Following the Script: Kelly Huang Thesis Spotlight

Kelly Huang at the Psychology Department Thesis Poster Presentation. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lapean.

Kelly Huang ’22 is a mathematics and psychology major from Arcadia, California. Her thesis explores the relationship between anger scripts and psychological adjustment, specifically looking at depression, anxiety, and stress. A script is an assumption or expectation that people have in their heads about how different kinds of interactions are supposed to go. These expectations act as rules for how we respond to similar emotional circumstances and let us know what to expect from different situations. In general, they function to help us  maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions.

Huang always wanted to write a thesis because she thought it would be interesting to be “on the same level” as a professor. Her thesis advisor is Professor Amy Demorest, whose research area is personality psychology. Although Huang worked in Professor Carrie Palmquist’s developmental psychology lab from sophomore to junior year, her thesis is based on Demorest’s seminar she took during J-term in 2021: “Psychological Assessment.” This seminar is where Huang first learned about scripts.

“I still have trouble explaining my own thesis,” Huang laughs before plunging into her explanation. Anger scripts are based on Tomkins script theory, and Huang’s analysis looked at the flow from cause of anger, to type of anger, to response to anger. Her first question was looking at the contents of the scripts to assess the different kinds of causes and responses. Previous literature says that common sources of anger include frustration of goal-directed activity, disregard, and betrayal of trust. Her second question was looking at generalization, which is how often a specific theme recurs in a person’s narratives of anger. Pervasiveness or reoccurrence of the same theme might reveal a common thread to how someone is angered or responds to anger.

Huang’s study consisted of an online survey where Amherst College students were asked to write out three narratives: one of anger from the past year, one of anger in childhood, and one of a “lifetime or self-defining memory of anger.” After collecting the data, Huang and Demorest’s other thesis student coded the narratives based on schemes created by previous literature. There were no significant results for her first question regarding anger script content of causes and responses. However, they did find results for generalization and psychological adjustment: people who were higher in psychological distress were more likely to generalize in their responses to anger, but not the causes. Since the data was from Amherst College students rather than in-patients, the psychological distress was “not pathological levels,” but that of “well-adjusted” people. Still, there was a significant positive relationship between higher anxiety and higher overall generalization of responses for participants higher in psychological distress. This relationship means “they use a variety of causes that make them angry, but in the way they respond […] they tend to use the same responses across situations.”

Regarding what inspired her to pursue this research, Huang reminisces that when she was applying for her thesis in March of last year, many tumultuous things were happening in the world. It was only a year after the Black Lives Matter protests about George Floyd, and there was a flood of violence against Asians. Huang observed that both she and other people were getting angry very easily. The nature of the emotion also intrigued her since anger “comes as a wave, and it is really hard to control. It just comes over you, and you react in certain ways. Anger is a very unique emotion.” Perhaps more than any other, this emotion has potentially destructive effects, both physically and interpersonally. Anger is associated with many negative things, such as heart problems, stroke, hypertension, relationships, intimate partner violence, and crime. “Maybe we won’t ever get to the root of [anger], but we can try.”

The structure of Huang’s senior year facilitated her thesis research. Professor Demorest did not make her advisees begin work over the summer. Still, Huang decided to ease the burden of the fall semester by starting to read background literature in June, and she met with Demorest every week to discuss two or three new articles. When the fall semester began, they continued to meet every week or so to discuss articles. During this time, Huang was also working on designing and setting up the study, submitting the IRB proposal in early September, and releasing the survey in October. In December, Huang had to submit a draft of her introduction, which included summaries of all the articles she had read. During J-term, she looked at the collected data and developed the coding scheme to apply to the narratives. In the spring semester, Huang and the other thesis student did data analysis in Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) for a couple of weeks. Huang then had to turn in another draft of her introduction, a draft of the methods, and a draft of the discussion. The last moments were dedicated to formatting tables and appendices.

Reflecting on her whole journey, Huang comments that she did not come into college even thinking about mathematics or psychology – she was more interested in sociology or LJST. Through the open curriculum, she got to know different departments and faculty members. She advises that a thesis is very rewarding, but it is a very big commitment in time, mental strength, and emotional energy. Commit to a thesis only if you are passionate about the topic and like your thesis advisor, since it is very hard to get through the tough times if you do not like your subject. “It’s okay to freak out about it, and it’s okay to rely on your friends for support. […] Allow yourself to be helped by people. […] Be forgiving towards yourself.”