Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction (2019-2020)


Social isolation and lack of intimate relationships has been tied to a range of severe adverse consequences, including poor health outcomes and premature mortality. 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. The current project plans to pilot a new intervention that will promote healthy social functioning across a range of psychiatric disorders.

The project’s potential target for intervention is emotion perception deficits, problems with perceiving and understanding other people's emotions. Emotion perception deficits are associated with many serious psychiatric 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 team will evaluate whether the new intervention can help people better understand other people’s emotions. The study will involve a two-group clinical trial with 72 adults with emotional difficulties. The study will be conducted over two sessions in the lab, followed by one week of receiving mobile phone prompts.  At the end of the study, all participants will complete the self-report measures of psychological functioning and the emotion perception tasks. Emotional distress will be measured repeatedly throughout the study.

An important goal of the project is to develop an intervention that is delivered entirely through an online or smartphone platform. In addition to the empirical research study, the project team will design and develop a website that provides a psychoeducation on emotion regulation.

The outcome of this study will be a brief, accessible emotion regulation intervention that improves social communication processes in adults who have severe emotional difficulties. This project could offer a fundamentally new way to enhance psychiatric patients’ social and emotional functioning.

Anticipated Outputs

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


Summer 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Conduct study until 72 participants have been completed; design and launch website; participate in learning experiences, such as literature reviews, group discussions and experiential exercises
  • Fall 2019: Complete activities from Summer 2019; present independent study ideas at professional conferences
  • Spring 2020: Prepare data for statistical analyses; conduct analyses using SPSS statistical software; write and submit manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals

Team Outputs to Date

Combating Social Isolation (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction (poster by Carly McGregor, Jessica Su, Yeonju Suh, Adam Nawrocki, Jasalyn Bennekin, Jacqueline Trumbull)

See earlier related team, Emotional Connection: Developing a Mobile Intervention for Social and Emotional Dysfunction (2018-2019).

Hand holding phone with image of person meditating.

Team Leaders

  • Katherine (Kibby) McMahon, Trinity - Psychology and Neuroscience-PHD
  • M. Zachary Rosenthal, School of Medicine-Psychiatry: Behavioral Medicine
  • Timothy Strauman, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/graduate Team Members

  • Jacqueline Trumbull, Psychology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jasalyn Bennekin, Psychology (AB)
  • Julia Long, Computer Science (BS), Mathematics (AB2)
  • Carly McGregor, Psychology (AB)
  • Adam Nawrocki, Psychology (BS), Chemistry (AB2)
  • Jessica Su
  • Yeon Suh, Psychology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Gary Bennett, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Cognitive Behavioral Research and Therapy Program, Duke Psychiatry