John T. Cacioppo, pioneer and founder of the field of social neuroscience, 1951-2018

Scholar's research on loneliness helped transform field of psychology

Prof. John T. Cacioppo, a pioneer and founder of the field of social neuroscience whose research on loneliness helped to transform psychology and neuroscience, died unexpectedly and peacefully at home on March 5. He was 66.

Cacioppo was the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and served as director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and chair of the Social Psychology Program. He is survived by his beloved wife, Stephanie, director of the brain dynamics laboratory at the University; and two children, Anthony and Christina.

“John’s passing is a profound loss for the field, the University, and the many, many colleagues, students and friends who knew him and learned from his myriad of contributions,” said Amanda Woodward, the William S. Gray Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and interim dean of the Division of Social Sciences. “His influence across psychology, social neuroscience and health science was enormous, not only as a scientist but as an advocate for science. His legacy cannot be overstated.”

Cacioppo’s colleagues and family said he will be remembered as a truth seeker, creative genius, brilliant scientist, innovator, colleague, teacher, mentor, leader, father and husband.

“There are so few people of whom we can truly say, ‘He was one of a kind,’ but of John it was painfully, obviously true,” said Daniel Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

Social neuroscience as a distinct field of study was first coined by Cacioppo and colleagues at Ohio State University in 1992. The interdisciplinary field that Cacioppo developed focused on human and animal investigations of the multi-level interactions between neural, hormonal, cellular, and genetic/genomic mechanisms underlying social structures and processes. While most research in neuroscience focused on the individual, the new discipline examined the associations between social and neural development and evolution from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

“John's work embodied everything we strive for: tackling the most important questions with all the tools available, no matter how big the challenge,” said former colleague Ralph Adolphs, the Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Biology at the California Institute of Technology.

‘Visionary research’

Born June 12, 1951 in Marshall, Texas, Cacioppo received his PhD in psychology from the Ohio State University in 1977. He began his career at the University of Notre Dame before returning to Ohio State in 1989. He joined the University of Chicago’s faculty in 1999.

“John Cacioppo conducted visionary research that made groundbreaking contributions to psychology and other fields in the social and biological sciences,” said Susan Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor in Education and Society and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. “As a colleague, he played a leading role in our graduate program in Social Psychology and was a dedicated undergraduate teacher regularly teaching Fundamentals of Psychology, which introduces many students to the field. He will be greatly missed.”

Cacioppo began his research by exploring what happens to the brain when social connections are absent. For two decades he studied social fitness, resilience and the effects of loneliness, showing the negative impacts social isolation has not only on mental health but physical health.

“The purpose of loneliness is like the purpose of hunger,” Cacioppo said in a 2017 interview with The Atlantic. “Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species.” 

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, he had emphasized that human beings thrive best when not only receiving, but also giving, affection: “One of the things that we have learned is that avoiding loneliness is not about ‘getting,’ not about being a recipient. Despite what economists say, that is not how we are designed. We need mutual aid and protection.”

Cacioppo met his wife, Asst. Prof. Stephanie Cacioppo, at a scientific conference in Shanghai, and they married in 2011. Friends and colleagues said the two set an inspiring example of true love and how to love deeply in a marriage.

Stephanie Cacioppo’s academic specialty is love and its benefits. She joined the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, and the two shared an office and a desk, maintaining a partnership in life and in research. Their romance was featured in a recent “Modern Love” column in The New York Times, which emphasized Stephanie Cacioppo’s research finding that love brings with it physical and mental benefits, such as thinking better and healing faster. She called their marriage “the perfect meeting of the study of loneliness with the study of love.”

Stephanie Cacioppo said she is devastated by her husband’s passing and described their seven years of marriage as “the best years of my life.” She said she will be forever bonded to him by love, truth and science.

“My husband was my everything. He was the smartest and the kindest person I have ever met. He was, he is and he will remain the love of my life; my intellectual hero, my inspiration, and my role model in life and science,” Stephanie Cacioppo said. “His legacy will live on through his seminal work, our forever lasting love and through all of us whose minds had the privilege of his influence.”

‘Impossible to replace’

Over a celebrated career, John Cacioppo made several breakthroughs and authored more than 500 articles and books, including Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections (2008).

“John Cacioppo has been more influential on my thinking than anyone else. He will be truly impossible to replace,” said Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.

Cacioppo was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, served on numerous advisory panels, including the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science as an appointee by President Obama, and was elected as a fellow to 19 scientific societies. He also served as the president of several societies and was the founding faculty director of the Brain Academy and the Arete Initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research and National Laboratories at the University of Chicago, a program that helped to promote the careers of faculty by advancing their ideas with funding agencies.

“This is a terrible loss for all of us,” said Eric Isaacs, UChicago's executive vice president for research, innovation and national laboratories. “John was a wonderful and caring person and an incredible leader in science and scholarship. There are very few who have had such a significant influence by helping to create a new field of study. Social neuroscience continues to be of growing importance to science and society. John leaves a remarkable legacy.”

Cacioppo’s innovative lines of inquiry and his substantive findings received wide recognition, including 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).

“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 are so inseparable from the field that it is hard to imagine contemporary psychology without him,” said longtime collaborator Richard E. Petty, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University.

In 2017, Cacioppo was honored with the Phoenix Prize, the Division of the Social Sciences’ highest honor, for his exceptional ­­­work which shaped the direction of research and inquiry around the world. Cacioppo was only the fifth faculty member to receive the prize, which was established in 1994. 

In May, Cacioppo was to receive the prestigious William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Sciences for a lifetime of “significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology.”

As director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, Cacioppo led investigations to better understand the functions of the brain and nervous system and their implications for human cognition, behavior, health and societies.

A University memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. March 28 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. In lieu of flowers, please consider a gift to a fund supporting Prof. Cacioppo’s work and legacy.