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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Clinical Psychophysiology

Provided by Dr. Jason Moser, Department of Psychology - Michigan State University

Research in the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab aims to uncover fundamental differences in the ways that anxious vs. non-anxious people process and think about their world.  

For instance, anxious individuals tend to pay special attention to negative and threatening things, presumably because they are on the look-out for and want to avoid things that might cause them social (angry face for a socially anxious person) or personal (spider for an arachnophobic) harm.  But, anxiety seems to be more generally related to attention to things that stand out in the environment.  Research in my lab shows that anxious people might be distracted by even simple things that pop out such as the eye-grabbing color red.  This finding is important because it indicates that anxiety interferes with attentional focus at a very basic level and suggests that anxious individuals pay special attention to a variety of things that are easily noticed and distracting.  This may be one of the reasons why anxiety makes it hard for students and employees to complete their work in a timely fashion.  Recently, we have shown that a computer training program that helps anxious people stay focused on very specific features of stimuli (e.g., shape) helps them overcome their distractibility and even become less anxious.       

In another line of work, we are interested in how anxious individuals think about their own anxiety.  Research in social psychology has shown that there are two ways of thinking about one’s own abilities or characteristics:  a fixed-mindset that construes abilities and characteristics as genetic and unchangeable and a growth-mindset that construes abilities and characteristics as a product of experience and malleable.  Our recent research has demonstrated that the more anxious someone is, the more likely he/she is to hold a fixed-mindset about his/her own anxiety, intelligence, emotions, and personality.  That is, more anxious people tend to think about their characteristics as genetic and unchangeable.  Interestingly, we also found that people who hold this fixed-mindset about their anxiety — and who also tend to be pretty anxious — are more likely to choose medication over therapy to deal with their problems.  So, it seems like because anxious people think they have a more unchangeable problem, they need to fix it using a biological treatment that involves little effort on their part — i.e., a quick fix.  One problem with that idea is that therapy tends to outperform medication long-term for problems like anxiety.  Our ongoing studies are continuing to better understand anxious people’s mindset so that we can develop new interventions focused on teaching them that anxiety and other characteristics are a product of both genes and experience and that with effort they can learn to make lasting changes in their anxiety.   

Together, these lines of research demonstrate how clinical psychologists can use research findings to inform how we make sense of and alleviate mental health problems.

Jason S. Moser, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
Michigan State University
Office: 110B Psychology Building
Phone: 517-355-2159

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