Looking back to when I first joined the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress (UW CATS), I vividly remember the nervous excitement I experienced when running my first participant through a set of psychophysiological tasks. I remember looking with trepidation to more experienced research assistants for reassurance that I was on the right path. Yet, sticking sensors beneath participants’ eyes and working for hours on PC computers almost as old as I am quickly became the highlight of my weeks; it was an opportunity to be surrounded by the motivated researchers whom I aspired to be. I loved knowing that each time a participant blinked and every number I computed was a step toward big-picture findings like those I’d read about in journal publications and the theories which were reshaping my worldview. The passion for clinical psychology and research I had developed in class was suddenly reified and began to increase exponentially. Moreover, the encouragement I received to pursue my short-term research goals as an undergraduate and to persevere in my long-term aspirations to attend a PhD program in clinical psychology was invaluable. Thus, when I heard of an opening for a psychology honors student, I jumped at the opportunity to learn about the process, the high points and challenges, of conducting my own research in such a nurturing environment.
Working on my project, which examines risk taking as a predictor of anhedonia (characterized by an insensitivity to pleasure/reward), has somewhat ironically been one of the most rewarding aspects of my time at UW. Faculty member Dr. Zoellner and psychology doctoral student Rosemary Walker M.S., who are my primary mentors, have simultaneously guided me through the development of this project and empowered me to think critically and independently about its design. I feel so lucky that when scrolling through a list of 499 research opportunities, I landed on this one because I cannot imagine being part of team that is more rigorous yet supportive than the one I am on.
Below you can find a picture of part of the UW CATS team when they came to support me last year at a celebration for the UW President's medalists and a copy of the abstract I submitted to the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium application committee earlier this month!
Abstract: As anhedonia, characterized by a blunted sensitivity to reward, is associated with decreased goal-directed behavior, increased risk taking in those with high anhedonia may reflect a lack of concern for the outcome of risk-related behaviors (Craske, Meuret, Ritz, Treanor, & Dour, 2016). Observational studies indicate anhedonia is associated with some risky behaviors, with skydivers endorsing higher levels of anhedonia than non-skydivers (Franken, Zijlstra, & Muris, 2006) and high-risk sports players who report higher anhedonia taking fewer precautions (Barlow et al., 2005). Gender has also been shown to influence riskiness, with men reporting more recreational and health-related risk taking than women (Bender, 2005). Despite having behavioral tasks that show predictive validity in assessing real-life risk taking, the relationship between anhedonia and risk taking has not been examined using a controlled, experimental paradigm, which is critical to establishing a predictive association between these constructs. This study aims to characterize the relationship between anhedonia and behavioral risk taking. Sixty individuals, either high in anhedonia (15 female, 15 male) or within a healthy range (15 female, 15 male), will be recruited. Risk taking behavior is operationalized with the Game of Dice Task (Brand et al., 2005), a gambling task that has shown validity in assessing risk taking in clinical samples (Svaldi, Philipsen, & Matthies, 2012). We hypothesize that individuals with high anhedonia will score significantly higher on risk taking compared to those with low anhedonia. Further, we hypothesize a moderating role of gender, such that male participants with high anhedonia will be even riskier than females with high anhedonia. As risk taking often precipitates harm, understanding this association is an important public health concern. Moreover, characterizing the relationship between anhedonia and risk taking may provide insight into high rates of suicidal behavior observed in individuals with high anhedonia (Nock and Kazdin, 2002).