SASSC The Expert Interview
November 14, 2016

Today’s Expert
Jeff Larson
University of Tennessee –

Interview by:
Catie Brown
University of Nebraska –

Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today and share your thoughts with SAS. To start, could you give a brief introduction about yourself?

Sure. I study ambivalence and mixed emotions—these curious state where you are feeling both positive and negative emotions at the same time. Mixed emotions are interesting because typically when we think about emotions we think about feelings that are good or bad, not both. But in order to understand emotions fully, we need to understand mixed emotions as well.

What would you say are some of the key theories and ideas that your research builds off of which might be familiar to others who study affective science?

Well, broadly speaking, I work within the context of dimensional models about the structure of affect. These are models like Watson and Tellegen’s Positive and Negative Affect Model, Jim Russell’s Circumplex Model, but definitely the most important one is Cacioppo and Berntson’s Evaluative Space Model. The Evaluative Space Model, more so than the other two models, focuses on how positivity and negativity represent separable substrates of the affect system. It’s that kind of conceptualization that really opens up questions about mixed emotions. But, it doesn’t have that as much to say about the types of stimuli and events that elicit positivity and negativity.  Appraisal theories of emotion have been helpful in that regard.

Could you give some examples?

I think that the clearest case is my research on emotional reactions to disappointing wins. A disappointing win is something that is a positive outcome, but one that could have been even better. So, you are expecting to win $15 but you only win $5. Is it a win or is it a loss? Whatever it is, the evidence suggests that it elicits both positive and negative affect.

So, in thinking about positive and negative affect and how you incorporate various areas of your work, it’s clear that it’s kind of a broad discipline. There’s a lot of ways that you can go in studying affect. What fields would you consider to be part of this affective research community?

Looking out toward other social sciences, we can certainly see connections to behavioral economics, which is all about dollars and cents. If, for example, you expected a ten percent raise, and you got a three percent raise, or you expected unemployment to go down two percent and it went down one percent. Then there’s the decisions that they’re going to make as a result, which brings up Barbara Mellers’ decision affet theory, which has really influenced how I go about this work. Decision affect theory says that we make the decisions that we expect will make us feel the most positive emotions. In addition to economics, political science ties in as well. I just wrapped up a study at 11:59pm the night before election day where we looked at people’s reactions and attitudes towards Hillary and Trump, and looked to see whether they had mixed emotions towards the two candidates and how those mixed feelings influenced their attitudes.

Is that something that your lab did, or was it in collaboration with someone in political science?

Actually, this was a senior thesis of a student who is a psychology major and is going into law school.

Oh, that’s cool. Can you share any results from that?

Sure. What we were really trying to figure out is who feels conflicted when you ask them, “Okay, how do you feel about the idea of voting for Clinton,” for example. Who feels torn about that? We already know that people who feel both good and bad about Clinton would report feeling torn and conflicted. That’s old news; that’s well-established. What we looked at in this study is something that social psychologists call Lewinian conflict. Lewinian conflict occurs when you have to make a choice and you have to approach or avoid some stimulus. A classic case is a rat who has to make a choice between some electric shock or some unpleasant taste. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. This is called avoid-avoid conflict, and there’s also approach-approach conflict, where you have to choose one of two pleasant things. Well, as it turns out in the 2016 presidential election, lots of people were experiencing an avoid-avoid conflict. They just didn’t like either candidates and saw themselves between a rock and a hard place. As predicted, what we found was that people who did dislike both candidates felt more mixed emotions, more conflict, and were more torn toward both of the candidates individually.

Right, that makes sense. Let’s change direction a bit and also talk about advice that you might have for students. Are there any core topics or authors that you think that all student of affective science should be familiar with?

I could come up with essential readings only for those students who have unlimited amounts of time. But that’s noboby. There’s nothing that every single affective scientist needs to know because there is simply so much. The important thing, I think, is to know where in the space you’re operating. I’m mainly interested in the experience of affect. That being the case, things like affective processes at the molecular level in rats—which is obviously really important for affective science—is just something that’s too far removed from what I do for me to be able to read up on it. It’s about knowing what you’re doing and knowing what else is going on in your neighborhood so that you’ve got that sense of context and also a source of ideas as you’re trying to do integrative work. I’d hate for this advice that I’m giving to give the impression that, “Oh, okay, all I need to do is find a silo and jump into it and never leave it.” Knowing the area you’re in doesn’t give you leave to jump into a silo. Rather, it just lets you know where you are on the map and who’s nearby you that you can chat with and learn from.

A lot of this is making me think about conferences where there are broad variety of fields of study represented, even within specific areas. Do you have a “conference strategy” that you go with when you’re presented with all these options and you want to hear what everybody’s doing, but you have to stick with what’s relevant?

Yeah, the very first conference I went to, it was Psychophysiology, and I was in my second year of grad school, probably around 1997. And for some reason I thought that I needed to look at every poster, and it was just overwhelming. It was also pointless, because I just didn’t have the background to understand much of it. Also, it was boring. I could have come away from that feeling so overwhelmed that I would never become a scientist, and also so bored that I wouldn’t want to be a scientist. Fortunately, I quickly became smarter about it and realized that there’s going to be some stuff that I’m interested in, and most of it I’m not. It doesn’t mean that the stuff isn’t worthwhile. There’s no reason to think that anything I do is any more worthwhile than anyone else’s work, but it interests me. That’s what you have to focus on.

Do you have any advice for younger researchers as we emerge into the field?

Whenever you ask someone for advice like this, they always give conflicting advice. On the one hand, stay focused, but not too focused. Push on, but be willing to drop an idea if things just aren’t turning out. We all have to walk on a tightrope—but it’s not really a tightrope, because if you fell from a real one, you’d end up in the hospital. You’re not going to end up in the hospital if you make a mistake. It’s also not exactly like a tight rope because it’s not always clear where it is or when you’ve fallen off. But fortunately, you’re not going to get hurt. We’re all very fortunate to have the opportunity to think for a living rather than put our bodies on the line.

I think one thing is to seek counsel from unbiased, objective, smart people. It can be really hard to know whether the stuff that you’re interested in is interesting to others. Science is a collective enterprise. The field decides what’s interesting. There is probably nothing about basic research that’s inherently interesting; it’s only via this collective process that things become interesting or uninteresting. If no one’s interested in what you’re doing, either A) it’s uninteresting or B) you haven’t been able to communicate why it’s interesting. The first possibility is that it’s just a matter of framing, so that’s something that you can think long and hard about. And that is hard to do. What distinguishes a lot of excellent researchers from others isn’t so much what they’re doing but how they’re framing it when they communicate it to other scientists. If people aren’t interested, first ask yourself, “Is it a matter of framing?” Or, maybe it’s just not something people are going to be interested in

That’s tough, but true. Do you know yet if you’ll make it to Boston next April for the SAS Conference?

Oh, I really want to go. I keep hearing great things about it, but this year probably won’t be the year.

Anything else you wanted to share before we wrap up?

One thing I would say is to not get too wrapped up in semantics and distinctions. Think about how much time people spent arguing about the relationship between affect and cognition, or whether surprise is an emotion. I find that a lot of these debates that really seemed important when I was a student mostly ended up being just about words. When we’re reading other people’s work, recognize that inevitably different people are going to use the same term in different ways. That’s just how it’s going to be, and it’s okay. You just have to understand how other people are using the word.

I’ve got a case study that’s going to be about how long emotions last. Some people say that emotions only last a second or two, and other people are going to tell you that emotions last days and days. That seems like a big disagreement, but really it just comes down to how people are defining what an emotion is and how they study emotion. People who focus on facial expressions of emotion are going to be the ones who say emotion lasts only a second or two because that’s how long facial expressions of emotions last. People who study emotion by giving people surveys where they ask about some intense emotion that they’ve experienced in the past will come up with memories of these really intense, long-lasting experiences. So, of course, you might come up with the conclusion that emotions can last for days and days. There’s no real disagreement between those two researchers, they’re just talking about different things.

This is really informative. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

You’re very welcome. Oh, one more thing, and it’s going to be one of those conflicting pieces of advice. The one piece of advice is to do your own homework. Don’t ask other people to solve your problems for you. But then, on the other side, don’t spend too much time beating your head against a wall. Sometimes somebody else could answer the question in a minute, and that minute would save you a lot of time. On the other hand, they can answer it for you in a minute, but that doesn’t mean they should because for you to really understand it you have to put in that toil figuring it out yourself. My suggestion is to err on the side of beating your head against the wall a little too much rather than a little too little. And if your advisor tells you to go back to beating your head against the wall, I guess that’s just how it goes some times.

This is great advice. I know I appreciate it. Thanks so much.