A society for social neuroscience

Chicago professors Jean Decety and John Cacioppo are bringing researchers together to focus on mutual influences between biology and social behavior.

In a recent Australian study, a group of teenage male skateboarders performed two tricks—one that they could do easily, another that they often crashed on—ten times in front of a male experimenter and then repeated the process. A second group did the same, first in front of a male experimenter and then in front of an attractive 18-year-old female. In her presence, the skateboarders in the second group aborted fewer of their difficult tricks. Saliva tests after the experiment showed that the second group had higher testosterone levels than the first, suggesting that the young woman’s proximity elevated the skateboarders’ testosterone and that elevated testosterone sparked a drive to mate and therefore to display health and vigor through risk taking.

This sort of work—illuminating how social processes like sexual desire influence neurochemical events and how neurochemical events like elevated testosterone influence social processes—is the central concern of social neuroscience, a discipline conceptualized in the early 1990s by John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology, and Gary Berntson, a professor at Ohio State University.

Twenty years later, research in social neuroscience is conducted worldwide, and Cacioppo and his colleague Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, have been instrumental in founding an international social neuroscience group to organize and advance this interdisciplinary field. With Cacioppo as its first president and Decety as a founding board member, the Society for Social Neuroscience comprises some 1,500 researchers from approximately 40 countries. The society’s first conference was held in San Diego in November 2010, with seminars on topics including neuropeptides, bonding, and social cognition; brain and body health; and the new field’s ethical, legal, and policy implications. 

Dialogo recently sat down with Decety to talk about the society, social neuroscience, and his own research.


Does the field of social neuroscience apply only to humans?

No, there are a lot of organisms that are social and not human. Think about social insects, prairie voles, meerkats, or chimpanzees. Social behavior is the result of a complex integration between biological and social factors. An example of these reciprocal influences is found in monkeys: increased testosterone levels promote sexual behavior in males; the availability of sexually receptive females increases testosterone levels.

Why study social neuroscience in animals?

Humans are what we’re ultimately interested in, and this is why I became a neuroscientist. But we share a lot of genes with other animals, even with simple organisms such as the worm C. elegans. In an interdisciplinary field of study that includes behavioral neuroscience, system neuroscience, behavioral ecology, and social psychology, and which seeks to understand how biological systems implement social behavior, we need to understand how the molecular and cellular mechanisms underpinning social interaction have evolved across species. Besides, you can investigate the neurobiological mechanisms in nonhuman animals in ways that you cannot do in humans, for obvious ethical reasons. Thus to me, comparative research is extremely important and valuable.

How did the neuroscience society come about?

About two years ago, John came down to my office. Some colleagues were criticizing the way correlations were computed in some social neuroscience studies, especially in experiments using functional neuroimaging and personality assessments. Some studies that were not very serious in terms of concepts, analytic methods, and power were published in high-profile journals and received widespread coverage in the media. For example, newspapers would run stories linking political decision making or moral judgment to a single brain region. People started to say, “Oh these guys, they will find correlations with anything. Should these studies be funded by NSF or NIH?” John and I were quite concerned about various overblown conclusions, faulty methods, and misleading press coverage. We discussed how we could do something about the situation by helping organize and focus the field. We decided to do two things. The first was to coedit the Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience, a huge book that will be published at the end of this year. We contacted people we knew who were excellent scholars in their respective domains of expertise, from endocrinology to neuroethics, and invited them to contribute.

And the second was founding the society?

Yes. John and I discussed starting a society, but we wanted our colleagues from all over the world to tell us to do it. Otherwise, it would seem like American arrogance, when science is international and not just a matter of American universities. Last January, we went on a trip to several countries in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, six cities in 14 days. Afterwards I went to Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Israel, and various countries in Europe. We gave talks, held workshops, and discussed with scientists around the world the opportunities and challenges we faced with this discipline. Most of the colleagues we spoke with—whether they were biologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists, economists, people working with animals, people working with humans—said, “We should have a society. We should meet regularly and set standards for the science and so on.” 

What about your own research, particularly your work on empathy?

Empathy is a complex construct, so I am very careful to study it from many angles, components, and perspectives. My primary research tool is functional magnetic resonance imaging. This allows us to look at the brain in vivo to see how it responds to empathy-laden scenarios. We can, for instance, characterize neurodevelopmental changes across age, from early childhood to adulthood, and their relation to morality, or explore abnormal neural processing associated with socioemotional dysfunctions in children with aggressive conduct disorder and in incarcerated psychopaths. I am also very interested in empathy in the context of medical practice. In such a context, empathy is challenging because doctors and nurses are dealing with the most emotionally distressing situations—illness, dying, suffering in every form. Too little and too much empathy can be detrimental to the physicians’ well-being. We’re scanning medical students in Japan and Taiwan when they start their medical residency. After some of them go through an empathy training program, they get scanned a second time to evaluate the impact of the intervention. Our goal is to see how we can educate more physicians to engage in clinical empathy, thus enhancing the effectiveness of their care for patients while preventing the costs of too much emotional sensitivity that can lead to burnout or compassion fatigue. This work will shed light on the medical profession’s long-standing struggle to achieve an appropriate balance between empathy and clinical distance.

So you’re interested in not only the science but its effect on society as well.

Yes, and John is the same—we want the science to go beyond the lab. This is also what we want the Society for Social Neuroscience to be good at: explaining to policy makers and the public that the research done in social neuroscience can have a positive influence on society. Progress in social neuroscience will affect law making, social policies, education, mental health—everything.