) to
  • Norms described with “I” (“I sit in the front seat in taxis here”),

people express more confidence that the former is the correct way to do things.

This work reveals people’s sensitivity to subtle shifts in language, and how such shifts may reflect people’s attitudes, and shape them.

How do aspects of one’s self-concept that are affirming in certain contexts undermine their goals in others?

A large body of research has attempted to explain why women are underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. In my research, I have focused on how stereotypes related to motherhood may interfere with women’s identities, and their motivation to pursue STEM.

I have found that college women who strongly identify both with being a mother (even though they have not yet had children), and with STEM, experience increased levels of identity conflict when the incompatibility between these two self-concepts is activated. These feelings of identity conflict are associated with negative consequences regarding their motivation to pursue the field and their likelihood of recommending it to other young women.

At a broad level, my research in this area seeks to identify the psychological consequences of this process to advance our understanding of how to break down these barriers.

Can people’s ability to control their thoughts, feelings or behaviors to align with their goals be meaningfully improved?

I am also interested in how the basic mechanisms that support emotion regulation in the lab operate in the real world. I believe these insights have the potential to equip people with tools that they can use to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in daily life.

In collaboration with researchers at the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia, I am working on a school-based intervention that teaches students the science behind self-control. As a first step, we partnered with teachers from across the country to develop a curriculum that addresses three questions:

  • What is self-control and why is it important?
  • What are the building blocks of self-control?
  • How can these principles be put into action?

We are in the process of piloting this curriculum before conducting a large-scale (~20,000 students) Randomized Controlled Trial which will examine its effect on students’ academic achievement and well-being.

In other studies, I’ve found that targeted interventions that train or cue people to adopt a more distanced perspective through the words they use to reflect on the self can reduce their anxieties concerning real-world concerns, and buffer emotionally vulnerable individuals against increases in depression over time.

TL;DR To a large extent, psychologists have conceptualized emotion regulation as a deliberate process that requires effort. I’m interested in how that the structure of language itself may support emotion regulation by allowing people to intuitively and seamlessly gain psychological distance. I’ve also discovered in another line of research that stereotypes related to motherhood and STEM may be interfering with young women’s identities and motivation to pursue STEM fields. And to find out whether basic processes that support emotion regulation in the lab can be leveraged to improve people’s ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in daily life, I’ve helped design several interventions, including a large-scale curriculum which will be tested in an RCT with ~20,000 students.