Research Heroes: John T. Cacioppo

cacioppo low resThis week we’re featuring John T. Cacioppo, who is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago, the Director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and the Founding Director of the Arete Initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago. He is also a past Editor of Psychophysiology, a former Associate Editor of Psychological Review, Perspectives on Psychological Science, and Social Neuroscience. While his main research interests lie in psychophysiology and social neuroscience, in decision making sciences he’s best known for his research with Richard Petty on attitudes and persuasion, and particularly the elaboration likelihood model as well as the need for cognition. He is also the co-author of a recent book “Loneliness: Human Nature and The Need For Social Connection” as well as a new psychology textbook

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… Pursue what you believe is important throughout your scientific career.  Listen to advice and feedback, and perhaps even think about it seriously, but ultimately your career decisions have to be owned by you.  For instance, contrary to the advice one often hears, teaching and mentoring students, fellows, and young faculty can be one of the real joys of a career in science.  By explaining one’s work to intelligent, receptive, and inquisitive students and colleagues, you can actually broaden and deepen your understanding of the work.  You should enjoy the opportunity to teach and work with some of the brightest, kindest, most gracious people, young and old, that you could ever hope to meet. 

I most admire academically… there are many I admire in academics – and in government (e.g., at the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, National Research Council) and scientific service (e.g., Association for Psychological Science, Association for the Advancement of Science)– because of the intelligence, integrity, perspicacity and commitment they bring to their profession.

The project that has inspired me most…. was the first project I did (because it changed my life).  I was an economics major in college and became convinced that human behavior was more complexly – and interestingly – determined than specified in rational choice theory, and that biological as well as situational/social factors influenced our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways that were not entirely rational and not entirely accessible through introspection or casual observation.  The realization that the scientific method applied to social behavior could provide a means of discovering the laws underlying our observations was liberating.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career… I have no such project because I’ve learned as much (or more) from projects that have resulted in failures as I have from projects that have succeeded.  Good science is defined by the process, not by the outcome.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… There is no single experience that stands out because I am often in awe of the complexity and beauty of the structure and processes underlying the mind and behavior.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… Rich Petty and I were roommates in graduate school.  We painted the entire wall of one room blackboard paint, and we would spend hours and hours writing on this blackboard and arguing with one another.  At that time, people were looking for general laws of behavior. These long and often heated arguments led me to believe that human social behavior were more complexly determined than typically thought, and that which specific antecedent was operating depended on a host of variables including biological, developmental, dispositional, situational, and cultural factors.  The real task was not to identify the single factor responsible for a social behavior, but to specify the conditions under which each of a set of different factors or processes operated.

A research project I wish I had done…  We typically cannot socially isolate people to look at the effects of isolation on brain, biology, and behavior. Occasionally, though, people choose to go into socially isolated situations for an extended period of time without recognizing the full impact of such situations.  These “naturalistic experiments” hold a special allure to an experimentalist like me who is interested in social isolation and loneliness. For instance, I have been told that in northern Canada each summer, there are lookout towers in which individuals live to watch for forest fires.  The individuals who staff these lookouts live alone all summer, with little face to face contact with anyone.  The living conditions have been described as perfectly fine but much more isolating and lonely than people anticipate.  I wish we had the opportunity to do a naturalistic study, measuring the psychological (e.g., loneliness), behavioral (e.g., social Stroop, objective isolation, activity level, sleep salubrity), neural (e.g., MRI, baseline fMRI) neuroendocrinological (e.g., morning rise in cortisol), autonomic (e.g., vascular resistance, BP), and gene expression in new participants and matched controls while monitoring the use electronic connections including phone, Skype, and online social networking.  We have not yet done this study due to a lack of appropriate contacts in Canada and funding.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… I had been accepted to law school when I decided to go to graduate school, so it’s possible I would have been in law.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… the practice of integrity and patience.  Science can be the ultimate expression of human foresight, integrity, and cooperation, but it can also be an instrumental pursuit, complete with short-term thinking, biased judgment, and self-interested actions. A challenge facing science in the next 10 years is the battle between these different conceptions of science in the face of increasing competition and shrinking resources. Replicable facts are the precondition of worthwhile scientific theory. But science is more than the accumulation of facts, it is about unraveling their secret –specifying the mechanism underlying their occurrence. Major scientific advances may be remembered for a single study, but most such advances are the result of programs of meticulous, replicable programs of research.  A program of research makes it possible to parse a big research question into smaller, tractable series of questions, and to provide sufficient attention to the details in each study, from its conceptualization and execution to its analysis and interpretation, that the empirical results constitute replicable scientific facts upon which one can solidly build.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… Scientific theories are not personal possessions even if they are personal constructions. Theories are not delivered truths to be defended against all who express doubt, they are intellectual structures that we create with disciplined imagination to organize and explain a systematic body of evidence, and to help answer questions and solve problems to improve the world.  One’s ability to develop a coherent theoretical structure that explains a body of evidence is a measure of one’s cleverness, not the inherent veracity of the theory.  Play with ideas, feel free to be imaginative with ideas but always respect the data, consider alternative conceptualizations, search for the most useful, comprehensive, generative, parsimonious, and falsifiable formulations you can conceive.  And when you have succeeded, do it all over again.  Be serious and not at all serious about your science, at the same time, all the time.

And do not confuse effort with work.  People can spend a lot of effort on tasks that are not particularly productive.  Spending countless hours in the lab collecting data is not the same as advancing knowledge.  Insights and breakthroughs favor the prepared mind but spending a relaxing evening with friends and family, reading a novel, going for a stroll or run or bike ride, or getting a good night’s sleep can often contribute more to achieving that breakthrough than an endless slog at the benchtop or desktop.

Departmental website

Feature on loneliness in University of Chicago magazine

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