☛ What is our fundamental nature?

Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding the neural, hormonal, and genetic mechanisms underlying the social structures and processes that define social species generally and our species in particular. Our current social neuroscience research is focused on understanding the social brain (i.e., the neural and hormonal mechanisms), social genomics (i.e., the genetic and molecular mechanisms), and social resilience (i.e., social structures and processes). The brain is the central organ of these social structures and processes, so we focus not only on the objective social environment but also on the brain’s reaction to the social environment.

Featured article:

Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness. John T. Cacioppo, Stephanie Cacioppo & Dorret I. Boomsma (2014). Cognition & Emotion, 28, 3-21.

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☛ How do people distinguish between hostile and hospitable stimuli and events?

The most basic information processing operation performed by the central nervous system is the differentiation of hostile from hospitable stimuli. The three-neuron reflex arc at the level of the spinal cord is sufficient to perform this operation—for instance, reflexively withdrawing from painful stimuli. This basic information processing operation is performed at multiple levels of the central nervous system, often with synergistic effects, but occasionally with antagonistic effects—as when a person inhibits withdrawing from a painful but life-saving vaccine from a trusted physician or negotiates a peace treaty with an enemy combatant. At the lowest level of the central nervous system, this operation is fixed and is called a reflex. At the highest level, this operation is malleable and includes preferences, beliefs, opinions, and attitudes.

Featured article: 

The Evaluative Space Model. John T. Cacioppo, Gary G. Berntson, Catherine J. Norris, Jackie K. Gollan (2012). Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, Volume 1 (pp. 50-72). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.

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☛ How do we know what we know?

How can we infer the psychological significance from physiological signals? More generally, how can we infer the conceptual significance of empirical data? These basic questions are special cases of the bigger question of how we know what we (think we) know? 

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Brain Imaging and Cognitive Neuroscience: Toward Strong Inference in Attributing Function to Structure (PDF)
M. Sarter, G.G. Berntson, and J.T. Cacioppo (1996). American Psychologist, 51(1):13-21.

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☛ How does stress damage our bodies?

A stressor refers to a stimulus and event to which a person is subjected, whereas stress refers to the person’s appraisal of that stimulus or event. The person’s brain is the central organ for this appraisal, and the nature of this appraisal can influence, and be influenced by, a person’s body and biology. What is the nature of these reciprocal influences between the brain and the periphery, and how does stress damage our bodies?

Featured article:

Ascending Visceral Regulation of Cortical Affective Information Processing (PDF). Gary G. Berntson, Martin Sarter, and John T. Cacioppo (2003). European Journal of Neuroscience, 18, 2103-2109.  

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☛ Opinions, attitudes and attitude change

When democratic citizens vote to elect representatives, they have attitudes about who they consider to be the most favorable and these attitudes are expressed through significant actions ranging from economic and social support to turning out the vote for their favorite candidates. For more than a century, scholars have investigated the origins of the attitudes that bear on democratic elections. The assumption underlying these models is that a voter adds up favorable considerations and subtracts unfavorable ones to produce an overall voter preference. This assumption is a gross oversimplification. We have identified processes of attitude formation and change that are much more interesting and adaptable to the complexities of human existence in a complex social world.

Featured article:

Attitudes Toward Presidential Candidates and Political Parties: Initial Optimism, Inertial First Impressions, and a Focus on Flaws →
A.L. Holbrook, J.A. Krosnick, P.S. Visser, W.L. Gardner, and J.T. Cacioppo (2001). American Journal of Political Science, 45, 930-950.

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