2011 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Naomi I. Eisenberger

University of California, Los Angeles

Eisenberger_Naomi-webWhat is the focus of your award-winning research?

I am primarily interested in trying to understand why our social relationships have such a profound impact on our emotional and physical well-being. To explore this, I ask questions like: “Why does social rejection hurt?” or “Why does being socially connected feel so rewarding?” and then use neuroimaging techniques to explore the basic neural systems that underlie these complex socioemotional experiences.

My primary line of research has investigated the similarities in the ways in which individuals process physical pain and social pain (the pain associated with social rejection or loss). Here, I have argued that, based on the importance of social connection for mammalian survival, socially painful experiences may activate some of the same neural regions that typically process physical pain — borrowing the pain signal to prevent social disconnection. To investigate this hypothesized physical-social pain overlap, my laboratory members and I have utilized a combination of behavioral, neuroimaging, and genetic methods to demonstrate that experiences of physical and social pain rely on shared neural and experiential substrates.

More recently, my laboratory members and I have also started to explore the neural correlates that underlie the positive feelings associated with experiences of social connection. Along these lines, we have recently shown that providing support to loved ones relies on some of the same neural structures that process the rewarding experience associated with winning money.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

As with most of my research interests, my desire to understand the powerful impact of social relationships on well-being came largely from personal experience. It had always intrigued me that the experience of being rejected or the possibility of being rejected could lead to such strong emotional and physiological changes. For instance we all know that being picked last for a team “hurts,” that there is a certain apprehension associated with having to perform in front of others (in case they are disapproving), and that we will often change our most basic behaviors in order to avoid being socially excluded. In fact, most of the early work on the social psychology of conformity operated under the implicit assumption that people were willing to conform to the behavior of others, in part, because they were worried about being left out or excluded. However, on the surface, it is not clear why these simple instances of rejection should have such a dramatic effect on emotional and physiological responses (i.e., why should we care about being picked last for a team?). My interest in this area stemmed from noticing the intensity of the feelings that are stirred up by social rejection and trying to understand why.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

I feel very fortunate to have had several mentors, each of whom has greatly influenced my thinking about psychological science. My undergraduate mentor — Margaret Kemeny, University of California, San Francisco — was the first to introduce me to the excitement of psychological research and to show me that I could answer so many of my questions with research methods. My graduate mentor — Shelley Taylor, University of California, Los Angeles — was and still is an amazing role model who inspires me every day to pursue my research interests without fear and without letting any obstacles get in my way. My postgraduate mentor — Michael Irwin, University of California, Los Angeles — taught me how to think about the practical and clinical implications of my work and trained me in grant writing, one of the most important skills that can be gained as a young faculty member. In addition, throughout my career, probably my biggest psychological influence has been Matt Lieberman, University of California, Los Angeles. Not only did he introduce me to the methods of social cognitive neuroscience, but he helped me to quickly learn the language of this developing field. Together, we have been able to share our deep appreciation for the nature of psychological experience — and have been better able to understand it by sharing and comparing two perspectives instead of one.

Finally, though I will never be able to meet either of these individuals, both John Bowlby and William James have been significant psychological influences on me. Bowlby has influenced me greatly by demonstrating that it is possible to formulate a scientific theory about something that might seem too “mushy” for scientific investigation — namely the strong bond that forms between a caregiver and child. William James has been influential and inspiring by demonstrating through his writing, the importance of psychological experience — that it is worthy of being focused on, that it can be accurately described, and that it should be scientifically explored.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

Besides luck, I think one factor that has helped me is the fact that I tend to be drawn towards topics that are central to human experience (social pain, social connection) but perhaps were not the focus of psychological science when I began to study them. Although it can be unsettling to be in an area where there is not a lot of research being conducted, it can also be helpful to be there first.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

Personally, I am exceptionally grateful for this award. It is truly an honor to be recognized along with such other incredibly impressive researchers. Professionally, it is encouraging to know that this line of work, which focuses primarily on everyday social feelings (e.g., rejection, connection), is being recognized. It reaffirms that these emotional states, which can sometimes seem elusive or diffuse, can actually be studied with scientific methods. Finally, this award reminds me of how lucky I am, as an academic, to be able to focus on trying to answer the kind of questions that so many of us think about everyday — questions about our inherent social nature.