Combating Social Isolation

Project Team

Team profile by Jacqueline Trumbull, Jasalyn Bennekin, Julia Long, Carly McGregor, Adam Nawrocki, Jessica Su and Yeon Suh

Social isolation and lack of intimate relationships has been tied to a range of severe health problems (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2017) and may be a strong driving factor behind the increasing rates of mental health problems in the United States (Twenge, 2017). As an interdisciplinary group with a blend of clinical psychology, social psychology, and computer science backgrounds, our Bass Connections project team created a solution to this problem by developing and testing an intervention for social and emotional connection.
Project manager Kibby McMahon dedicated her graduate research to studying social and emotional problems with her advisor Dr. Zach Rosenthal in the Duke Cognitive Behavioral Research and Treatment Program. Their earlier research discovered how people with psychopathology often have difficulty coping with their own distress, which in turn interferes with emotion perception, the ability to perceive and empathize with other people’s emotions. Based on this initial work, this Bass Connections project team started in 2018 to develop an accessible behavioral intervention that targets these nuanced psychological processes with common mobile-phone technology. 

As our main mission was launching the study, “Emotion Regulation and Emotion Perception,” we called our project team “EREP.” From 2018-2019, EREP designed, tested, and launched the pilot clinical trial of an intervention that combined in-person training in a mindful breathing skill and phone-based reminders to practice the skill in daily life. The study was conducted over two sessions in the lab (intake and training sessions), followed by one week of receiving mobile phone prompts (testing phase).

Figure 1.
Figure 1: Summary of the main procedures in the study protocol

The 2018-2019 team included Kibby McMahon, Dr. Zach Rosenthal, and Dr. Tim Strauman as leaders, Dr. Caitlin Fang as the postdoc fellow, and undergraduate students Victoria Trimm, Bridget Wallace, Susie Choi and Julia Long.

Julia, Tori and Bridget with their team’s poster

Victoria and Bridget were psychology majors who had key roles in shaping the design and materials of the study. Susie and Julia were computer science majors who developed the computer program in the training session. In addition, these students collaborated to collect and analyze data from a large online study related to this trial.

When Susie, Victoria and Bridget graduated, the 2019-2020 team recruited a set of new students: Jasalyn Bennekin, Jessica Su, Adam Nawrocki, Yeonju Suh, Carly McGregor, and graduate student Jacqueline Trumbull.

This team managed the ongoing study, including running participants, managing the collected data, and preparing the manuscript (e.g. Jessica designed the study procedures figure above!). At the end of the academic year of 2020, the project team concluded with positive findings from the trial.

Emotional Connection.
Carly, Jasalyn and Jessica in a lab meeting

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

Emotional Connection poster.

For both years, the EREP project team fostered an interdisciplinary, collaborative learning environment that supported career aspirations within the fields of digital interventions, psychology and academia. All students met for a weekly lab meeting to discuss the various topics related to the project (e.g. digital interventions, emotion regulation, social cognition). We had guest speakers who provided professional perspectives on potential applications of this work, including an IT consulting for digital health and science writing for lay audiences. We also attended the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies annual conference each year, so the undergraduate students could learn about the field of clinical psychology and network with experts. Victoria and Bridget even presented their research at the 2019 conference after they graduated. By many standards, the EREP project team was a success and our students will be greatly missed. However, we’re looking forward to all the new pathways EREP started, including new Bass Connections project teams, a podcast, and an entirely digital version of the intervention to share with the community.