John Cacioppo, Founder of Field of Social Neuroscience, to Receive 2017 Phoenix Prize

May 9, 2017 (last updated on November 21, 2019)

Announcements| Faculty| Psychology

Professor John T. Cacioppo, co-founder of the field of social neuroscience, will be awarded the Phoenix Prize, the Division of the Social Sciences’ highest honor, in 2017. Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology, is the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neurosciences and the Chair of the Social Psychology Program. His profound, career-long contributions to the fields of psychology and neuroscience have shaped the direction of research and inquiry around the world and have led to a greater understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying social processes and the effects of social factors on biological processes. Since the outlining of the field by Cacioppo and colleague Gary Berntson in American Psychologist in 1992, social neuroscience has become a dynamic area of inquiry within psychology and the neurosciences. 

“Put simply, John is one of those once-in-a-generation psychologists whose impact is felt broadly and deeply within the field. He is a creative genius whose cumulative accomplishments (represented in over 500 research papers and 20 authored or edited books) are so inseparable from the field that it is hard to imagine contemporary psychology without him,” wrote longtime collaborator Richard E. Petty, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology at The Ohio State University.

Cacioppo’s research is grounded in the premise that complex social structures and processes evolved in tandem with the neural mechanisms needed to support them because the consequent social behaviors contributed to survival, reproduction, and a genetic legacy. His prolific research agenda is evidenced by the volume and impact of his publications (h-index = 140, citations > 115,000), through which he and his collaborators have performed human and animal investigations of the multi-level interactions between neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic/genomic mechanisms underlying social structures and processes. 

“He clearly was the person who established this area as a major force in social psychology. This area of psychology is growing and vibrant, and exists because of Cacioppo's efforts. Not only did he establish this area of scholarship and science, but he set a very high standard in terms of rigor, and this too now characterizes this field,” explains Ed Diener, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and the University of Utah, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, and Senior Scientist at the Gallup Organization. 

Cacioppo has worked on a range of social processes including persuasion, emotional contagion, anthropomorphism/dehumanization, and perceived social isolation. One of his transformative contributions concerns the neural, hormonal, genetic, and genomic mechanisms underlying the deleterious impact of perceived social isolation (or loneliness) on social cognition, behavior, and health. His findings have been staggering. This work has led to the realization that living with chronic loneliness increases depression and increases one’s odds of an early death by 26%, which is remarkably close to the increased chance of premature death posed by living with obesity. As explained by colleague Michael S. Gazzaniga, Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “Dr. Cacioppo’s scientific view of loneliness—which is backed up by decades of his own research on humans and nonhuman social animals—is that loneliness is a part of the biological warning machinery that alerts us to threats to our social body. We are social beings, and without social interactions we die. This is analogous to the biological warning of hunger, which is triggered by low blood sugar and alerts one to start looking for food, lest one starve.”

In addition to his research, the fields of psychology and neuroscience have also been enriched by Cacioppo’s generosity as teacher and mentor. Bernadette Park, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at University of Colorado Boulder, says that over the course of her career she has known Cacioppo to be one of the most supportive scholars she has encountered. “He gives seemingly tirelessly to his profession, to his home institutions, and to the many colleagues and students he mentors. He is the antithesis of a selfish or self-promoting scholar. The number of hours he has spent building various programs and Institutes or Centers is staggering.”

His service to the field of neuroscience is equally ambitious. As an Obama appointee, Cacioppo is serving his second term on the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science. He has also served as the Chair of the Board of Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences at the National Research Council; a member of the National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate; a Member of the National Institutes of Health Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Council; a member of the Department of Health and Human Services National Advisory Council on Aging; and many others. He has been elected as a fellow to 19 scientific societies and was elected as a member of the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 2003, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology in 1981, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.

Cacioppo has been recognized for his innovative lines of inquiry and substantive findings for decades, beginning with the Alumni Award for Graduate Student Research and Creative Achievement in 1977 and including the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 1989. Recently, he has received the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (2015), the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society (2016), and the Career Achievement Award from the Chicago Society for Neuroscience (2016). In 2018, he will be awarded the William James Fellow Award by the American Psychological Society for a “lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology.” The William James Fellow award and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, which Cacioppo received in 2002, are the two most prestigious honors given in the discipline of psychology.

David Nirenberg, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, was moved but not surprised by the outpouring of support from colleagues across the country:

To praise John’s research would be to praise only a fraction of what makes him a singular scholar. He is a rare intellect who can move among disciplines and methods, forging collaborations with other scholars, and along the way, originating whole new areas of study.  I know that my own work has been re-shaped by conversations with John, and I hear similar stories from colleagues across the University, from Divinity to Biological Sciences.  The University, the Division of the Social Sciences, and the social sciences in general would be a very different, less dynamic and original landscape of thought without his contributions as a colleague, teacher, and researcher over the last 18 years.

The Phoenix Prize was established in 1994 by former Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences Colin Lucas to constitute the highest faculty recognition the Division could bestow. It is to be awarded only periodically to those who, through the course of their careers, have changed the trajectory of research in the social sciences and have thus contributed to the cycle of intellectual renewal across the disciplines. It is this sense of renewal that is encapsulated in the prize's name, drawn from the symbol of our University. The prize had not been awarded in over a decade until 2016, when it was bestowed upon Nobel Prize winning economist Robert E. Lucas, Jr. Another Nobel Laureate, University Professor of Economics and of Sociology, Gary Becker, AM'53, PhD'55, (1930–2014) received the award in 2001. Other recipients have been Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences, in 1998, and James Coleman, University Professor in Sociology (1926–1995), in 1994. 

An event during which the Phoenix Prize will be bestowed, and an academic conference in Cacioppo’s honor, are being planned for fall 2017. More details will be available in the near future. Please check back for updates.