Interview with Dr Katie Greenaway

Q: Earlier in the year you joined the School of Psychological Sciences from the University of Queensland. What have been your first impressions?

A: I’ve been really impressed and excited by how much movement there is in the school around growing capacity and developing a unified vision. The new hub system is a great initiative, and I love the behavioural change focus overlaying the topic area distinctions, reminding us of the importance of doing work that has relevance to people’s lives. Plus, it’s delightful to work on a campus (and in a city) where it’s almost impossible to get a bad cup of coffee!

Q: You hold a coveted Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council on the regulation of positive emotions. What does this project involve, and why would anyone want to regulate their positive emotions? Shouldn't we all just share our happiness with the world in an uncensored way? 

A: Yes, if you want to prioritize personal authenticity over social harmony! My DECRA project involves rethinking positive emotion regulation. Until now, emotion regulation researchers have paid less attention to how people manage positive emotions compared to negative emotions, largely because we assumed that people wouldn’t want to or need to change things when they’re feeling good. But like that person who laughs a little too long and hard at a mediocre joke, or the friend who brags about their successes incessantly on Facebook, we know that there are many everyday examples of positive emotion gone wrong. My DECRA project focuses on identifying when and why expressing positive emotion can actually undermine social closeness, and the surprising benefits of suppressing positive emotion in these circumstances.

Q: Your work has always had a strong theoretical foundation but you also take application very seriously. Research that you have carried out has addressed health, educational success, workplace productivity, pro-environmental behaviour and other consequential phenomena. What is your secret to contributing both to theory and practical application?

A: Kurt Lewin reportedly said there’s nothing so practical as a good theory, and I agree with that sentiment – theoretical and applied developments can and should go hand-in-hand. I tend to be interested in topics that give insight into how our social relationships with other people influence our behaviour. This means developing or using good theory around how other affect us, and testing whether this has an impact on behaviour that matters – in the home, the community, the workplace, or even the global marketplace.

Q: You've been involved in research on what's been called "the social cure". What do you mean by this, and what has some of your research found in that regard?

A: Having strong social connections and relationships is one of the most important ingredients to living a happy, healthy, and long life. My own work documents various ways in which social groups enhance well-being, constituting a kind of social cure. For example, I find that groups enhance feelings of personal control, which is a major predictor of positive health outcomes (Greenaway, Haslam, Cruwys, Branscombe, Ysseldyk, & Heldreth, 2015). It’s through this process of enhanced control that group identification acts to protect health and well-being, even in the most challenging life circumstances. This is part of a broader research agenda with researchers at the University of Queensland, and elsewhere, seeking to understand how to bolster social connections in interventions designed to improve mental health.

Q: You are a key ingredient in the School's new Ethics and Well-being research hub. How do you see your work contributing to that broader initiative?

A: The new hub has a real strength in emotion research. I’m excited to work with other researchers in the group to grow that strength. I also hope I can bring a complementary social perspective to how this is being studied. Often, we think about emotion and emotion regulation as something that is experienced or engaged in by individuals; I’m interested in how the social context shapes these very individual-level processes.

Q: Are there particular research collaborations inside or outside the School that you intend to cultivate?

A: Yes, many! I’m of course aiming to develop collaborations within the Ethics and Well-being hub, but hope to expand these to researchers in the other hubs in the school. I’m also looking to develop collaborations in the Melbourne Business School.

Q: What is something about you that might surprise your colleagues?

A: I studied journalism before studying psychology, assuming that I would become a food writer and/or a movie critic. I’ve kept the interests in food and cinema, but now just post photos of meals on Instagram and voice my opinions about movies obnoxiously to my friends like a normal person.

Q: Can you recommend a recent paper that demonstrates the sort of work you do? What makes it important, and what are its implications for research in your field?

A: I recently co-edited a special issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology on advancing the social cure. We wrote an introduction to the special issue that outlines how the field is progressing in which we put forward 15 hypotheses suggested by taking the perspective of a social identity approach to health. Testing these hypotheses, and identifying new ones, will be an ongoing challenge for research on social determinants of health.