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

Student Opportunities

Ideally, the team will include at least 5 undergraduates and 1 graduate student. Relevant areas of study include Psychology, Neuroscience, Global Health, Computer Science and pre-med.

The team will meet weekly for 1.5 hours, with hands-on research experience supervised by Kibby McMahon and Caitlin Fang supplementing these group meetings. Tasks will be divided by students’ expertise, schedules and learning goals. Each student will have an individual meeting with team leaders at the beginning of the year to formulate a plan.

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, and statistical analyses, and will contribute to and write peer-reviewed manuscripts and conduct 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. Some of the team members will also travel to the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

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 testing phase, entering and cleaning data, analyzing data and assisting in writing the manuscript.

Students will also have opportunities to develop their own independent projects, using the data collected for this study. Students may identify their own research questions, address them with the project’s data and present their findings at the Bass Connections Showcase, a professional psychology conference or as a manuscript.


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


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

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.

/faculty/staff Team Members

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