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UD’s Philip Gable wins Early Career Award from the Society for the Science of Motivation (SSM)

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Gable’s research was among the first to examine just how key motivation is within emotion.

Head shot of Philip Gable

​Philip Gable, associate professor at the University of Delaware, wins Early Career Award from the Society for the Science of Motivation (SSM).

Over 60 years of research has suggested that when we are experiencing positive emotions, we are able to take in more information from our surroundings but when we are experiencing negative emotions, such as anger, our focus narrows. When Philip Gable first examined past work investigating emotion-scope interaction, he noticed that research on positive emotion had focused solely on low-intensity positive emotions such as contentment or joy.

In contrast to this past work, Gable correctly predicted that a different class of positive emotions such as desire or enthusiasm would also narrow attentional scope. Gable's research made the distinction that in terms of motivation it is not merely a matter of positive or negative emotion. Rather, it's about intensity. He called this model the Motivational Dimensional Model. Importantly, the model suggests that motivation is key to how emotions influence the way we see and experience the world. 

Authorship of this Motivational Dimensional Model is one of Gable's contributions to motivation science and was cited by the Society for the Science of Motivation (SSM) in naming him the winner of the Society's first Early Career Award. 

"A highly unexpected bright spot" was how Gable described receiving notice of the award during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. "I'm proud of the research I do, but there is so much excellent work on motivation that I hadn't expected to be chosen for the award." 

In his research career, Gable has examined positive and negative affects that vary in a key dimension: motivation, or the impetus to act. Specifically, affective states vary in motivational intensity (strong vs. weak) and motivational direction (approach vs. withdrawal). This work is based on the premise that a narrowed focus on a desired goal may assist in ultimately obtaining the goal because of that very focus. 

Gable's research was among the first to examine just how key motivation is within emotion. That some emotions were high or low in motivational intensity is not novel. However, his work demonstrated that this dimension of motivational intensity causes cognitive narrowing or broadening. 

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Man and little girl sitting at a desk.

​Philip Gable, winner of the SSM's 2020 Early Career Award, hard at work (unsuccessfully) grading papers with his daughter.  

"An analogy might be the difference between a spotlight and a floodlight," Gable explained. "The spotlight is narrow and focuses, but the floodlight illuminates a bigger picture. A real-world example one might encounter on campus is when you're about to take the first bite of a delicious cone of UD Creamery ice cream, you're probably not noticing the pattern on the napkin or the heat!"

Since developing the original model, Gable and other researchers have demonstrated that motivational intensity plays a key role in our attention, memory, and perception of time. He has also examined the neural correlates of motivation and these cognitive processes.

Discussing the future of his research, Gable said, "My hopes for this work is to apply it to the study of addiction and substance misuse. Emotions are at the heart of addiction processes and individuals are highly motivated to consume drugs. I hope to apply models of emotion and cognition interaction to the study of why some individuals who begin consuming addictive substances develop addictions and others do not."  

In announcing the award, the Society for the Science of Motivation stated: "In the ten years since receiving his PhD, Philip has made multiple substantive contributions to motivation science. Contributions include authorship of the Motivational Dimensional Model of cognitive scope and related empirical demonstrations. Philip's research shows that low intensity emotions broaden- and high intensity emotions narrow the scope. As an investigator, Philip takes a multi-method approach - examining neuropsychological and neurophysiological processes. His work addresses fundamental as well as applied motivational issues. Philip's work is widely cited and has been well funded."

The SSM said that their award committee "chose this candidate among several excellent young researchers. The sheer quality of the winner and the other nominees should make everyone optimistic about the future of motivation science!"

Article by Donette Plaisance

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