Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Lebenswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Psychologie






The following PhD student projects are supported by the program:

Subclinical psychopathy in old age
(A. Cengia)

Subclinical psychopathy is a so-called “dark” personality trait and one part of the commonly accepted concept of the Dark Triad. Individuals scoring high on psychopathy are characterized by high impulsivity and thrill-seeking as well as low empathy. Characteristics shared to varying degrees with Narcissism and Machiavellism, the two other parts of the Dark Triad, are self-promotion, emotional coldness and aggressiveness.
The literature about subclinical psychopathy seems to focus on juvenile psychopathy and psychopathy in early to middle adulthood, but little is known yet about psychopathy in old age. Furthermore there is to my knowledge no literature or theories about developmental processes in old age, the underlying mechanisms of these or the direction of development in late adulthood concerning subclinical psychopathy. For making such research possible it is a necessary first step to have an updated nomological network of psychopathy specific to old age.
Therefore all three studies will gather data to investigate factorial validity, construct validity (relations with the BIG 5 and the other dark triad members) and criterion validity of subclinical psychopathy in an older sample (N=250, age=65+). In order to determine criterion related validity, three different experiments will be conducted. At the first measurement point (Study 1), an experiment measuring aggression will be conducted. The nomological net found in Study 1 will then be compared to the nomological net of psychopathy in early adulthood, to find similarities and differences. This information can then be used to derive hypotheses about developmental processes that might influence psychopathy in a longitudinal way.
At a second measurement point (T2) six months after T1 a paradigm by Wilson & Reinhard (2014) will be executed, assessing ones willingness to harm themselves in order to not be bored anymore.
Data that will be collected at a third measurement point (T3) one year after T1 will be used to test the hypotheses made after Study 1. To gather more information about criterion validity and also to include a social component of subclinical psychopathy, another experiment will be conducted using a negotiation scenario.


The influence of age-related stereotypes on emotion perception in young and old faces
(M. Freudenberg)

Hardly a day goes by without us expressing our inner emotional state in some way. However, facial emotions expressed by the Elderly are less well perceived relative to young emotional displays. One feasible explanation regards attitudes towards older adults that may bias facial emotion perception, e.g. stereotypical beliefs on grumpy old men. Thus, the current research aims to explore the mechanism of how stereotypical beliefs about the Elderly may affect expression decoding in older faces. At first, I investigate with implicit and explicit measures whether age-related stereotypes exist on the level of discrete emotions. Further, I attempt to link individual stereotypical beliefs directly to expression decoding. Prospectively, this research project is crucial for everyday situations with senior citizens as the empirical findings can be used to avoid misunderstandings in emotional inter-age interactions. For example, training session for geriatric nurses could raise consciousness for the influence of stereotypical beliefs and thus qualified staff in retirement homes could benefit from these findings optimizing their behavior in response to the emotional needs of senior residents.


(Up-) Regulation of positive emotions: Individual differences at multiple levels of analysis
(J. Grosse Rüschkamp)

The present research proposes to further investigate whether individual differences in the executive control of affective processes, on the behavioral and neuronal level, leads to differences in the (up-) regulation of positive emotions, and whether these differences are related to individual differences in well-being. These questions will be investigated with laboratory paradigms and with ambulatory assessment.  Study 1 will examine executive functioning with neutral and affective material and its relation to the ability to regulate positive emotions in an affect regulation task. The specific question of this study is whether performance on various executive functioning tasks predicts the increase in positive affect in response to positive film clips and the maintenance of positive affect in response to negative film clips.
Study 2 will use MRI (structural and functional) to examine the neural basis of the ability to (up-) regulate positive emotions. Specifically, this study tests whether individual differences in the efficiency to engage prefrontal regions in emotion regulation is associated with the successful (up-) regulation of positive emotions in an affect regulation task.


The Dynamics of Workplace Conflicts – Consequences of Task and Relationship Conflicts on Performance Among Younger and Older Employees
(H. Mauersberger)

Workplace conflicts have been widely recognized to be leading social stressors across occupations. Yet, the detrimental effects of workplace conflicts on employee performance have not been confirmed consistently. Reasons for those inconsistencies might lie in the correlational nature of past studies that could not capture the complexity of workplace conflicts appropriately.
Thus, our first aim is to examine the dynamics of workplace conflicts in a controlled laboratory setting to gain a better understanding of how they unfold and how they affect performance in employees of different ages. For this, we created a team task that escalates into a workplace conflict. To examine affective and cognitive consequences of workplace conflicts, we will collect physiological data during and self-report as well as performance data after the conflict situation. Our second aim is to examine workplace conflicts in the field by using an event sampling methodology. For this, we will assess age-related differences in employees’ arousal states during and after workplace conflicts and relate those to their self-reported performance outcomes on a daily basis. We hypothesize that the appraisal of the conflict situation determines the affective reactions during conflicts, which then impair or improve performance. Further, we assume that age moderates the effect of conflicts on performance, as older employees presumably perceive conflicts less severe (i.e., experience less negative emotions during conflicts) than younger employees due to their reduced negative affectivity and enhanced emotion regulation abilities.
Insights gained from this research will help to dissolve past inconsistencies regarding workplace conflicts among employees of different age cohorts.


Electrophysiological Correlates of Age-related Changes in Emotion Regulation
(S. Paul)

Despite increasingly frequent negative life events (such as health problems and losses of friends or spouses), older adults are emotionally well adjusted. This may be attributed to improved emotion regulation capabilities. In two event-related potential studies, we want to test the effectiveness of various emotion regulation strategies across the life span (23-81 years). The first study investigates age-related changes in up- and down-regulating negative and positive emotions (induced by emotional IAPS pictures) by applying cognitive reappraisal (decreasing or increasing personal relevance). The second study compares the effectiveness of distraction and reappraisal in down-regulating negative emotion (induced by negative IAPS pictures). These two strategies differ regarding the time point when interfering with emotion generation and are hence more or less difficult to apply. To control for an age-related decline in executive functioning, various neuropsychological tests are applied.


Cognitive and neuronal effects and mechanisms of working memory training
(T. Salminen)

I focus on the question whether working memory (WM) impairments in the elderly can be compensated for by a training intervention and whether the training effects generalize beyond the trained task and trained cognitive function. Aging is linked to impairments in several cognitive domains, the causes of which are mostly attributed to resource limitations in fundamental cognitive functions (Salthouse, Kausler, & Saults, 1988; Verhaeghen & Basak, 2005). Especially impairments in executive functions are reflected in the performance of everyday routines (Salthouse, Atkinson, & Berish, 2003; West, 1996). One prominent theory presents WM capacity as a fundamental cognitive resource sensitive to aging (Salthouse, 1996; Verhaeghen & Salthouse, 1997), and several studies have reported a decline in the WM capacity of elderly people (e.g., Park et al., 2002). WM has also been shown to be strongly associated with executive functions (Baddeley, 1986; Miyake, Friedman, Emerson, Witzki, & Howerter, 2000). The hypothesis that WM capacity is a central mediator in aging-related cognitive decline is of specific interest to our planned study. If WM capacity in the elderly can be increased through WM training and if the training effect generalizes to executive functions, the results provide evidence towards possibilities to preserve autonomy and abilities to function in everyday life into old age.


Circadian Rhythm of Emotional Contagion between Spouses
(H. Schade)

Spouses share similarities in a wide range of characteristics, including chronotype (Leonhard & Randler, 2009), health (cf. Meyler, Stimpson, & Peek, 2007) and life satisfaction (e.g., Schimmack & Lucas, 2006). Over and above assortative mating and a shared environment, part of these similarities are likely due to the manifold influences partners exert on each other. One form of spousal influence is the transmission of emotions and stress between partners, the so-called emotion contagion. Indeed, studies have found associations between spouses’ affect as well as their cortisol levels (cf. Repetti, Wang, & Saxbe, 2011). This is best studied with micro-longitudinal, experience sampling data. Understudied so far is the contagion of affect and cortisol between older spouses. One could imagine that older partners show strong associations of their affective states due to the strong dependence on each other and extensive amount of time spent together. In addition, older partners seem particularly vulnerable to negative health outcomes that result from deviations from the normal pattern of circadian cortisol secretion. Not only is their health more fragile, but also are they at higher risk for inconsistent cortisol cycles than younger samples (Ice, Katz-Stein, Himes, & Lane, 2004).
A fruitful avenue for research is then to look at older spouses’ affect and cortisol over the course of several days. We expect them to be associated, and that this association is stronger in the evening than in the morning. Previous research has shown that cortisol is significantly associated between partners only when they are together in the same place, which was morning and evening for working couples (Saxbe & Repetti, 2010). While it is reasonable to expect associations to be lessened when spouses are apart, in old age, there is no imposed structure that separates the daily routines of spouses. This allows for investigating a potential circadian rhythm of emotion and cortisol contagion unconfounded by work rhythms.
A reason to expect such a pattern lies in the circadian rhythm of self-control: the capacity for effortful self-control – necessary for overriding dominant responses such as reacting aggressively to a transgression – is thought to be depleted incrementally over the course of the day (Baumeister, 2002; Stirling & Yeomans, 2003). Specifically older adults’ inhibitory ability seems to be better earlier rather than later in the day (Hasher et al., 1999): compared to younger adults, older adults have more difficulty to exert self-control, e.g. to avoid an argument, in the afternoon than in the morning (von Hippel, 2007). Interestingly, self-control is also necessary for resisting social influences (Burkley, Anderson, & Curtis, 2011). Thus, we expect emotion contagion between elder spouses to be more likely at the later hours of the day, when people have less energy to fight off the influence of their partner’s affect on their own emotions.


The pathogenesis of post-stroke depression
(M. Volz)

Depression is among the major long-term complications of cerebral stroke. About 40% of stroke survivors experience depressive symptoms, and about 30% fulfill the clinical criteria for depressive disorders. Post-stroke depression (PSD) is known to be associated with increased mortality, prolonged recovery and reduced quality of life. Typically evolving within the first two years post stroke and often persisting thereafter PSD is counted among the major malign long-term sequelae of stroke. Despite its relevance for rehabilitation outcomes, knowledge about the pathogenesis of PSD is still fragmentary.
This dissertation aims to further investigate the interplay of different risk factors of PSD over the critical first two-year period and to examine whether the emergence of PSD is more likely during an early and late phase. Especially the role of self-efficacy and possible inter-individual differences in the trajectory of PSD will be at the heart of this dissertation. A better understanding about the pathogenesis of PSD could facilitate the development of tailored interventions and respond to the growing burden of stroke for patient and health care system.


The impact of personal and social resources on professional success and mental health of Spanish professionals in Germany
(M. Wassermann)

The immigration of Spanish professionals is an opportunity to deal with existing skills shortages in Germany. To use this value of migration in the face of the prevalent demographic change in the long term, it is essential to sustain professional success and health of immigrants and associated resources across the lifespan. Despite the growing proportion of immigrants in the working population, research in the field of the occupational psychology barely focusses on the group of immigrants. The focus of my PhD is the economical integration and health of Spanish professionals in Germany. I investigate the direct influence of social and personal resources as well as personality characteristics on the professional success, and how professional success in turn affects mental health.