"I first saw Dr. Matt Lieberman taking the stage of a lecture hall as my professor for social psychology about five months ago. He was wearing flip-flops, a pair of khaki pants and a casual blue polo, making him look unlike any other professor I’ve had before — normal. ... He directed our attention to a laundry list of directions, telling us to stretch left, right and then eventually telling us to give him the finger. In a slew of confused thoughts and expectations, most of the students gave him the finger. He smiled, told us to take our seats and began his lecture on authority, conflicting demands and the overarching concept of social conflict. This was Professor Lieberman — dynamic, fresh and brilliant."
Psychology Professor Matt Lieberman
The passage above was part of a letter written by UCLA undergraduate student Sagar Pathak in support of Psychology Professor Matthew Lieberman, a candidate for the coveted 2011 Gold Shield Faculty Prize. Pathak’s nomination was just one of several recommending Lieberman for the $30,000 prize sponsored by Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA.
The heartfelt letters on behalf of Lieberman touched the members of the Gold Shield Faculty Prize committee, chaired by Diane Donoghue. "When I read Matt Lieberman’s nomination letters from the Psychology Department, reflecting his deep and sustaining commitment to undergraduate education, I decided he would be my ‘criteria standard,’ " Donoghue said. "His dedication to mentoring students as they enter the university to their completion of undergraduate studies is profound."
On June 2 at the Academic Senate’s Legislative Assembly meeting, Chancellor Gene Block presented Lieberman with the prize, which is awarded annually to a mid-career faculty member for outstanding achievement in teaching, research and university service. A large and enthusiastic contingent of graduate students from the social psychologist’s lab showed up to cheer their mentor on.
"I really think of him as my role model, and that I want to be like him at some point," said Sylvia Morelli, a fourth-year graduate student in Lieberman’s lab. "He’s been really great because he’s so young and has done so much, yet he’s very modest about it. He’s very inspirational."
Besides his wildly popular Psychology 135 (Introduction to Social Psychology) class, Lieberman also teaches a number of other undergraduate and graduate courses for which he regularly receives course and instructor ratings between 8.5 and 9 on a 9-point scale.
He publishes at an incredible rate — last year alone he published 12 papers, and by January of this year he had 14 more papers accepted and awaiting publication. Lieberman also oversees 10 to 12 grad students working on multiple research projects in his laboratory. One of his recent studies showed that the human brain responds to fairness the same way it responds to winning money or eating chocolate; in other words, being treated fairly turns on the brain’s reward circuitry.
Last year, Lieberman and one of his doctoral students, Emily Falk, conducted another study with surprising results. Based on their observation of a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex, Lieberman and Falk used brain scans to predict, better than the study subjects themselves, how much sunscreen the subjects would use during a one-week period. The study has interesting implications for the advertising industry and public-health organizations.
From left: Val Maisner, co-chair of the Gold Shield Faculty Prize Committee; Tanis Harris, president of Gold Shield; Lieberman; and Diane Donoghue, chair of the faculty prize committee.
He is also currently writing a book, tentatively titled "How the Brain Got a Social Network," based on some of his recent research.
Lieberman admitted that he has "ADHD when it comes to doing research. I’m always afraid I’m going to run out of ideas, so I pursue all of them. … I try to avoid being the person who’s known for doing ‘that one thing.’ "
Fat chance Lieberman will ever run out of ideas. But even if he did, he could rest on his laurels as the co-founder of the field of "social cognitive neuroscience," along with his longtime friend and former Harvard classmate, Kevin Ochsner. There had already been some preliminary work done, but "our name was one of the names that stuck for the field," Lieberman said.
In 2001, he and Ochsner published a review paper together called "The Emergence of Social Cognitive Neuroscience," which many people considered the starting point for a lot of the work that has been done in the field. The burgeoning field has brought together social psychologists, neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, anthropologists and other experts to collaborate in the hopes of understanding social behavior from the perspective of the brain.
Lieberman’s interest in psychology actually grew out of a love of philosophy. Born in Atlantic City, N.J., he was influenced by his father, who was working toward a Ph.D. in philosophy but changed his plans when he realized he would have to support a young son. "It was the ’70s, and no one was hiring philosophers," Lieberman said. Instead, his father went to law school and became a lawyer. His mother, an artist, became an art teacher.
"I grew up reading all the philosophy books on [my father’s] shelves. I started out with that being my real passion because of the access I had to that," Lieberman said. "Still, today no one is hiring philosophers. And so at some point, I realized psychology is like philosophy, but with facts instead of opinions. That’s an overstatement, but it’s sort of true."
Lieberman’s wife, Naomi Eisenberger, is on the UCLA Psychology Department faculty as an assistant professor, and the two have a 4-year-old son named Ian James. Despite their busy lives, Lieberman continues to forge ahead with his research with the help of his graduate students, who appreciate his continued support.
"I think the best part about Matt is that he’s always taking care of me at the most important moments," said Morelli, his grad student. "Before my master’s talk, he went slide by slide through my talk and made sure I was really prepared. I always feel that, if it came down to it, he would support me through anything that happens.
"The experience in the lab, mentoring other students, working with Matt and seeing how great that relationship is has made me want to be a professor and be in that role," Morelli continued. "He’s great and I’m really glad he’s getting this award. He deserves it."