Graduate Student's Study Focuses On Freedom Of Choice

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Only six months into a graduate degree in clinical and counseling psychology, Elana Antolin-Wilczek ’22 is running an in-person trial as part of a research collaboration with faculty and students from Dominican University of California, Chapman University, and Claremont Graduate University.

The trial will collect data for a study examining the effect of a positive emotion on people’s responses to having their freedom of choice threatened. The findings were accepted for presentation at the Western Psychological Association’s annual conference this spring in Southern California.

The study is among the projects underway in Dominican’s Health and Motivation (HAM) lab under the direction of Dr. Ben Rosenberg, assistant professor of psychology and an expert in health behavior and messaging in the School of Liberal Arts and Education. Much of Dr. Rosenberg’s research has focused on the restriction of behavioral freedom.

“The Health and Motivation Lab's research focuses on applying social psychological theorizing on persuasion and motivation to health-related issues,” Dr. Rosenberg says. “We examine things like the way emotional and motivational states affect people's reactions to persuasive health messages, as well as why people engage in seemingly irrational unhealthy behaviors.”

In recent years, Dr. Rosenberg has been quoted by numerous media outlets – including The Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle,, Marin Independent Journal,  ABC News, and KCBS Radio – about the critical but often missing step of involving social scientists with expertise in persuasion, behavior change, and social influence when developing COVID-19 messaging. This week, Dr. Rosenberg co-authored an article with epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina in Your Local Epidemiologist about the role cognitive biases play in changing people’s views of big events, such as the early days of the pandemic or mass shootings.

“Simply delivering people accurate information about a behavior – like wearing a mask or getting vaccination – is often not sufficient to change behavior,” Dr. Rosenberg notes. “People simply aren't always rational actors. There are many other factors aside from having accurate information that influence people’s behavior, like who is around them, their current state of mind, or how much they value freedom.”

The HAM lab includes co-director Dr. Tess Buckley, a faculty member at Chapman; Chris Falco, a Ph.D. student in social psychology at Claremont Graduate University; Elana; and Caitlyn Perales, sophomore psychology student.

The goal of this spring semester’s study is to determine whether the positive emotion of “elevation” – for example the warm feeling you get from watching someone perform a moral act for another person – will allay some of the effects of people being told what to do or having their freedom of choice restricted.

As the lab’s research assistant, Elana helped to develop the survey, is recruiting participants and, once the trial is over, will enter and prepare the data for presentation. 

“This is my first time running trials, so I am really excited.”

Elana began working in the HAM lab as an undergraduate, gaining hands-on exposure to skills critical for graduate studies. This included applying statistics to a variety of research designs, analyzing data sets to test a hypothesis, and presenting findings at an academic conference.

“I really wanted to dip my toes into research, and joining the lab was a perfect opportunity. It felt very accessible to me.”

Indeed, Dr. Rosenberg has structured the HAM lab so that it is accessible to both undergraduate and graduate students. Every semester, undergraduate students in the lab are responsible for finding, reading, summarizing, and presenting to the lab one research paper that is relevant to Dr. Rosenberg’s work. In addition, the goal every year is for students to create and present a research poster at the Western Psychological Association conference based on their research. 

As an undergraduate, Elana also worked closely with Dr. Veronica Fruiht, who served as an academic advisor and direct research professor during Elana’s senior thesis, which examined the relationship between parental support, the home environment, and transgender and gender nonconforming individuals’ self-esteem in relation to their gender congruence.

“It’s a cliché, but it is so true. Professors know you by name here at Dominican,” Elana says. “I love the Psychology Department. It is a very tight-knit community, and the professors are super accessible and very supportive.”

Elana earned their degree in Psychology, with minors in Clinical and Counseling Psychology and Education in only three years.

With more than nine years of work experience in childcare and child development, Elana’s long-term goal is a career in school-based psychology. When not in the lab or the classroom, Elana is working part-time as a behavior specialist at the Oakland-based Center for Social Dynamics, which supports youth on the autism spectrum, including in the classroom. 

Elana, who  grew up in Santa Clara and attended Wilcox High School, originally was planning to attend another Bay Area school when a friend, a nursing student, suggested they take a look at Dominican.

“I came for a tour and my mom said she could tell just by looking at my face as we walked around campus that this was the place for me,” Elana says. “My expression gave it away – I just loved Dominican from the moment I set foot on campus, and I still love Dominican as a graduate student.”

Photo above of graduate student Elana Antolin-Wilczek conversing with psychology professor Dr. Ben Rosenberg


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