Winner: Lifetime Career Award 2016

Professor Peter Lang

Professor Peter Lang

Peter Lang’s work spans a wide area in psychology, from basic studies of emotion and cognition to the clinical application of psychological science for the treatment of mental disorders.  Broad in scope, Dr. Lang is also associated with a legacy of significant, tangible footprints that serve to expand horizons and even initiate substantial changes in paradigmatic thinking.  Dr. Lang’s work on studies of emotion and attention alone has sparked creative innovations in the assessment of mental disorders and laid the groundwork for the current treatment of fear and anxiety disorders.  Lang has been a seminal investigator in the field of behavior therapy, and his early research on the desensitization of fear was instrumental that method’s primary experimental foundation. During the late 1970s, in his influential bio-informational theory of emotional imagery, he proposed a neural network theory of emotion incorporating biological and physiological information, which anticipated and predated current models of “embodied emotion” proposed by cognitive researchers, and which suggested, for the first time, a particular cognitive structure for representing emotional events.  Most recently, his longstanding concepts of understanding mental disorders in dimensional rather than categorical descriptions were introduced in the RDoC of NIMH, again, a paradigmatic shift in the scientific view of mental disorders. The great leap forward this field is currently making rests on Lang’s genius that continues to be developed by his students, now frequently outstanding researchers, presidents of scientific societies, directors of clinical training, chairs of departments of psychology, and on their own recipients of scientific awards.

Peter Lang holds a Graduate Research Professorship at the University of Florida, a professorial rank that is awarded only to distinguished scholars. He is the director of the NIMH Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention (only few basic Behavioral Science Research Centers have been supported by the US National Institutes of Health). He is also the director of the Fear and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University Health Center and a member of the Faculty Advisory Board of the University of Florida Brain Institute. Previously, for almost twenty years, he held the Clark Leonard Hull Professorial Chair at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Spanning six decades, his research has been continuously funded by NIMH and other agencies, and currently is a principal investigator on two federally funded grants representing the new “RDoC” initiative which seeks to find biological measures in the assessment of mental disorders.

In the 1980’s Peter Lang initiated a large-scale project in which normative affective ratings are collected for large sets of emotional stimuli (pictures, words, sounds, texts).  This valuable research tool has become a standard that now facilitates research around the world, providing a common parlance for discussing results and for relating data and theory in cross‐laboratory investigations and for replicating important effects. More recently, Peter Lang’s laboratory has focused on understanding the motivational determinants of emotion and its neural substrates in healthy participants and in individuals diagnosed across the anxiety disorder spectrum. One of his key discoveries was finding that the reflexive response to an incidental startle probe (e.g., a brief burst of noise), presented while human participants attend to a foreground event, is systematically modulated according to the hedonic valence of the event. The startle probe methodology has been embraced by numerous researchers who study emotion in both basic and applied contexts. Modulation of the startle reflex by affect has proven to be highly reliable and has been replicated in laboratories around the world. Using this methodology, together with fMRI and other psychophysiological measures, Peter Lang has made rapid progress in relating emotional system outputs to mediating brain structures. Moreover, differences in the pattern of reflex modulation during fear imagery for patients diagnosed with specific, mental disorders (ranging from specific phobia, speech fear, to generalized anxiety disorders and PTSD) suggests a biological measure that defines a continuum of dysfunction, rather than separate categories of anxiety based on symptoms reports. This research is not only cutting edge and highly influential but clearly illustrates both his programmatic and creative approach to the scientific study of emotion.

Already in 1996, the APS Observer listed Lang among the top ten psychologists with the greatest impact on the field and since then he has remained squarely situated in the top list of citations. Peter Lang has received the highest accolades in his fields of study, including a number of awards for his distinguished scientific contribution.

The acknowledgement of his work by honorary doctoral degrees from three different countries emphasizes that international cooperation on the highest level has characterized his work for decades.  The IUPsyS Lifetime Career Award was designed to recognize exactly such distinguished and enduring lifetime contributions to international cooperation and to the advancement of knowledge in the field of psychological science.