2014 William James Fellow Award

Robert W. Levenson

University of California, Berkeley

Robert W. Levenson is one of the world’s leaders in emotion research, making enduring contributions in areas such as emotion-specific autonomic physiology, culture, marriage, life-span development, and brain science. In every area, Levenson’s work stands out for its depth of experimental rigor and rich theoretical basis. Very few researchers have achieved the breadth of his contributions.

Levenson is well known for his work documenting different patterns of activation in the sympathetic autonomic nervous system for particular emotions, both in the United States and in a matrilineal Islamic culture in Sumatra. Continuing his interest in culture, Levenson has shown how people from different cultures resemble one another in their emotion-related physiological responses but diverge in their expressive behavior.

Levenson’s groundbreaking work with long-time collaborator John Gottman to understand the emotional dynamics of marriages has been inspirational to the next generation of scientists studying the social nature of emotion. Levenson documented how fleeting emotional behaviors can spell doom for couples as their marriages progress. Levenson’s novel work characterizing the types of emotion deficits that accompany frontotemporal dementia, particularly in social emotions such as embarrassment and empathy, has demonstrated the specific social and emotional deficits that accompany deterioration of particular brain regions.

Scientific progress is founded on strong theoretical insights and the cumulative advance of rigorous data. There may be no better example of this than Levenson’s contributions to the scientific study of emotion. His conceptualization of the functions of emotion, dyadic processes, and emotion-related activation in peripheral physiological systems are cornerstones of the field.