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KeywordsDispositional Optimism Goal Conflict Repetitive Thought Immune Change Positive Outcome Expectancy
Suzanne C. Segerstrom was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and was raised and educated in Oregon. She received her bachelor’s degree with majors in Psychology and Music from Lewis and Clark College in 1990. Her Psychology Ph.D. was completed at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1997, where she majored in Clinical Psychology with minors in Health Psychology and Measurement and Psychometrics and did her clinical internship at Vancouver Hospital – University of British Columbia. Segerstrom was mentored in her doctoral work by the renowned health psychologist Shelley E. Taylor and also trained under Margaret E. Kemeny, George F. Solomon, and Michelle E. Craske. Her dissertation project, “Optimism is associated with mood, coping, and immune change in response to stress,” was the first to relate optimistic expectancies to immune change in healthy adults, received international attention, and was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998. The article is a citation classic, with hundreds of citations in books and journals. Segerstrom joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky in 1997, where she is a University Research Professor of Psychology and former Associate Chair.
Segerstrom’s research primarily examines the role of individual differences (i.e., personality, cognition, and emotion) on psychological and physiological factors. Of particular interest has been comprehending how aspects of self-regulation, including personality, executive cognitive function, and behavior, can influence psychological and physiological health and well-being. Segerstrom has also examined cognitive self-regulation as exhibited in repetitive thought, worry, and rumination. In this work, she strives to understand the structure of repetitive thought, how it can best be measured, and any subsequent psychological and physiological effects of such cognition.
Segerstrom’s lines of research have been funded through multiple sources including the National Institute of Health (NIH). Recent projects funded by the NIH examine the health consequences of motivation and goal pursuit in older women, as well as the longitudinal effects of self-regulatory capacity on mental and physical factors in older adults.
Major Contributions to the Study of Personality and Individual Differences
On her path to uncover the roles of self-regulation and optimism in psychoneuroimmunology, Suzanne C. Segerstrom has played a vital role in the field of personality and individual differences. One distinct path of her research, perhaps the most well-known so far, focuses on better understanding the role of optimism in how people approach and engage in goals and how they cope and relate to stressful situations.
Optimism, Engagement, and Coping
With her dissertation work, Segerstrom published the first study to relate optimism to immune change in a healthy population, showing that optimism about law school in first-year students was related to better mood, to less use of avoidance coping strategies, and to better immune function during the stress of law school. Later work showed that change in optimistic expectancies in law school was related to change in immune function and that the relationship was partially accounted for by expectancies’ effect on positive (but not negative) mood.
Segerstrom’s work has also addressed the immunological effects of dispositional optimism. Dispositional optimism relates to a generalized positive outlook for the future, and a large body of research has shown higher levels of optimism to be associated with better psychological and physiological adjustment to stressors. Even though optimism has been associated with better psychological and physiological well-being, some contradictory findings exist, suggesting that optimism may sometimes increase indicators of physiological stress. Some researchers have suggested this could be related to unrealistic expectancies by optimists and subsequent disappointment. However, Segerstrom proposed an alternative model focusing on self-regulation, linking optimism and indicators of physiological stress to engagement and persistence rather than disappointment and negative affect.
Through the engagement model, Segerstrom proposed that because dispositional optimists see positive outcomes as attainable, they will increase their effort when faced with challenging situations, engaging and persisting toward goal attainment rather than giving up and disengaging. This motivation and engagement increases the likelihood of goal achievement and long-term benefits, but may be accompanied by short-term physiological costs. Supporting this model, Segerstrom’s research has found optimists to exhibit longer persistence compared with pessimists during stressful tasks, but also to experience higher cortisol levels, indicating higher physiological stress. Similarly, her research with first-year law students has shown that dispositional optimists experience lower immune function compared with less optimistic students when they confront competing goals.
Expecting positive outcomes may lead to pursuit of multiple goals, which in the long run could facilitate goal attainment. It is difficult to pursue many goals at the same time, however, and some goals may even conflict, competing with each other for time and energy. In this line of research, Segerstrom has in fact shown how optimism may be linked to more goal conflict, which could present challenges. For optimists, however, goal conflict did not negatively impact adjustment, and a balance between positive outcome expectancies, conflict, and goal value appeared instead to lead to goal progress.
Further disentangling effects of optimism and engagement during stressor exposure, Segerstrom and her students’ work has revealed optimism to be positively associated with approach coping strategies seeking to reduce, solve, or manage stressors and negatively associated with avoidance coping strategies aiming to avoid or withdraw from stressors. She has also found optimists to tend to adjust their choice of coping strategies to meet the demands of the stressor at hand. Comparing choice of coping during controllable (e.g., academic) versus less controllable (e.g., traumatic) stressors, optimism was more strongly related to problem-focused coping for controllable stressors and more emotion-focused coping for uncontrollable stressors such as natural disasters and trauma. In this research, Segerstrom and her team also found optimists to choose coping strategies most adaptive for the situation at hand, and that controllability and related appraisals likely moderate the effects of dispositional optimism on coping.
The engagement model of optimism led Segerstrom to turn her attention to self-regulation. The ability to self-regulate is among the most essential factors of human adjustment, indicating the capacity to exercise control and guide or alter reactions and behaviors. Segerstrom has played a focal role in the research development examining self-regulatory capacity, effort, and fatigue, particularly the physiological correlates. She is behind an influential study suggesting heart rate variability to index self-regulatory strength and effort, showing HRV to be elevated during self-regulatory effort. This study was published in Psychological Science and also showed how self-regulation differs from stress in that participants’ mood was affected by stressor exposure but not self-regulatory effort and fatigue. Self-regulatory fatigue was also linked to decrease in self-regulatory performance, yet stress was not, and while stress was accompanied by lower HRV and higher heart rate, self-regulatory effort and fatigue were accompanied by higher HRV and lower heart rate. She has subsequently proposed that self-regulation has a “pause and plan” physiological profile characterized by metabolic slowing in several systems and provided empirical evidence for such slowing in the heart, immune system, and liver.
Segerstrom’s work may also have clinical implications. The positive relationship between optimistic expectancies and cell-mediated immunity suggests that psychological interventions may improve health, particularly if in doing so the interventions also seek to increase positive affect.
Segerstrom’s research also suggests self-regulatory deficits and executive functions to be part of the etiology of chronic multi-symptom illnesses, including chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. In this line of research, she and her students have shown patients with chronic multi-symptom illnesses to display less capacity to persist on tasks following self-regulation tasks, compared with healthy matched controls, even when not acutely fatigued. This work aids in creating a better understanding of the role of self-regulatory fatigue during acute or chronic health challenges.
Adding to the body of research with potential public health implications, Segerstrom’s work in later years has also examined the roles of personality, emotion, and cognition in older adults, including topics such as the structure and health correlates of repetitive thought, the relationship between affect and subjective health, the relationship between cortisol and memory, and the effects of differential mortality on apparent changes in life satisfaction in older age.
Suzanne C. Segerstrom’s innovative research has made significant contributions to the field of personality and individual differences. She is a prolific scientist and has won a number of awards during her career, including the Martin E. P. Seligman Award for Outstanding Dissertation Research on the Science of Optimism and Hope, the Templeton Foundation Positive Psychology Prize, and the Robert Ader New Investigator Award from the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society. She is a Fellow of APA Division 38 (Health Psychology), the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, and the Society of Behavioral Medicine. Suzanne Segerstrom is also the winner of the University of Kentucky A&S Award for Outstanding Graduate Mentoring for 2017. In conclusion, her impact on the intersections among personality and individual differences, health psychology, and psychoneuroimmunology continues to grow, not only through her own groundbreaking research but increasingly also through the many new dedicated scientists she has mentored, guided, and motivated throughout her prolific career.
- Segerstrom, S. C. (2006). Breaking Murphy’s law: How optimists get what they want from life and pessimists can too. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
- Segerstrom, S.C., Boggero, I.A., & Evans, D.R. (in press). Pause and plan: The physiology of self-regulation. In R.F. Baumeister & K.D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar