The emotional potency of peers during adolescence

Leah Somerville

If you had to choose one event that epitomizes your experience as a teenager, what would it be? For me, I immediately think of that moment at the school dance while I was dancing with my middle school crush to November Rain by Guns n Roses. Our slow dancing skills were passable during the first part of the song, but then the tempo picked up … and let’s just say, we were not very smooth at adapting our dancing styles. Although I hope (for your sake) that the same thing didn’t happen to you, I’d bet that whatever memory you do conjure when you think back to your own adolescence is socially and emotionally charged.

It turns out that my adolescent experiences were completely typical of most adolescents—social experiences take on heightened emotional and motivational importance during adolescence as compared to other stages of life. In a study we conducted, we wanted to see how sensitive adolescents were to even the simplest, most innocuous social provocation: being looked at by a peer. During our study, we measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging in tandem with physiological arousal (measured with the skin conductance response—how much sweat is secreted on the skin during emotional events). We observed that even the simple act of being looked at by a peer was enough to induce heightened emotion reports, physiological responses, and brain activity in adolescents (when compared to adults and younger children). For instance, we saw biased activity in regions of the brain important for representing the emotional value of stimuli and in brain regions involved in thinking about ourselves (to read more, see here). All of these findings add up to the general conclusion that adolescents are highly attuned and reactive to their social environments – even very subtle ones – and that this fact influences a variety of their daily choices and feelings.


The author of this post at age 13 showing off her spiral perm.

What’s interesting about these findings is that they seem not to be unique to human adolescents. The term ‘adolescence’ is a sociocultural construct that refers only to humans, defined by simultaneous physical and psychological change that ends when an individual takes on adult roles in society (adolescence is most often defined as the approximate ages ~13-17 years). However, some aspects of biological changes during this age range, including hormone changes that define puberty, occur in other mammals as well. Some surprising results have arisen from the study of pubertal-linked changes in social behavior in non-human mammals. Pubertal rats enjoy ‘social play’ (kind of like wrestling) more frequently than adult rodents, and also seek out more novel and potentially thrilling experiences. Perhaps most intriguingly, rodents undergoing puberty also approach potential rewards (in this case, consuming alcoholic beverages) more when in social groups. Whereas adult mice spent the same amount of time consuming alcoholic substances when alone and with peer animals, juvenile animals in the pubertal stage spent more time consuming alcohol when in a cage with familiar peer animals. And it wasn’t just a motivation to consume the tasty cocktail before others got to it – they each had their own sipper.

What lessons can we learn from our furry friends about adolescence and the social potency that characterizes this age range? It is often assumed that peers take on heightened importance in adolescence due to overt concern about social status. However, it seems unlikely that such complicated, strategic motivations would drive rodents to behave differently around peers. This raises a second possibility, that there are “undercover” or non-deliberate ways that adolescents are influenced by social contexts. We believe that adolescents’ brains are biased to assign importance to social information, which imbues social settings with an extra boost in power to shape their feelings, motivations, and decisions. Although more research needs to be done to address questions like “why” and “how”, I guess that’s why I’m still mildly embarrassed by my tragic bout of dancing (and simultaneously thankful I grew up before the days of smartphone cameras).

Bipolar Disorder and the Balancing Act of Emotions

Jasmine Mote

The United States is a culture deeply invested in the pursuit of happiness. But what if feeling excited or ambitious could lead to devastating consequences, such as going bankrupt, hospitalization, or harming yourself?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where people experience manic episodes, which for some are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, pride, or excitement. In common parlance, people often use the terms “bipolar” or “manic” in a derogatory sense, to mean “crazy” (e.g., “She is totally bipolar”). But in reality, bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition with specific symptoms surrounding waves of extreme positive emotion and waves of depression. You’d think that experiencing a lot of positive emotion would be a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Feeling too good can have negative consequences.

June Gruber at the University of Colorado, Boulder, among others, has shown that people with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions and for a longer duration than people who do not, even if they are not experiencing a manic episode (for a review of this literature, go here). Manic episodes may also be characterized for others by intense feelings of irritability and general emotional instability. Overall, however, while manic episodes may feel good for some people, they also lead to an increase in engaging in risky behavior (such as reckless driving) and impulsivity, among other symptoms, and can damage interpersonal relationships, cause severe financial stress, or lead to suicide. Further, many people with bipolar disorder also experience depression between manic episodes, where they may feel sad, not enjoy things that they used to enjoy, find it hard to do everyday tasks, and also have thoughts of suicide.

Balancing ActBalancing emotions in bipolar disorder can be tricky when both feeling good and feeling bad have severe consequences, and some people may decide that it’s simply too risky to put themselves into situations that can cause too much happiness. Research has shown that some people with bipolar disorder try to reduce, or dampen, the positive emotions in their lives more than people without bipolar disorder. For example, they may try to not make a big deal out of positive experiences or avoid positive situations (such as pursuing romantic relationships) altogether to help them prevent a future manic episode. Such strategies lead people to report a lower quality of life and may ultimately put themselves at risk for depression.

So how can people with bipolar disorder stay healthy but also still experience the positive emotions that make life so enriching? As part of a team of researchers led by Sheri Johnson and Ann Kring at the University of California, Berkeley and Judy Moskowitz at Northwestern University, we are currently testing a group treatment intervention to increase healthy positive emotions in people with bipolar disorder. Based on Dr. Moskowitz’s work on interventions designed to increase positive emotion in other populations, such as in people with schizophrenia and people recently diagnosed with HIV, we have developed a 10-week group treatment intervention study called the Learning Affective Understanding for a Rich Emotional Life (LAUREL) Group. The group uses basic emotion research and teaches skills related to increasing positive emotions that have not been shown to significantly increase the risk of a manic episode, such as low activation positive emotions (e.g., calm, relaxation, serenity) and emotions focused on others (e.g., gratitude). Some examples of the skills we teach include emotion regulation strategies (e.g., changing the way we think to change the way we feel), mindfulness meditation, and self-compassion. The study is currently ongoing and we have already received a lot of positive feedback from previous group members. We hope that skills such as these can help people with bipolar disorder — in addition to their current treatments — navigate the balancing act of their emotions so that they can both stay healthy and feel good in their daily life.

Special thanks to Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., for her feedback on an earlier version of this post. 

Photo credit:

Can Disgust Be Anger for Kids?

Sherri Widen

Imagine you and a 2-year-old child are watching TV.  In the show, a man discovers that his soup contains sheep’s eyeballs.  You think to yourself, “Wow, that guy is really disgusted!”  The child says, “Wow, that guy is really mad!”  You are confident that, in fact, the guy is disgusted.  Does that mean that the child is wro2462987456_c9d17a5539_zng?  Most people assume that children and adults understand emotions in very similar ways.  But as this example shows, that may not be the case.

Although children begin using emotion words in conversation before the age of 2 and have a wide emotion vocabulary before the age of 5 years, studies of children’s use of emotion words find that they initially have two broad emotion categories: one for positive emotions and one for negative ones.  For example, 2-year-olds have been asked to say how people with different facial expressions feel.  The 2-year-olds used angry for facial expressions of anger, disgust, and sadness but not for facial expressions of happiness, surprise, or fear.  So, for young children, angry is a much broader category than it is for adults.  Older preschoolers are less likely to use angry for sadness facial expressions but it is not until children are at least 9 years old that they stop using angry for the disgust facial expression.

How do children go from two broad emotion categories (positive vs. negative) to more specific, adult-like categories?  In answering this question, it is helpful to think of emotions as “scripts” which include causes, consequences, and so on: for disgust, a person smells something foul (cause), wrinkles his or her nose (facial expression), covers his or her nose (behavior), and tries to get away from the source (consequence).  Which of these parts of the script might help children first understand that their broad negative emotion category is composed of distinct emotions?  From among all the causes, consequences, behaviors, etc., children need to notice that some things tend to co-occur.  For disgust, causes may provide that initial clue (eating or smelling something awful).  By 3 years, children know both the causes and words for disgust but it is not until they are much older that they connect the facial expression to the other parts of the disgust script.  In contrast, for sadness, by 4 years of age, children have connected the causes, consequences, facial expressions, and labels of the script.

As children move from preschool-aged to middle childhood, they learn about a wider variety of emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, and shame.  Just as younger children initially understand emotions like sadness, anger, and disgust in terms of positive vs. negative emotions, older children initially understand embarrassment, pride, and shame as a part of emotion categories that they already have.  Children (4-10 years) were asked to say how people felt when shown facial expression or told brief stories describing situations that cause these emotions.  Younger children labeled anger, contempt, disgust, and shame as angry and they labeled embarrassment as sad.  Gradually, children distinguished among the emotions and the oldest children used the expected label for all emotions (except contempt, which they labeled as angry).

So, when the 2-year-old in the sheep’s-eyeball-soup example we began with said that the man was angry, she was not wrong.  Within her understanding of emotions, the man was experiencing a negative emotion and her word for negative emotions is angry.  This response represents her current level of emotion understanding but it is also an opportunity for you to teach her something new – what disgust is.  A variety of school-based interventions work to explicitly teach children about emotions and to increase their emotion vocabulary and social skills.  Children are ready to learn about emotions and children who participate in these interventions develop stronger social and emotional skills and have improved grades than children who do not.

 Photo credit: Photo sourced from flickr via Creative Commons License

Temperament: A Marker for Asthma?

Katie Chun

Have you noticed that certain people tend to get sick, while others do not? Think back to when you were a kid and schools gave out “perfect attendance” awards. Kids who were sick a lot could only dream of this award, while others received this award every single year. Questions about variation in health extend beyond just asking “who gets sick” to also ask “who gets sicker?”. Two people can be exposed to the same bug and one ramps up a significant immune response, knocking him out of work for a week with illness while the other just goes about her normal business as if nothing happened. There are countless examples of how our immune systems react in different ways.

There are lots of potential reasons that people’s immune function differs, but one possibility is that temperament or personality is associated with health. For example, personality traits related to negative affect (i.e. anxiety, hostility) have been consistently related to increased risk for illness. Another example is behavioral inhibition, which is a temperament style commonly studied in children that is similar to shyness. Behaviorally inhibited children tend to avoid social situations and react negatively to new situations. Kids who are behaviorally inhibited as infants and toddlers have a greater risk for developing anxiety later in life than those who are not behaviorally inhibited. In addition to anxiety, behavioral inhibition has also been associated with the development of asthma, a disease characterized by inappropriate responses in the immune system. Unfortunately, the exact way that asthma and behavioral inhibition are related is not yet known.

In a series of studies that I conducted as part of my doctoral work, we used a monkey model to try and understand the link Copyright Kathy West CNPRC 2015between behavioral inhibition and asthma. A common measure of asthma is how sensitive the lungs are to things that enter them (e.g., air pollutants, or aerosols). In asthmatics, the lungs are really reactive, causing constriction and decreasing airflow to produce an asthma attack. We first demonstrated that monkeys that were less likely to socialize with peers and who had more intense reactions to novel situations tended to have more reactive airways (an indicator of asthma) than control monkeys. That is—behavioral patterns associated with social behavior and emotion predicted who had a robust airway response. Interestingly, there was no relationship between behavioral inhibition and common asthma-related immune markers (e.g., immune cell numbers, inflammatory proteins). One possibility is that the relationship between behavioral inhibition and asthmatics is produced not by the immune system per se, but by the autonomic nervous system—the system that controls your heart, lungs, and guts and produces “fight or flight” and “rest and relax” responses to stimuli in the environment. Both behavioral inhibition and asthma have been related to alterations in the autonomic nervous system. It may be that alterations in the autonomic nervous system are a common link between behavioral inhibition and sensitive airways, which could be further investigated in future studies to sort out these mechanisms.

The take home message from our study, in concert with accumulating evidence from other research groups, is that variation in emotional life is related to health. Understanding the causal relationships between emotion and health (e.g., does emotional temperament like behavioral inhibition lead to reactive airways or do animals with reactive airways become behaviorally inhibited?) is the next critical step in this research program and will hopefully lead to interventions to promote well-being.

Photo credit: Kathy West CNPRC-UC Davis, copyright 2013

Awe and Order

Carlo Valdesolo

When do we feel awe? And what kinds of behaviors and beliefs does this emotional state motivate? Recent research has explored these questions in a variety of ways and several themes have begun to emerge. First, we feel awe when in the presence of something it is hard to wrap our minds around, whether this be the infinite depths of space, a beautiful piece of art, or a striking double rainbow. And these failures to assimilate information into our knowledge structures can elicit deep feelings of uncertainty and confusion, motivating us to imbue our environment with order and predictability. In short, awe makes us want to know what does it all mean? And while research has shown that we can satisfy this motivation in a variety of ways, we often turn to one of two dominant explanatory frameworks in our attempts to do so: religion and science.

The relationship between awe and religiosity or spirituality has been demonstrated before. For example, a recent paper by Jesse Graham and I tested the effect of awe on agency detection – that is, the tendency to infer that a stimulus must have been designed by an intentional agent, like a human or a God. We predicted that the uncertainty people feel when they experience awe will cause them to detect supernatural agents, like Gods and ghosts.

We conducted three studies that tested these predictions. In general, participants across these studies were made to feel either awe, amusement or a neutral emotional state, then they completed an individual difference measure known to measure their ability to tolerate feelings of uncertainty, and finally they were then asked to indicate their belief in supernatural agents. Across these studies we found consistent support for our hypotheses. Awe made participants less tolerant of uncertainty (compared to participants in the other conditions), and in turn these feelings of uncertainty led to increased agency detection in the domain of the supernatural. This suggests that one way we make sense of the awe-inspiring experiences in our lives that most deeply challenge our understanding of the world is through reinterpreting them as the product of some kind of intentional actor–by seeing agency even where there might be none.

But no work as of yet has examined the effect awe might have on attitudes towards scientific explanation. It’s possible that there is something 5854379112_3f237540dc_bunique about the relationship between awe and religion (a conceptual association, perhaps) that makes us exclusively more open to supernatural explanations, but that doesn’t change our affinity for secular explanations of the world. Alternatively, it might be that the effects of awe on explanation are not domain-specific. That is, awe motivates us to find order through any explanatory means available, religious or scientific. Research in my lab has begun to test this idea and we have preliminary support for the hypothesis. It appears that when we gaze upon the Grand Canyon, we might not just be more likely to believe in a grand designer, but also more attracted towards the geological principles explaining its creation. Of course, our affinity for one kind of explanation or the other will likely depend on a number of factors, not least of which are our existing ideological proclivities. If we have strong theistic, or atheistic, beliefs, experiencing awe will likely strengthen them. An interesting question for future research remains (especially for those of us who would like to promote interest in science), how might we nudge people towards one kind of explanation instead of the other?

Photo credit: picture by Moyan Brenn on Flickr "Grand Canyon" (C) 2011 Moyan Brenn