John Cacioppo, a Founder of Social Neuroscience, Dies

The University of Chicago psychology professor made fundamental contributions to understanding the neural mechanisms of social experiences.  

By Kerry Grens | March 8, 2018

COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGOJohn Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, a pioneer in the field of social neuroscience, passed away Monday (March 5). He was well-known for his work on persuasion, loneliness, and the relationships among social experiences, emotions, neural activity, cellular physiology, genetics, and health.

“John’s influence across the fields of psychology, social neuroscience, and health science cannot be overstated,” Amanda Woodward, the interim dean of the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, says in a statement to The Scientist. “As a scientist and as an advocate for science, his was a powerful voice, and his passing is a tremendous loss.”

Cacioppo earned a PhD at the Ohio State University (OSU) in 1977, after which he served on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, the University of Iowa, and OSU. In 1999, he joined the psychology department at the University of Chicago.

It in the 1970s, Cacioppo researched human attitudes. “His work completely revolutionized how we think about how people are persuaded,” Jay Van Bavel, a social neuroscience researcher at New York University, tells The Scientist. “That alone would represent an entire life’s work of someone who is incredibly impactful.” But that was only the beginning of Cacioppo’s prolific career.

See “Stress Fractures”

By the 1990s, Cacioppo had helped establish the field of social neuroscience, which incorporates hormones, genetics, and cellular activity into an understanding of social phenomena. Cacioppo’s research led to new professional societies, meetings, and journals, and inspired numerous psychologists to enter the field themselves, Van Bavel among them.

Cacioppo was dedicated to training researchers and developing rigorous scientific standards. Eric Vanman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, recalls Cacioppo’s intense, month-long training programs at Iowa and OSU for scholars in psychophysiology. “I was an assistant at some of those summer schools, and the preparation John put into these started many weeks before,” Vanman writes affectionately in an email to The Scientist. “To be honest he drove many of us crazy with his standards about how those summer schools should be run.”

Cacioppo earned numerous awards and honors over the course of his career, including as a member of the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science, Chair of the Board of Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences at the National Research Council, and member of the National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate.

“In my lifetime I have met only a handful of people who might could be called geniuses. John Cacioppo was one of them,” says Vanman. “He spoke fast and thought even more quickly. . . . John Cacioppo was truly remarkable.” 

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Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

March 14, 2018

See also: Evolution of neuroarchitecture, multi-level analyses and calibrative reductionism (2012)

I hope John Cacioppo is remembered for this refutation of neo-Darwinian pseudoscientific nonsense:

Although peptide chemistry has been with us since amino acids first formed, the social role of oxytocin did not exist prior to the evolutionary sculpting of the vertebrate brain.

He may have been one of the first social scientists to recognize the fatal flaw that others continue to include in their works. All other serious scientists, like him, start with the energy-dependent creation of enzymes and amino acids. Only pseudoscientists still start with the evolution of the vertebrate brain.

I remember when he and his wife turned towards me and smiled -- after I asked the speaker from Argentina about the role of oxytocin in a rodent model. No studies were being done for the obvious reason that few people knew where oxytocin came from.

I invited the speaker to lunch and we laughed a lot about the works that tried to link oxytocin to differences in behavior without linking the differences to altered  RNA-mediated non-mendelian inheritance of an epigenetic change in the mouse

RIP John Cacioppo

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