How does language influence emotion regulation?
Emotion regulation - the set of strategies people can use to influence how they feel - is critical to mental health and well-being. One helpful strategy for regulating emotions is called cognitive reappraisal, which involves rethinking the meaning of a situation to change how it makes us feel. Given that thought and language are tightly connected, I seek to understand how individuals can use language to best facilitate reappraisal. Some of my undergraduate work with Prof. Kevin Ochsner at Columbia University and Prof. Ajay Satpute (now at Northeastern University) showed that merely labeling emotions using words shapes their neural representation (Satpute, Nook et al., 2016). Thus language can have a powerful influence on emotion. In graduate school, I extended this research to investigate how language influences emotion regulation. Some work I've done with Prof. Leah Somerville at Harvard University shows that people spontaneously distance their language when they use cognitive reappraisal, and people who distance their language more strongly are more successful at regulating their emotions (Nook, Schleider, & Somerville, 2017). Linguistic distancing means reducing use of pronouns that refer to oneself (e.g., "I") and verbs that refer to the present moment (i.e., present-tense verbs). In other words, successfully changing how you feel involves using language to "take a step back" from oneself and the present moment. Interestingly, a developmental study of this effect showed that it is stable as early as age 10 (Nook*, Vidal Bustamante*, Cho, & Somerville, 2020). I am currently translating this research into clinical settings by testing how linguistic distancing relates to psychotherapy outcomes. In the future, I hope to study how context influences relations between linguistic distancing and emotion regulation and how linguistic processes beyond distancing relate to emotion regulation and clinical outcomes. For example, in a collaboration with Prof. Matt Nock, we have used topic modeling approaches to identify individuals online who are thinking about suicide (Franz, Nook, Mair, & Nock, 2020).
How do emotion concepts develop?
People often ask children to "use their words" to talk about how they feel. Although a growing body of research suggests that being able to use words to label feelings is helpful, we still know relatively little about what emotion words children know and how they learn what these words mean. Through work with Profs. Leah Somerville & Kate McLaughlin at Harvard University, I have developed an interview-based tool for assessing what emotion words children and adolescents know (Nook, Stavish et al., 2020). Going beyond this, we have also used this interview and other behavioral tasks to study how the meaning of emotion words changes across age. In more technical words, I'm interested in understanding how the concepts underlying emotion words develop with age. These studies have shown that children primarily understand emotions in terms of valence (i.e., positivity vs negativity), and their emotion concepts become more multidimensional as their vocabulary increases (Nook, Sasse, Lambert, McLaughlin, & Somerville, 2017). Additionally, people learn to see emotions with higher levels of abstraction as they progress through childhood and adolescence (Nook, Stavish, et al., 2020). However, not all development is linear: Adolescents actually tend to have greater difficulty specifically identifying what they feel (a skill called emotion differentiation) compared to both children and adults, and this is because adolescents are more likely to experience multiple emotions simultaneously compared to children (Nook, Sasse, Lambert, McLaughlin, & Somerville, 2018). These studies begin to shed light on how emotion concepts and emotion language develop, which I believe is crucial to understanding both how people of different ages experience emotions and how emotions go awry across development (Nook & Somerville, 2020). My future work in this area aims to clarify how developing emotion concepts relate to emotion regulation and mental illness, and I hope to chart how neural development underlies these emotional processes.
How do social norms shape affect and behavior?
People exert enormous influence on each other. Social psychologists have long known that people are attuned to group behaviors and will readily conform to social norms. However, countless questions remain regarding how social norms influence affective experiences. In work with Prof. Jamil Zaki at Stanford University, I have found evidence that basic reward-learning neural mechanisms might underlie people's tendency to conform to group norms (Nook & Zaki, 2015). Interestingly, this study investigated how people conform to group norms regarding food preferences, suggesting that even these one's affective responses to foods can be powerfully shaped by social norms. We extended this framework to understand how social norms might relate to another key affective process: empathy. Empathy is key for social relationships, clinical practice, and prosocial behavior. In a series of studies, we found that people not only reported feeling more empathy for homeless people when they were in a highly empathic group of peers, they also donated more to homeless shelters if their group had a strong empathic norm (Nook, Ong, Morelli, Mitchell, & Zaki, 2016). Thus these studies show that social norms are powerful forces for guiding both affect and behavior. I am currently working on extending these paradigms to other emotions that have direct translational potential. For example, I am collaborating with Profs. Emily Holmes and Andreas Olsson at Karolinska Institutet to understand how worries spread through social networks, a line of inquiry that could help us better understand a key component of generalized anxiety disorder.