Dr. Jason Moser


Dr. Jason Moser is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Michigan State University. He received his BA in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University and his MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Delaware. Dr. Moser’s work lies at the intersection of clinical, cognitive neuroscience, social-personality, and developmental research. Prior to arriving at MSU as an assistant professor and director of the MSU Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, Dr. Moser completed a one-year clinical internship at the Boston Consortium in Clinical Psychology where he received training in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in military veterans. Dr. Moser’s previous clinical training was at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.


Could you tell us a little bit about your current research?

I am broadly interested in how anxiety makes it harder for people to do all sorts of stuff in their life. The main areas that we focus on are: How does anxiety interfere with people’s ability to make decisions, focus, bounce back from and learn from their mistakes? How does anxiety make it hard for people to manage their emotions and manage that anxiety in particular? And lately, we have been getting more and more interested in how anxiety interferes with peoples’ performance in sports. So, thinking about sports psychology, choking under pressure and sports-related performance anxiety. Those are the main driving questions or things we are trying to understand, and we do that across the developmental spectrum. So, we have studies with little kiddos from 4 and 5 years old through middle adulthood. Then, within those driving questions, or driving foci, we go about it in a multi-disciplinary way, where we are very interested in using different types of measures. We use physiology and EEG, we take spit samples and look at hormone levels and genetics, and we look at the relationships between anxiety and performance or managing emotions through different lenses like, “Hey what could cognitive neuroscience perspective give us? What about a social psychology perspective? What about even a holistic view on a person?” I’ve also done work with Nursing, for example, looking at the relationship between negative emotions and breast cancer. I’m interested in behavioral research, broadly speaking, and how it impacts peoples’ functioning. We’re not trying to get to the bottom of what causes anxiety per se, because that seems like a tall task, and honestly, I don’t think we’re going to get there. We are more interested in what it is about anxiety that makes it hard for people to live the lives they want to live. When we understand that a little better, maybe we can use that information to help treat anxiety. We are studying what anxiety affects, and then if we figure that out, we can use that to feed back into how we could make it easier for people with anxiety to pay attention and bounce back from their mistakes or make it easier to manage their emotions.

Could you tell us a little bit about your path and what drew you to this specific type of research?

It’s a winding path. I started off as an acting major, so I’ve always been interested in the human condition. I think people are really interesting, but it wasn’t until my junior year that I really got interested in clinical psychology. I got involved in an anxiety research lab. I always wanted to study something that I felt was relatable to most people, impactful, and something that could benefit or help lots of people understand how their life is going. Anxiety popped out as one of those things that everybody kind of knows what it’s like. Everyone has an experience where anxiety got in the way. So, I got involved in an anxiety research lab in undergrad at Penn State, then I got an amazing job as a post-baccalaureate research assistant at The Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, which was a specialty treatment center for anxiety disorders, especially OCD, PTSD, and social anxiety disorder. That experience really started shaping what I wanted to study. Then I sort of bounced around. I thought I wanted to be a therapist at first, and then eventually I got more and more interested in the age-old mind/body problem, which is that we talk so much about psychology as a “mind thing” that seems very separate from the brain or biology. It always seemed kind of weird to me that we can’t just fully understand a person by talking to them and asking them questions. We should try to understand how their life is going from multiple angles- how they perform in different situations, what their biology can tell us about certain things—“getting under the skin”, so-to-speak, with physiological measures and brain measures. That led me to study neuroscience and physiology in graduate school at the University of Delaware. That’s where I started really getting interested in a more holistic understanding of anxiety and psychology. Since then, I’ve been interested in basic questions of human functioning and how anxiety makes that harder to do.

What would you say is your long-term goal with your work?

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that anxiety generally makes things harder to do. There are lots of people that have anxiety, lots of people who manage anxiety, and lots of people who are smart and pretty accomplished who have anxiety, but they do it at a cost. That cost is burnout, mental exhaustion, and sometimes having a less full life where they can live and cope and do one thing. Maybe that’s work or maybe a relationship, but they’re not fulfilling their potential across multiple situations. What we’ve done and what we’ve tried to help people do as clients with anxiety is actually pretty hard. I’m a therapist too, and I study how different therapies work for anxiety—everything from exposure-based behavioral therapies to mindfulness and exercise and yoga based alternative therapies. Most of the things we tell our clients to do are hard and things that they fundamentally have a hard time doing from the get-go, so I feel like we are continually butting up against the deficits that we know exist for folks with anxiety where it’s difficult to juggle multiple things in mind. It is hard to bounce back from your mistakes because mistakes hurt. So, long-term, what I’d like to continue to push out there is trying alternative types of interventions that are easier for people with anxiety to do, that are scalable, and that you can teach people through little nudges, interventions, interactions on apps, webinars, or internet-based techniques—things people can learn, are easy for them to do and that they actually implement in their lives. We want to understand how anxiety interferes with all these different aspects of life and try to figure out how can we make those things easier for people with anxiety by coming up with a handful of different interventions. I’m interested in interventions we can give away, rather than saying you have to come in for this very traditional, weekly therapy that most people don’t have access to or can’t afford. Let’s just give that away through the internet and through apps.

Do you have anything you would like to share with anyone who Is thinking about participating in a research study?

I would encourage people to participate in studies that feel meaningful to them and where they have a level of engagement that can help them. That also has the benefit of helping the researchers because we are meeting in the same place then. If there is a study that gives you the opportunity to learn about yourself or that you feel is important to you, or your community, or people in your life, then that seems like a good choice.

Do you think that participatory research is important, and if so, why?

Yes, more and more so it becomes clear that a lot of time we to do research and ask questions without actually talking to the people that we are doing the research on, or with, or for. One of the reasons I continue to be a clinician and continue to see clients, at least one or two, is because I want to know what’s going on in their lives and whether the ideas we have and the theories we’re testing actually make sense for them. That is one way I engage the community—through my clinical work. I ask whether the things we are doing in the lab or ideas we are generating in the lab, make sense to my clients. And I tell people up-front, this is something new—for example, telling people that we are doing cognitive behavioral therapy, because it has been shown to have evidence base. But not all treatment manuals work for all clients. Sometimes I suggest something we are working on in the lab. When I hear things from clients, it helps me refine my research questions and approaches in the lab. It is becoming clearer over the years that moving forward, researchers really should engage people on the front-end in some way, shape, or form, whether that is an advisory board or whether that’s doing focus groups with our target group of interest to really understand: What is most impactful to you? What do you think about when you make mistakes? What do you think about when you’re trying to stay focused? What makes it harder? What makes it easier? What do you think about this intervention we’re thinking about doing where you talk to yourself in your own head in the third-person? Would you do that? What would it feel like to do that? Do you think it would be beneficial? I think [participatory research] is something most researchers have overlooked for a really long time. I think it’s critical because at the end of the day, research is not a game. Research is not just a puzzle to solve. Research is for a purpose—to improve the wellbeing of humanity.

Stemming off of that, why do you think that inclusivity is important to mental health research?

It’s critically important because we know a lot less than people in the community might think, given the conclusions that you see in the media—for example, “depression cured by exercise”. The problem with that is we are constantly using samples of convenience, which a lot of the time is white, female college students. And even outside of college student samples, many of the people who participate in research have access, resources, a means to travel to the study, knowledge about opportunities, and are engaged. So, we know a good bit about a small slice of the population, and that’s a problem. We don’t even know a lot about sex and gender differences—if mechanisms of mental health are different or whether treatments might work better for those assigned female or male sex at birth or have different gender identities. We just don’t know the answers to those questions. Then you wonder about other identities we’re not paying a ton of attention to, like racial and ethnic differences. There are treatments out there that are trying to be more inclusive and more responsive. So, adapting treatments for, say, Latinx people with depression for instance, and that’s a starting place. But we don’t have the basic research to say whether depression works similarly or differently across these different identities. We just assume it does. That assumption I think is a huge problem for improving mental health worldwide, because we are not asking those questions that way, and there are some downsides to asking those questions because some people in some media groups will grab that and try to make it about racialized differences and “better than” or “worse than” in terms of groupings. Nevertheless, we need to know for certain groups what works best, so we can elevate everybody’s mental health based on who they are.

It is really interesting to hear about your own research and your opinions and views on research broadly. Switching gears a little bit, when you are not in the lab or working, what are some things that you enjoy doing?

Spending a lot of time with my family—I have a wife and two kiddos. My wife Natalie works here at MSU also. I have a 10-year-old and 13-year-old, and we spend a lot of time together traveling for their different activities or helping coach their different sports. My daughter is a gymnast, and my son plays basketball, baseball, and tennis. We also do a lot of personal travel. We like to go all over the place and experience new things and see different people. We have family all over the country, so we go to see family everywhere. Then, I like distance running, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. I ran track and cross country a little bit in high school, and I picked it up back over the pandemic. I just finished my first full marathon in Detroit, so that’s a lot of fun. That is one of my go-to emotion regulating skills or techniques.

Could you describe your go-to music playlist?

I like lots of different music, but oftentimes I’ll go to two different playlists depending on what I’m doing. When I’m working, my go-to playlists are always jazz because I can’t listen to music with words when I’m typing or trying to do work—it just interferes. So, I just like instrumentals, and I love jazz music, so I listen to a lot of classic jazz—John Coltrain, Miles Davis. When I’m out and about in the car or when I’m running, I like to listen to pan-alternative rock/almost folk-type stuff.

Learn More

You can learn more about Dr. Moser’s work on his website at https://cpl.psy.msu.edu/

A Note on Suicide Prevention

If you or someone you know is struggling, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can learn more about suicide and its prevention at AFSP.org.