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.
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.”