Work in L-STAR revolves around efforts to understand anxiety and its impact on interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, we are interested in clarifying how and why anxiety leads us to “step on our own toes” when interacting with other people. In our efforts to answer this broad question, we focus on narrow slices of experience during interpersonal interactions and examine how those experiences may vary depending on whether we tend to be anxious in social settings. We use a variety of approaches that range from behavioral tasks and self-report to neuroimaging and eye tracking to target multiple levels of functioning.

Some of our work focuses on the moment we first see another person with whom we might engage. We are interested in particular in how anxiety may influence or bias our attention to superficial cues that might signal that a person is to be approached or avoided (e.g., facial expressions, markers of gender or racial group membership). We also study whether and how attention to such cues influences our evaluations of ourselves–does anxiety modulate our tendency to take in positive or negative feedback from other people and, if so, how does this feedback influence our self-evaluations?

Other lines of research attempt to clarify how anxiety may affect our decisions about when to approach other people and when to steer clear of them. Dr. Tone and her collaborator, Dr. Michael Schlund, recently received funding from NIMH (R01 MH120448) to study the neurocircuits supporting adult avoidant decision-making and how anxiety may modulate activity in these networks. We are also funded to collect pilot data translating our adult work to school-aged children. Lab members have also conducted neuroimaging studies using economic exchange tasks–particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma–to model how interpersonal decision-making unfolds over the course of a simple, but affectively-charged, interaction.

A third area of interest in the lab is how anxiety relates to interpersonal values and prototypical patterns of interpersonal behavior. Optimally, people can call on a wide array of behaviors in order to function successfully in varied social situations. We tend, however, to internalize strong messages that some kinds of behavior (for example, those that demonstrate strength, those that demonstrate warmth and kindness, those that protect us from being embarrassed) are imperative and others are taboo. We are initiating work aimed at elucidating how such core interpersonal values develop, why anxiety arises when we face situations that demand behavior that is incongruent with our core interpersonal values, and how we can help people to increase the flexibility of their behavioral repertoires, even in the face of strong anxiety.

Finally, we have started, in recent years, to translate our basic findings into applied work. Using the faculty-student mentoring relationship as a starting point, we are exploring ways to help participants in relationships better manage anxiety that tends to disrupt productive and satisfying interactions.