Cigarettes and primates – BPS award winners announced

Ella Rhodes reports.

The winners of two major British Psychological Society awards have been announced. Marcus Munafò, Professor of Biological Psychology and Editor-in-Chief of Nicotine & Tobacco Research, has been honoured with the Presidents’ Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychological Knowledge. Professor Richard Byrne, an expert in animal cognition at the University of St Andrews, has won the Research Board’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

As director of the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (University of Bristol) Munafò has provided regular consultancy to the World Health Organization and the European Commission on issues of tobacco control. His work has been cited in the recent European Tobacco Products Directive and has been used by the Australian government’s defence against legal challenges to recent plain packaging legislation.

Also an outspoken advocate for robust scientific practices and a central figure in the reproducibility debate, Munafò said he was excited to receive the award. ‘I have to thank my fantastic research group, and all the great people who I’ve worked with over the years. I strongly believe that science is a team effort.’

Munafò is currently working on identifying causal pathways between health behaviours and a range of physical and mental health outcomes. ‘Promising targets identified using epidemiological methods are taken into human laboratory studies to test possible mechanisms, with a view to developing interventions to target these.

It’s an exciting programme of work that places psychology at the heart of a translational pipeline from epidemiology to clinical trials. This is perhaps the most exciting thing about psychology – its relevance to a whole range of disciplines. Team science opens up a host of new possibilities for psychologists.’

Professor Daryl O’Connor, Chair of the Research Board, said: ‘Professor Munafò’s research has advanced our understanding of the genetic determinants of addictive behaviours, and the role of human personality in explaining the association between genetic variation and addictive behaviours. In addition, this award also recognises the outstanding contribution he has made to the replication and reproducibility debate and the open science movement more generally.’

Professor Richard Byrne, who has recently published a book, Evolving Insight, about his decades of work, is one of those few academics who can be said to have laid the conceptual and methodological groundwork for an entirely new approach to studying mind and behaviour. He has brought together cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology, with significant benefits to both.

‘It’s been fascinating to apply the same concepts to animal cognition as have been useful in understanding human abilities. For instance, I worked on people’s mental maps before ever studying primates, and found it necessary to distinguish (Euclidian) vector-map representation from (topological) network-maps: in everyday navigation, we largely rely on network-maps, so we are sometimes surprised at our own errors of judgement. Thirty years later, working on baboon mental maps with Rahel Noser, we showed that they too navigated with a mental map, rather than responding directly to environmental cues: but our evidence suggested their maps were network-maps, lacking accurate Euclidian information.’

Byrne said he was honoured to receive the award and pointed to many people who have helped him over the years including his PhD supervisor John Morton, Bill McGrew who gave him the opportunity to become a primatologist, his wife Jen who has helped with much of his field work, and his many PhD students and postdoctoral staff he has worked with.

Byrne said he found working in unexplored areas particularly satisfying and has recently been exploring primate gestures, which have been largely neglected. ‘Following pioneering work by Mike Tomasello and Josep Call, my research group has studied gesture in orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, including field study of the last three. We’ve found very large repertoires of gestures in each species, used intentionally to direct and adjust others’ behaviour, in ways that take account of the attentional state and current knowledge of the target audience. Intriguingly, in most cases both the gesture form and its function turn out to be the same in different ape species. This led us to predict that humans too must share the innate potential to understand many of these “ape” gestures, in addition to all the conventional gestures we pick up – an idea that we’re currently testing.’

Nicola Gale, President of the British Psychological Society, said: ‘I congratulate Professor Byrne on his well-deserved award. As well as being fascinating in its own right, his study of cognition in animals has the potential to tell us much about the evolution of distinctively human abilities.’ 

- For more on Dick Byrne’s work see tinyurl.com/ycoh5vv7 For a ‘One on one’ with Marcus Munafò see tinyurl.com/y8yegn6r

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