Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction (2018-2019)


Social isolation and lack of intimate relationships have been tied to severe adverse consequences, including poor health outcomes and premature mortality. The epidemic of social isolation, which is getting worse with each new generation, may be a strong driving factor behind the increasing rates of mental health problems in the United States. Given the severity of this public health crisis, there is a pressing need for new interventions that target and treat problems with social functioning across a range of psychiatric disorders.

One potential target for intervention is emotion perception deficits, which are problems with perceiving and understanding other people’s emotions. These deficits are associated with serious psychiatric disorders (e.g., anxiety, mood and personality disorders) and lead to debilitating societal problems, such as isolation and violence.

Previous research suggests that intense emotional distress impairs emotion perception. Therefore, interventions that help patients manage their emotional experiences in social contexts may improve their ability to perceive other people’s emotions.

However, for new interventions to make an impact on the individual and society, the treatment benefits must extend into patients’ daily lives. Duke researchers have developed a new approach to help patients practice new emotion regulation skills using mobile phone reminders.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will study whether teaching people to calm down using mindfulness can improve their social skills. Specifically, the project team will test the effects of a new, mindfulness-based intervention on the ability to perceive other people’s emotions. This intervention includes 1) a laboratory training session in which people learn how to regulate their emotions with mindful breathing and then 2) one week of reminders of this mindfulness skill, delivered to participants through their mobile phones. This study will be conducted with a clinical sample of adults with emotional difficulties.

The outcome of this study will be a brief, accessible mindfulness-based emotion regulation intervention that improves social communication processes in adults who have severe emotional difficulties. In addition to the study, the team will develop a website that provides practical information on emotion regulation and social skills for the community.

Anticipated Outcomes

Publications and conference presentations; website and pilot web-based emotion regulation intervention; data for grant applications

Student Opportunities

All students will receive hands-on experience with intervention research in a psychiatric outpatient setting. They will learn crucial skills in project administration, data management, statistical analyses, contributing and writing peer-reviewed manuscripts and conducting research with psychiatric outpatient populations. They will also learn about the different ways to treat mental health through clinic-based interventions and dissemination of effective interventions using technology. For example, students will have direct input in what types of skills and psychoeducation will be included in the website.

Ideally, the team will include at least five undergraduate students from a variety of relevant areas of study, including psychology, neuroscience, pre-med, public health and computer science. Undergraduate student research assistants will play crucial roles in the research and acquire a range of skills that are valuable for graduate studies and employment. Kibby McMahon will serve as project manager.

Team members will be involved in all levels of the project, including generating empirical hypotheses drawn from literature reviews, refining the research design, preparing materials, recruiting participants, running participants in both the laboratory experiment and the phone-based EMA testing phase, entering and cleaning data, conducting data analysis and assisting in writing the manuscript. The team will also collaboratively design and create the website that disseminates emotion regulation and social skills. Additionally, McMahon will lead a weekly course for team members in conjunction with Dr. Rosenthal’s weekly lab meeting.

All team members will be encouraged to attend professional academic conferences, such as the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. At the end of the semester, students will write a 4-5 page paper on what they have learned. Team leaders will have individual evaluation meetings with student members to give and receive feedback on their progress.

Duke undergraduates and graduate students can apply for this project team beginning on January 24. The priority deadline is February 16 at 5:00 p.m.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Prepare and launch study; begin weekly meetings and study training; plan website development; recruit study participants
  • Spring 2019: Conduct study until 66 participants have been completed; design and launch website; conduct literature reviews, experiential exercises and group discussion; write papers and give presentations; prepare data for statistical analyses and use SPSS to analyze data; write manuscripts to submit to peer-reviewed journals


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Gary Bennett, Duke Global Digital Health Science Center
Caitlin Fang, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD
Katherine (Kibby) McMahon, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD*
M. Zachary Rosenthal, School of Medicine-Psychiatry: Behavioral Medicine*
Timothy Strauman, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience*

* denotes team leader


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