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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Research Matters

watamuraBy Kimberly Chiew
Assistant Professor



With the beginning of the fall quarter, DU's classrooms, dorms, and libraries are bustling again. With exams on the horizon, Anderson Commons will soon be full of students, perhaps aspiring to enter medical or graduate school, hunkering down to study. While this behavior is familiar, it depends on a complex mix of motivational and cognitive processes we are just beginning to understand. The student in the library might draw on her future aspirations to help focus attention on the study material, ignore distractions such as friends' text messages, and ultimately, master the concepts that she needs to remember.

The Motivation, Affect, & Cognition (MAC) Lab, directed by Dr. Kimberly Chiew, investigates the psychological and neural mechanisms by which motivation and emotion shape human cognition. We focus primarily on cognitive control – an umbrella term for attention, working memory and inhibition functions that make controlled behavior possible – and episodic memory – detail-rich, long-term memory representations of specific events. Our research has important implications for understanding how these processes support adaptive behavior in healthy individuals (in a range of settings, including education!) but also in conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), where these processes are often disrupted.

We use a variety of research tools in our work. In many of our studies, we combine emotion and motivation manipulations (including happy/sad film clips or pictures, and reward or punishment incentives), cognitive control or memory tasks, and physiological measures. This approach lets us investigate how emotion or motivation influence cognitive performance and what biological changes are associated with those interactions. For example, we use pupillometry (measuring the diameter of the pupil, using an eye-tracker) to examine how reward incentives change the timing of attentional processes during task performance, or brain imaging to characterize what neural circuits might be involved. We're also interested in how cognitive processes might differ under reward vs. punishment motivation, and the role of individual differences, such as personality measures, in influencing how emotion or motivational influences alter performance.

We investigate these mechanisms in naturalistic settings, as well as using laboratory tasks. A recent project in the lab has investigated whether positive vs. negative motivation leads to differing exploration and memory behaviors in a real-life art exhibit. Video data of exploration and emotional responses, together with use of individual difference measures, allow us a unique glimpse at motivated cognition "in the wild". Findings from this project suggest that individual differences and motivational context interact to predict exploration and memory outcomes. In another project, we are studying real-life autobiographical memories for the night of the 2016 American election, and whether those memories differ depending on whether individuals considered the event positive vs. negative, and surprising vs. unsurprising. We are following individuals over a 12-month period to examine these memories over time.

The MAC Lab is launching at DU Psychology this fall and will be working on these projects and more. We are excited to be joining the DU community!