School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Jessica Lougheed

Ph.D candidate, Developmental Psychology

Jessica Lougheed and husband Scott Masters

Jessica Lougheed and husband Scott

The Real-Time Dynamics of How We Influence Each Other’s Emotions

By Sharday Mosurinjohn
September 2015

Have you ever wished you could know exactly how your part in a conversation was affecting the other person as the experience was unfolding? Despite the seeming mystery of how fleeting expressions and mannerisms can either make a conversation go as expected or take an awkward turn, one researcher is pioneering ways to do just that. Jessica Lougheed, PhD candidate in Developmental Psychology at Queen’s University, is doing what’s called observational research to answer the question: how do people change each other’s emotions? Specifically, most of her studies measure real-time behaviours during interactions in one of the most emotionally intense relationships you could imagine: adolescent daughters and their mothers.

Lougheed came to Queen’s via the University of Victoria where she studied Psychology and Germanic Studies (including an exchange that saw her build bilingual working proficiency). Lougheed actually had her sights set on a school abroad for her next degree, but she ultimately chose Queen’s to work with supervisor Dr. Tom Hollenstein, one of the few developmental psychologists doing adolescent research in Canada. As fate would have it, after one visit, Lougheed loved the campus, the collaborative nature of the program, and her rapport with Hollenstein so much that she cancelled all her other applications. With a text from Kingston to her now-husband about the change in plans (“I’m behind you 100%,” came the reply), she committed on the spot to moving across the country and beginning her MSc.

The studies she began in that program and built on throughout her PhD have taken Lougheed in further unexpected directions; they’ve resulted in new research tools for examining real-time emotion dynamics and also lend support to a new theory, “social baseline theory” (Beckes & Coan, 2011) that’s “turning the standard paradigm of psych on its head,” to name just a few.

Whereas the norm in psychology is to look at emotion regulation (i.e., the ability to modulate the kind of emotion or intensity of emotion you’re experiencing) as a process within individual people and in a static way, Lougheed looks at dynamics between people and across time, such as how parents help their children develop the ability to regulate emotions. Explaining the conventional approach, Lougheed says: “for instance, you might look at a bunch of parents with typically-developing kids and a bunch of parents with kids who have aggression problems and compare the average amount of some behaviour, like things parents would do to try to help their kids feel better. But when you look at these interactions as though they are one single time point, you might not see any group differences. Even if you do, those data don’t tell you much too about the process.” But if you instead take what’s called a “dynamic approach,” it’s “like zooming in with a microscope,” she says.

“We ‘zoomed in on’ 7-minute samples of a parents and children discussing something they argue about frequently and looked at little bits and pieces at a time in a time series, modeling the extent to which parental behaviours were contingent on children’s expressions of emotion in real time. And that’s what we found to be predictive of children’s externalizing symptoms, like aggression—how contingently parents respond supportively to their children’s expressions of negative emotions.” (You can find the study on NCBI Pubmed website).

So what do you do after you’ve zoomed in on parts of the social world never before seen? You build a bigger lens and zoom in again.

In order to look at “even more fine-grained temporal dynamics”, Lougheed next trained her lens on “continuous dynamics as indicated by the sympathetic nervous system.” The fight or flight response, which becomes more active in times when we feel stressed out or nervous, is what’s called a “continuous process.” In other words, unlike emotional expression, which is categorical variable (e.g., a person’s face might express sadness one minute, and have a neutral expression the next), physiological arousal fluctuates (e.g., your heart rate, perspiration, adrenaline levels, rise and fall continuously). Measuring “continuous dynamics” as a proxy for emotional states has allowed Lougheed to look at emotional changes on the order of intervals just 1-5 seconds long.

One study coming out of this research, nicknamed “the hand holding study” (available on the American Psychological Associations' PsycNet), is the one helping to re-envision just what psychology actually studies by using the innovative “social baseline theory”, first discussed by psychologists Lane Beckes (Bradley University) and James Coan (University of Virginia).

Social baseline theory assumes that we have evolved to be close to other people and that having high-quality relationship partners allows us to distribute the load of our day-to-day tasks like child rearing and chores onto those who are close to us, conferring benefits in terms of energy savings. Derived from evolutionary, social, and developmental psychology, “it says individuals are at their optimal functioning when they’re with others,” Lougheed sums up. This is a novel idea in psychology because the vast majority of research examines individuals outside of their close relationships, which means that research participants may not be functioning at their optimal level as it is often assumed.

With that in mind, “the hand holding study” had adolescent daughters come in to the lab with their mothers, and elicited social stress in the girls by asking them to give a speech with no prep time. The question Lougheed intended to answer was: does physical closeness affect the way we manage our emotions during a stressful task? To find out, she had some mothers put their hand on their daughter’s hand, while the others had no physical contact. She found that “out of all possible combinations of high and low relationship quality and physical touching and not touching, it was only the girls who had no physical contact at relatively low relationship quality who were less able to regulate their emotions during this task.” The punch line? “I think my supervisor says it best: being in high quality relationship is kind of like holding someone’s hand all the time.”

With a number of other studies on the go, Lougheed is also busy preparing to teach Social and Emotional Development (PSYC 351) in the Winter and organizing collaborations for an upcoming conference. The latter is just one example of how she has fostered the collaborative ethos that drew her here in the first place. Already, her network includes collaborators from conferences, methods workshops, and grants hosted as near as York University and as far as Radboud University Nijmegen, which have spun off into further writing projects and consulting work for other researchers using her research tools. Reflecting on her time in the Adolescent Dynamics Lab, Lougheed says: “one of the things that makes me grateful for being at Queen’s is that my supervisor has been so great at helping me develop as an independent researcher.”

In the same vein, she notes that one unexpected thing that she “never ever” thought she would have pursued so intensely is research methods. “As an undergrad I struggled with stats classes, which I attribute to not having a grasp of the research process because I didn’t get involved in research until after that training. But I came to work with a supervisor who is very methodologically oriented and since then every single one of my studies has involved learning or teaching myself an advanced statistical approach that I had never used before.”

Nearing the completion of her PhD, Lougheed’s career goal is to continue as a researcher looking at the relationships between real time processes and development. The big picture is that “real time processes are the building blocks of development.” In Lougheed’s words, “what happens moment-to-moment and the accumulation of those experiences are what eventually become our traits, our tendencies to do certain things, our ability to deal with challenges. It’s what happens between people in real time that shapes who we are.”