New Society for Social Neuroscience to help guide emerging field

Scholars at the University of Chicago have played a central role in establishing a new professional organization, the Society for Social Neuroscience, helping to advance an emerging interdisciplinary field.

Research in social neuroscience is based on the use of new technologies, advanced understanding of genetics and other research, including studies on animal behavior. “We define social neuroscience broadly as the study of the neural, genetic, cellular and hormonal mechanisms underlying the emergent organizations that characterize each social species,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo.

Cacioppo, one of the scholars who coined the expression “social neuroscience” in a 1992 paper, has been elected president of the new organization. Cacioppo is the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University. Among other topics, his research looks at loneliness and its impact on health.

Another founding board of directors member is Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago. A neuroscientist specializing on empathy, Decety is editor of the journal Social Neuroscience.

“Social neuroscience is expanding. New programs are being created, and there are many new people in the field using neuroimaging methods like functional MRI,” Decety said. Some of the claims made about fMRI scans as well as other findings from the field have been overstated, however, he said.

Decety and Cacioppo hope to provide more direction and clarity to the field through their work as co-editors of the Handbook on Social Neuroscience, the first such volume in the field, to be published next year by Oxford University Press. The two were also among 1,300 researchers from 35 countries at the first conference of the Society for Neuroscience held in November in San Diego.

The two scholars are the authors of an article, “Challenges and Opportunities in Social Neuroscience,” to be published in the December issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The article spells out the challenge faced by scientists in the emerging field: “Sound social neuroscience is both exciting and challenging because it necessitates mapping across systems and levels (from genome to social groups). This requires interdisciplinary expertise, comparative studies, innovative methods and integrative conceptual analysis,” they write.

In addition to providing focus to the emerging field, members of the society also will lead in helping the public and policymakers understand the implications of the work, which looks at such topics as willful decision-making and the impact of social relationships on health.

Social neuroscience is one of the most rapidly advancing areas of neuroscience and has enormous relevance to society,” said founding board member Martha Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society and the Walter H. Annenburg Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Until now, researchers in this field interacted at occasional conferences but had no ongoing relationship with one another. The new society finally brings the field together to foster communication, to challenge each other, to facilitate collaboration and to encourage students to become part of this research community,” she added.

The research has the potential to address some of the most fundamental questions about how people behave by examining such topics as the neural underpinnings of deception, which looks at the reasons why people lie, or what neurobiological mechanisms underlie social bonding and attachment. The research also examines individuals’ control of their actions and the influence of external factors, such as brain biology and environment.

Economists are also able to learn more about human behavior through a study of neuroscience.  Biologists, with their understanding of evolution and genetics, contribute to the field, as do people who primarily study animals. The San Diego conference showed much promise for the potential impact of interdisciplinary conversations, from the social behavior of insects and rodents to lesion studies involving neurological patients, researchers said.

“The inaugural meeting was an optimal mix of psychology, social psychology and neurobiology,” said Gary Bernstson, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, who with Cacioppo first came up with the expression “social neuroscience.”

“It was a mix of basic and applied researchers. It was also a mix of animal and human researchers. This is what is needed for a truly interdisciplinary effort,” he said. “Impressively, the speakers in the first meeting were world leaders in both neuroscience and psychological research. The ability to attract such talent to a new association speaks to the perceived value of this initiative.”

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Psychologist John Cacioppo (right) and neuroscientist Jean Decety have been central in establishing a new professional organization, the Society for Social Neuroscience, helping to advance an emerging interdisciplinary field.

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