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Research Foci

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), or Social Phobia, is one of the most common psychiatric disorders. A long-standing focus of the lab has been investigating the etiology, topology and treatment of SAD.

Evaluation of psychotherapy outcome

Our research group is interested in questions such as: Which therapies are most effective? How should effectiveness be measured? How should therapies be labeled as “empirically-supported treatments”?

Application of acceptance-based behavioral treatments to emotional and behavioral health problems

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), acceptance-based behavior therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are all recent extensions of traditional cognitive-behavior therapies that have been grouped under the rubric of acceptance-based psychotherapies. Our lab group is focused on developing and evaluating acceptance-based therapies, in particular ACT, in the treatment of a variety of problems including social anxiety, generalized anxiety, depression and obesity. These therapies have less investment in the typical aims of CBT such as symptom reduction, and instead aim to help people become more aware and accepting of their internal experiences (thoughts, feelings and sensations), gain greater psychological distance from internal experiences (so, for example, thoughts of inadequacy are not necessarily believed), achieve greater clarity as to one’s core life values, and most importantly, to behave in ways that are consistent with these values.

Investigations of mechanisms of action of psychotherapy

Each psychotherapy perspective has a theory purporting to explain how it works. In the case of traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, the theory, in part, suggests that a reduction in distorted thinking is responsible for the effects of the therapy. Acceptance-based therapies call for different mechanisms of action, e.g. increases in experiential awareness and acceptance as well as increases in the ability to “defuse” from or separate from one’s thoughts and feelings. Our group has been investigating the extent to which the two therapies operate through the mechanisms their theoretical frameworks purport. It is hoped that knowledge about such mechanisms of action will translate into the ability to create more effective and efficient therapies.

Health and eating behavior

Our group is interested in improving health-related behavior change, particularly in the areas of obesity, physical activity and eating disorders. This research includes investigating the efficacy of treatment interventions using novel components such as ACT as well as understanding and altering the effect of implicit attitudes on eating behaviors.

Validity of the construct of PTSD

Although the diagnostic entity of PTSD is widely accepted throughout the medical establishment and in our society in general, there are some indications that the construct, at least as currently conceived, is flawed. For instance, most notions of PTSD assume that the post-traumatic reactions are universal biological responses to profound trauma that should be equally present in people from all cultures. However, a growing body of work, including some from our lab, suggests that this is not the case. In fact, there is evidence that some post-traumatic reactions may be in fact be closely tied to one’s expectations of what type of symptoms one ought to experience following a trauma. These expectations may arise from well-intentioned but possibly contraindicated psychoeducational interventions.

Clinical Decision Making

While there is a long history of clinician’s making use of a complex assortment of data to aid in clinical decision making and conceptualization, virtually no empirical support for the usefulness of such data in sound decision making exists. Our lab group is pursuing research aiming to investigate the degree to which data such as developmental, relationship, and family history demonstrably and empirically aid clinical decision making.

Science and pseudoscience

Claims about the legitimacy of mental health interventions are not necessarily grounded in acceptable scientific approaches. Our research group is interested in developing general principles that help to separate true scientific approaches from those that are better described as pseudoscientific, because their grounding principles violate core tenets of the scientific approach. In addition, our group has an interest in identifying psychotherapeutic approaches (e.g. thought field therapy) that claim a scientific grounding but are best labeled as pseudoscientific.