Causal Uncertainty

One potential source of dysphoric people’s social problems is the more systematic information seeking and processing they typically exhibit. A crucial component proposed to underlie their effortful processing is their uncertainty about their ability to understand the causes of events in their social world. This individual difference construct is known as causal uncertainty, and in the past, I have demonstrated that compared to low causally uncertain people, high causally uncertain individuals engage in more extensive social information seeking and processing and are less likely to stereotype. More recently, I have expanded my research on causal uncertainty to the social-behavioral or social-relational domain. I have shown that causal uncertainty is uniquely associated with loneliness and shyness, and that it mediates the relationship between dysphoria and reassurance seeking concurrently and longitudinally, all of which are associated with difficult social interactions. My students and I have found that causally uncertain people are more likely to be rejected by their roommates, engage in less mimicry (an unconscious behavior that can facilitate social interactions), are more empathically accurate in face-to-face and computer-mediated dyadic exchanges, and suffer less self-regulation depletion following dyadic interactions. Thus far we have not been able to detect any social skills deficits in causally uncertain people’s interactions, but my current Ph.D. student, Shana Needham, and I are employing a stress paradigm that we hope may reveal the behaviors that are causing them problems in their relationships in the real world. Finally my former Ph.D. student, Kevin Rounding, and I have shown that causal uncertainty is a mediator of the relationship between perceived parental dysphoria and one’s own dysphoria.


With various colleagues and students, I have been studying dysphoric people’s accuracy in their social judgments. We have found that dysphoric people are more accurate in detecting complex and basic emotions from eyes, mouth, and full facial stimuli. We also have demonstrated that individuals with remitted depression maintain greater accuracy, but when they are primed with a positive mood, forced to engage in facial mimicry, or are clinically depressed, this advantage disappears. In addition, we have established that the dysphoric people’s greater accuracy is due to greater social motivation and attention to detail on emotion recognition tasks, but to both greater attention and memory processes on empathic accuracy tasks. Extending this research to the eyewitness domain, we have found that dysphoric people are more accurate at facial recognition than are nondysphoric people and that this advantage is maintained even with a delay provided that they remain dysphoric or their depressive symptomatology improves.

The Self

My research on the self has focused on moderators of self-control or self-esteem. For self-control, I primarily have examined two moderators, causal uncertainty (mentioned briefly above) and religion. For the latter, we have found that compared to a neutral prime, a religious prime yields greater self-control. Still it is easy to generate examples of religious people who clearly did not exhibit greater self-control, so my current focus is on identifying the limits of this relationship. Already we have found that our religious priming effects are obtained only when certain methodological practices are employed, and we currently are borrowing from my previous work with colleagues at UCI on impelling and inhibiting cues and risk taking behaviors to better determine when religious reminders will lead to more vs. less self-control. Regarding moderators of self-esteem, we have two projects underway. The first project is with Thomas Vaughan-Johnston examining self-esteem importance. Much like attitude importance moderates the attitude-behavior link, we propose that self-esteem is going to be more or less affected by various experiences (e.g., negative feedback) depending on how important one views self-esteem. The second project is with a recent graduate of our program, Ning Zhang, and we are testing the effects of temporal construal on self-reports of self-esteem.