Cook wins Spearman Medal

Ella Rhodes reports.

The winner of the British Psychological Society’s 2020 Spearman Medal, Dr Richard Cook, was described by his nominator as a ‘leading international figure in social cognition and social perception research’. Cook (Birkbeck, University of London) has explored some fascinating areas of perception including mirror neurons and imitation, social perception, alexithymia and prosopagnosia.

Cook, who finished his PhD in 2012, has published almost 60 journal articles, more than 30 of those as senior author, with two of his most-cited papers including a theory of the origins and function of mirror neurons and the role of alexithymia in the emotional symptoms of autism. Among many other topics Cook has explored face perception and social perception in neurotypical people, people with autism and prosopagnosia, including findings that inverted and upright faces use similar types of perceptual processing and that faces grab the attention of autistic people as much as neurotypical people. He has also led the development of new processes to identify prosopagnosia.

In 2013 Cook was named one of the ESRC’s Future Research Leaders; in 2014 he was awarded the Wiley Prize in Psychology by the British Academy; the Association of Psychological Science named him a Rising Star in 2015; and he was awarded a €1.5m grant in 2017 by the European Research Council to investigate the visual perception of social interactions. Among his many contributions to the literature Cook said his work in developmental prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognise faces, had led to some surprises. ‘I think 20 or 25 years ago people thought developmental prosopagnosia was just incredibly rare, maybe one case in 10,000, but the more work we do the more we realise if you’ve got a class of 100 people there’s a very good chance that somebody in that class will have face recognition problems that really interfere with their daily lives.’

Cook said, as well as seeing his first PhD student pass her doctorate, some of the highlights of his career so far have involved those people with prosopagnosia who have heard him talk on the subject. ‘People seem really grateful for the research we’re doing and for trying to unravel some of the causes of this condition, and problems that come with it that really affect their lives. I think sometimes as academic psychologists we get a bit preoccupied with really theoretical questions so it’s always lovely when you actually meet people who have been really affected by what you’re studying and who are really grateful to find out more about it.’

In the coming years Cook said there was a specific puzzle he was particularly keen to help solve. ‘I’m really interested in the visual perception of the social world. One of the big questions I’m occupied with at the moment is how you understand social interactions. Since the 60s people have been studying how we process individuals, how you process individual faces, individual bodies, individual actions, but we don’t really know how you integrate that information together for the purposes of analysing social interactions. Given how important it is for social learning and navigating the social environment it’s remarkable how little we know about that – I’d really like to find out more about that in the future.’

- The Spearman Medal is awarded every year for outstanding published work in psychology which is completed within eight years of finishing a PhD. Nominations for the 2021 award will open this September, to find out more see: tinyurl.com/vfqal2l

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