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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Psychology Professor Todd Heatherton

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Todd Heatherton.jpgTodd Heatherton is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Human Relations in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of the Center for Social Brain Sciences at the College. His research on how people try to regulate and control their impulses, behaviors, and addictions has changed the way we think about the human brain.

Heatherton, who grew up in Western Canada, was the first person in his family to go to college. He was expected to go into business or accounting, but discovered an early fascination with how the mind works. He graduated from the University of Calgary with a degree in psychology, then went on to the University of Toronto for his masters and Ph.D. in experimental psychology. After a year as a postdoc at Case Western University and four years as a professor at Harvard, Heatherton joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1994.

Since then, Heatherton has become one of the most respected researchers at the College, with more than 36,000 citations and eight co-authored papers with more than 1,000 citations. He has one of the top h-index metrics among the Arts & Science faculty: 81, according to Google Scholar.

Heatherton’s research is fascinating because it focuses on one of our major weaknesses as human beings: self-control. Our species has done amazing things, like go to the moon, but most people can’t resist eating a piece of candy in front of them. The problem, as Heatherton describes it, is a physical failure of willpower — when the frontal regions of the brain that are rational and controlling stop talking to the subcortical regions that process automatic, emotional responses. In his lab, he measures these failures and uses imaging techniques to watch the brain make suboptimal decisions.

Several of Heatherton’s most-cited papers address this subject, like “Losing control: How and why people fail at self-regulation” and “Self-regulation failure: an overview.” He has proposed a now widely-accepted model called decision fatigue, where over a period of time people are slowly drained of willpower. Their frontal lobes don’t go away or stop working, but the emotional reward responses seem magnified and basic desires start to outweigh control. Those factors, along with certain genetic and environmental differences, can cause people to put on weight or fail at dieting. They were also on display in his widely-cited paper on the the causes of binge eating: a desire to escape from the intense self-awareness and poor self-esteem brought on by feelings of failure in the face of high expectations.

Heatherton’s most impactful work has come in the field of addiction, especially to tobacco products. Along with Jim Sargent in the Giesel School and others, Heatherton helped prove that the more adolescents see smoking in movies, the more likely they were to become smokers over time. (He has since done research examining the similar connection between alcohol ads and binge drinking.) The study, published in 2003, helped to largely erase the depiction of smoking from movies aimed at kids.

To better understand mind imaging results that show addiction, spend fifteen minutes with this engaging lecture that Heatherton gave in 2011:

For the last 20 years Heatherton has taught the College’s Introduction to Psychology course, often twice a year. He also teaches a once-a-year senior seminar (Psych 83) on “The Self” — a class of which he’s quite proud because the focus on introspection has a real impact on students’ lives.

On top of all those achievements, Heatherton has served as chair of the Psychology department at the College and Associate Editor of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience; he was chosen to be President of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011, and in 2012 he was elected a Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was named to Thompson Reuter’s ISIHighlyCited for Social Sciences in 2010, and he received the Carol and Ed Diener Award for Outstanding Mid-Career Contributions to Personality Psychology in 2011.

Addendum: Previously on Dartblog, we reproduced a 2012 letter Heatherton sent as Chair of the Committee on the Faculty to President Kim advocating action to address the squeeze on faculty salaries. His missive advances many of the same arguments made more recently by Professor Stephen Brooks.


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