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In one line of research I have focused on individual differences in self-regulation. For example, I found that trait self-control modulates attentional biases in the context of threatening information. One study found that individuals higher in trait self-control oriented toward positive emotional stimuli, whereas those lower in self-control oriented toward negative stimuli, after thinking about their own death1. Along similar lines, I found that those higher in self-control report more optimism after thinking about death2. Taken together, these findings suggest that the characteristic response to thoughts of death among individuals who tend to succeed at self-control is optimism and positivity. I found evidence to corroborate this line of thought in a new study of reward processing as a function of individual differences in emotion regulation, another hallmark of self-regulation. Specifically, I observed that those who habitually use effective emotion regulation strategies (i.e., cognitive reappraisal) show elevated early electrocortical responses to reward cues, whereas those who habitually use ineffective emotion regulation strategies (i.e., expressive suppression) show blunted reward outcome anticipation. In a two-year follow-up, those with poorer emotion regulation ability had poorer well-being—a finding that was mediated by blunted reward outcome anticipation3. From an individual differences perspective, these findings suggest that good self-regulation orients the brain and body toward positivity.

  1. Kelley, N. J., Tang, D., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2014). Mortality salience biases visual attention toward rewards for those high in self-control. Cognition and Emotion, 3, 550-559.
  2. Kelley, N. J., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2015). Mortality salience causes an optimistic bias among individuals higher in trait self-control. Motivation and Emotion, 6, 926-931.
  3. Kelley, N.J., Glazer, J.E., Pornpattananangkul, N, & Nusslock, R. (2018). Reappraisal and suppression emotion-regulation tendencies differentially predict reward-processing and psychological well-being. Revising for Resubmission.

My second line of research has used targeted manipulations of brain activity (e.g., tDCS) to influence motivational and cognitive processes1. One study observed that excitatory stimulation over the left DLPFC increases approach motivated processeswhereas a second study found that excitatory stimulation over the right DLPFC increases avoidance motivated processes3. These results are consistent EEG studies linked left and right lateralized frontal brain activity to approach and avoidance motivation respectively. However, a separate literature finds that many right frontal regions are associated with inhibitory cognitive processes, suggesting that excitatory stimulation over the right DLPFC may increase inhibitory processing. I then developed a paradigm for testing these competing hypotheses (avoidance vs. inhibition) within the same experiment. First, excitatory tDCS was administered over the DLPFC then participants used a joystick to either push appetitive images away from or pull aversive images toward their body. If excitatory stimulation over the right DLPFC enhances avoidance motivation, then performing motor actions incongruent with this state should be more difficult and result in slower response times when pulling aversive images toward the body. By contrast, faster responses may reflect inhibitory processing insofar as they require one to override or inhibit impulses to pull appetitive images toward and push aversive images away from the body. Results were consistent with a right frontal inhibition hypothesis and suggest that excitatory stimulation over the right DLPFC may promote the inhibition of impulses irrespective of their motivational direction4.

  1. Kelley, N.J., Hortensius, R., Schutter, D.J., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2017). On the relationship of approach/avoidance motivation and asymmetric frontal cortical activity: A review of studies manipulating frontal asymmetry. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 119, 19-30.
  2. Kelley, N. J., Eastwick, P. W., Harmon-Jones, E., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2015). Induction of relative left frontal cortical activity with transcranial direct current stimulation increases jealousy. Emotion, 5, 550-555.
  3. Kelley, N. J., Hortensius, R., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2013). When anger leads to rumination: induction of relative right frontal cortical activity with transcranial direct current stimulation increases anger-related rumination. Psychological Science, 24, 475-481.
  4. Kelley, N. J., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2016). Noninvasive stimulation over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex facilitates the inhibition of motivated responding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 1702-1712.

My third line of research has investigated how cognitive mindset manipulations influence goal pursuit and reward responsivity. Past theory and research have observed that motivationally intense states like anger are associated with narrowing of cognition and attention, whereas less intense states are linked with a broadening of attention. To the extent that a broadened cognitive scope pacifies intense emotional states, these broadened, expansive, and abstract ways of thinking may also enhance self-regulation. In my first test of this idea1, participants thought broadly and abstractly about why they pursued academic goals or more narrowly and concretely about how they pursue academic goals. Across two experiments, participants who thought about their goals more abstractly viewed their goal as more meaningful, reported being more motivated to pursue the goal, and reported the goal to be more self-concordant, compared to participants who thought about their goals more concretely. More recently, I paired a manipulation of cognitive scope with a reward task while EEG was recorded2. I found that broadened cognitive scope enhances early electrocortical responses to reward cues and rewarding feedback. In addition to modulating reward responsivity and tuning one toward long-term goals, a recent series of 7 studies has found that experimentally broadened cognitive scope decreases aggressive inclinations3. Taken together, these studies suggest that a broadened cognitive scope may promote self-regulation by stifling negative urges and orienting individuals toward rewards and long-term goals.

  1. Davis, W.E., Kelley, N. J., Kim, J., Tang, D & Hicks, J.A. (2016). Motivating the academic mind: High-level construal of academic goals enhances goal meaningfulness, motivation, and self-concordance. Motivation & Emotion, 40, 193-202.
  2. Nadig, A.G*., Kelley, N.J*., Pornpattananangkul, N., Glazer, J.E., & Nusslock, R. (2018). Attentional scope differentially influences anticipatory versus consummatory reward-related neural activity. * = Equal Contribution. Manuscript under review.
  3. Summerell, E., Harmon-Jones, C., Kelley, N.J., Peterson, C.K., Krstanoska-Blazeska, K., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2018). Does cognitive broadening reduce anger? Manuscript under review.