As a research scientist who has dedicated much of his life to studying the effects of impulsive behavior, there’s absolutely no doubt that Gregory Madden put a lot of careful consideration into his decision to accept a faculty position in the Psychology Department at Utah State University in 2010.
And that led to some, well, elevated decision-making in regards to his future.
“I was at the University of Kansas and the research was going well there, but we missed living in the mountains,” Madden says with a laugh. “That was definitely one of the things that drew me to Utah State University.”
A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Madden received an additional reason to celebrate a decade of success at USU when it was announced this spring that he was the recipient of this year’s D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award, an annual honor given out to a senior researcher at Utah State University who has completed outstanding research in his or her career.
Although Madden previously received a 2014 Robins Award as USU’s Researcher of the Year, and was also the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services Researcher/Scholar of the Year that same year, he insists that receiving the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award was completely unexpected.
“This one wasn’t even on my radar,” Madden says. “The department chair suggested that it might be a good idea to apply for it. but I didn’t think that I was deserving of it, quite frankly. When I looked at the prior winners and the accomplishments that they have made, I didn’t really feel like I was in that ballpark. So, I was incredibly and pleasantly surprised when I got the award.”
In addition to the surrounding mountains, Madden says he was initially drawn to Utah State University by the opportunity to work with Amy Odum and Tim Shahan, a couple of researchers in the USU Psychology Department he was already familiar with from his time at other institutions.
“They were doing the type of research that was directly related to the kind of work that I do, and so the opportunity to collaborate with them, have seminar meetings with them and co-advise and kind of co-train graduate students made it a very appealing opportunity,” Madden recalls. “So, when an opening in the faculty of the Psychology Department opened up here in 2010, I applied for it and was lucky enough to get the position.
“And it’s been great, ever since,” Madden continues. “We’ve had just fantastic meetings where we’re able to talk about science at a pretty high level, and I didn’t really have those opportunities as much at my prior institution. So, it’s been really satisfying for my intellectual development.”
Madden started his academic journey at the University of North Texas, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in behavior analysis. Madden, who also met his wife, Carrie, during his time in Denton, Texas, initially planned to get a master’s degree in school psychology, but UNT was just starting a new program in behavior analysis, “So, I basically defected and went over there,” he explains.
“And that’s really where I first started studying impulsive decision making,” Madden adds.
After completing his studies at North Texas in 1992, Madden then spent three years at the University of West Virginia working on his Ph.D, which led another three-year stint at the University of Vermont. While there, he participated in a National Institute of Health-funded post-doctrinal training fellowship in the Department of Psychiatry and the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Lab.
Madden’s research in Vermont was primarily focused on the economic variables that may influence the behavior of cigarette smokers, but eventually led to additional studies on impulsivity in human substance abusers, such as heroin users. He continued similar research in 1998 after becoming an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he spent eight years before taking a faculty position in the the Department of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas.
During his five years in Lawrence, Madden received a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study methods of helping to reduce impulsive decision making in drug addicts, as well as other people with compulsive behaviors, such as gamblers. He brought that NIDA grant to Utah State when he came in 2010, and much of his current research continues to be centered around learning more about impulsive behavior and delayed gratification.
In addition, through a collaboration with Heidi Wengreen in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, & Food Sciences, Madden helped develop a program called FIT Game. Designed to help encourage healthier eating habits in schoolchildren, FIT Game provides virtual incentives for kids to eat fruits and vegetables.
“That was a little bit of my wheelhouse,” Madden admits. “… But it does tie into impulsive decision making, as well, if you think about the food choices children make. One of the foods tastes good now – that’s kind of the impulsive choice – while another food might not taste good now, but it has all of these health benefits in the future.
“Of course, the future for a children is 30 or 40 years away, so that outcome doesn’t affect behavior at all, and that’s why they tend to prefer the food that are not nearly as good for you because they taste a lot better right now. … And so if you want to get the kids to make better decisions now that are going to have all these benefits in their future, then you’re going to have to give them some kind of a reason to do that now. And that reason to do it now is all these kinds of virtual incentives that we arrange in the game.”
Madden says he continues to love to work with graduate students – as well as undergraduate students – in his laboratory, and that he’s been able to publish more research than he ever thought possible during his time at Utah State University.
“The intellectual environment here is just substantially better, so I’m growing as a scientist every time I walk into the doors here,” says Madden, whose career research grants totaled more than $4.5 million. “I’m growing as a scientist, and I continue to learn new things. I’m exposed to articles that I otherwise would not have read had I not interacted with the scientists that are here.
“… I love everything about this place. I can’t imagine being at another university.”