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Emotion and Motivation with Dr. Steven Wininger

"Emotions are like spices. Each person is going to like a different amount of spices and different kind of spices in their food."   

Dr. Steven R. Wininger is a connoisseur of emotions and their application in everyday life. As a professor and co-department head of psychology, he finds that everything he studies and teaches has a practical application in improving the lives of family, friends and self.  

"Everything that I study — that I teach — I find fascinating. I think because I'm not only helping others improve their lives, but I can use it to improve the lives of my family, friend, and myself. I can't think of anything that I research or that I teach that I can't use to help others improve their lives. Everything is applied."  

As the director of the Motivation Lab, Wininger has spent 17 years conducting research on motivation, looking primarily at exercise outcomes. Most recently, his research has been focused on the question of multitasking and how cognitive activity affects exercise results.  

“What a lot of the research did for a long time was look at how exercise impacts cognition. Does exercise make you smarter? Does it make you think better? We kind of flipped that on its head and said: How does trying to engage in cognition affect your exercise?

Wander into the Preston Center, WKU’s student wellness center, and you'll see students reading while on the treadmill, texting while on the elliptical machine, listening to music — having conversations. Wininger's research asks: What effect does this have on exercise outcomes? 

"We've been looking at that and having someone try to read something while they're exercising. We've had people try to answer memory questions, do math, we've had people try to respond to texts. How does it affect their exercise? And the biggest finding is they slow down." 

In addition to multitasking, the lab also looks at different types of goals and intentional focus.  

"How does what I'm thinking about while I exercise affect my exercise? Am I listening to music? Am I thinking about my body and how my legs are already burning? What am I thinking about and how does that affect my exercise?" 

Wininger combines these ideas of motivation and emotion in an upper-level honors course he teaches called "Psychology of Motivation and Emotion." The course, which he has been teaching for 17 years, covers everything from traditional theories of psychology to modern theories to surveys of specific emotions.  

"We talk about good and evil. We talk about emotional intelligence. We talk about […] what it means to be happy or have well-being. We talk about anger and […] why is it purposeful and how can you regulate anger and use it in a healthy way. We talk about all the different types of stress. We talk about anxiety and different ways to regulate anxiety." 

The course is taught using a lot of Socratic dialogue and back and forth discussion. There is some primary reading, and application of taught theories to popular media. The biggest project of the course is a week-long data collection project. It is a substantial project that many students find daunting to undertake. However, after completing it they know more about themselves and their emotions and admit that the work was worth the results.  

"For a whole week they have to collect data when they wake up in the morning, an hour later, and every three hours, and then an hour before they go to bed and then right before they go to bed. They're collecting data on their temperature, their heart rate, different categories of emotion, and they're supposed to be taking notes in terms of trying to articulate why their heart rate went up or there is a certain level or spike of emotion that went up or down at a certain time of day. They have to take that at the end of the week, put it in Excel, make several graphs and then answer certain questions in terms of interpretation of all that data." 

Wininger explains that motivation and emotion are universal experiences. A desire to better understand these experiences and how they affect your life are why some people decide to take the course.  

"I think if you just step back from it for a minute you just go: motivation and emotion. Lots of people have motivation issues. And then emotion, of course, that's every day all day long and I think some people have problems with certain emotions and don't regulate emotions well enough." 

HON PSY 412 offers students the opportunity to learn valuable principles that are universally applicable to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. It offers the opportunity to work with an expert in the field of motivation, conducting active research, and to engage actively in the field of psychology by conducting research themselves. And, perhaps most importantly, it offers students to understand themselves a little better.  

"What I hope they walk away with is the understanding the emotions are like spices for a cook. Each person is going to like a different amount of spices and different kind of spices in their food, and so the key is finding ways to regulate the emotions that fit you and work best for you and the context and situation that you're in so that you can become the most adaptive with your emotions that you can be." 

Learn more about Wininger and HON PSY 412 by following this link: https://www.wku.edu/psychology/staff/steven_wininger

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 Last Modified 10/11/18