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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.  

Mar 8, 2018
Kerry Grens

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.

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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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