Grawemeyer Award

The Grawemeyer award at the University of Louisville recognizes outstanding ideas in all areas of the discipline of Psychology. Nominations are judged on the basis of originality, creativity, scientific merit, and breadth of impact on the field of Psychology.

H. Charles Grawemeyer (1912-1993), industrialist, entrepreneur, astute investor and philanthropist, created the lucrative Grawemeyer Awards at the University of Louisville in 1984. An initial endowment of $9 million from the Grawemeyer Foundation funded the awards, which have drawn nominations from around the world. Although the University of Louisville graduate was a chemical engineer by schooling, Grawemeyer cherished the liberal arts and chose to honor powerful ideas in five fields: Music Composition, Education, Religion, World Order and Psychology. Grawemeyer distinguished the awards by honoring ideas rather than life-long or publicized personal achievement. He also insisted that the selection process for each of the five awards include one final step involving a lay committee without formal training or knowledge in each field. As Grawemeyer saw it, great ideas should be understandable to someone with general knowledge and not be the private treasure of academics.

2017 Nominations Deadline: February 29, 2016

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Steven Maier
“Strength Through Adversity”

Steven Maier, distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience and Center for Neuroscience director at University of Colorado-Boulder, was selected for the 16th prize. His award-winning work concerns what makes one resistant or vulnerable to stress when bad things happen. Maier showed if test subjects had behavioral control over some element of the adverse event, they were less negatively impacted and also essentially “immunized” against some harmful effects of future bad events, even if those events were uncontrollable. Through laboratory research studies, he uncovered in animal subjects the neural mechanism that provides such resilience in the face of trauma. The idea that behavioral control induces resilience has become important in psychology, neuroscience and other academic disciplines, as well as clinical research and therapies for depression and anxiety disorders. Maier laid the groundwork for understanding the brain mechanism involved in how one assesses and deals with adverse events. His findings have been replicated in humans using neuroimaging techniques. Maier’s early research with colleague Martin Seligman in the late 1960s and early 1970s led them to develop the concept of learned helplessness, which suggested that when stressors are uncontrollable, that lack of control over them is learned and reduces motivation to cope with later traumas. However, resuming the work in the 1990s, Maier used new tools to identify the neural structures involved and continued experiments that led to determining that the feeling of control was what provided protection in the future.



James L. McGaugh
“Emotional Arousal and Memory”

James McGaugh’s award-winning idea grew from his findings as a graduate student that stimulant drugs enhanced memory in rats if the drugs were administered immediately after training. Knowing that the release of stress hormones (such as epinephrine and cortisol) is elevated in emotional situations, McGaugh proposed that it was the release of stress hormones that makes those emotion-packed memories more efficiently consolidated and more easily recalled. He further identified a specific brain region (the basolateral amygdala) that was necessary for these emotionally enhanced memories, and proposed neurobiological circuits that are involved. In short, his ideas about emotional arousal and memory have been instrumental in our basic understanding of how memory works, and have had a tremendous influence on the understanding (and possible treatment) of memory disorders in individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). James McGaugh holds the rank of Research Professor in the Department of Neurobiology & Behavior (formerly the Department of Psychobiology) in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California at Irvine. McGaugh has spent almost his entire career at UC-Irvine where he has held numerous prominent positions (e.g., founding chair of his department, dean of the college, vice chancellor of faculty affairs, executive vice chancellor). McGaugh is also a Fellow in the Center of the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory at UC-Irvine, which he co-founded more than 30 years ago. The Center’s mission, and the scientific focus of McGaugh’s distinguished career, is to increase understanding of how we acquire, retain and retrieve memories.



Antonio Damasio
“Somatic Marker Hypothesis”

Antonio Damasio, a psychology, neuroscience and neurology professor at the University of Southern California, received the prize for his somatic marker hypothesis, a proposal that emotions influence the way people make decisions. Damasio developed the idea after years of gathering evidence that people with certain brain injuries had difficulty making personal and social decisions even when their intellects remained intact. His studies led him to suggest that the brain process used to evaluate choices involves emotion as well as rational thinking. Although his proposal ran counter to dominant theories in his field, it inspired many other experiments in the United States and Europe and has since had a major influence in contemporary psychology, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry and philosophy.


Irving Gottesman
“The Endophenotype Concept in Schizophrenia”

When Gottesman and his research partner James Shields (now deceased) began exploring the basis for schizophrenia, the field was polarized. Some believed “nature” (i.e., genetics and biology) was the culprit, while many blamed “nurture” (e.g., family and culture). Their model, the Multifactorial Threshold Model, allowed for a combination of specific and general factors (genetic, environmental and developmental) that served as either liabilities or assets in the possible development of schizophrenia. The model gave rise to the concept of “endophenotypes” (i.e., measurable behavioral states or traits that can be sub-threshold to the disease manifestation) and allowed for assessment of such traits in relatives of affected patients as indicators of the possibility of development of the disorder. Their idea revolutionized thinking about psychiatric disorders such that we now talk about spectrum disorders for a variety of mental disorders.


Leslie Ungerleider and Mortimer Mishkin
“Two Cortical Visual Systems”

Few ideas about the brain have been so influential as Ungerleider and Mishkin’s idea that the cerebral cortex of primates, including of course humans, is organized into two separable visual processing systems: one a ventral pathway projecting from the occipital lobe visual area to temporal cortex and specialized for object recognition; and the other a dorsal pathway projecting from the occipital lobe to parietal cortex and specialized for object location. These processing streams are commonly known as the “what and the where pathways” or the “dorsal and ventral streams”. Neural activity in the what and where pathways is fundamental to our ability to survive in a complex sensory world. Even at the most fundamental level of interaction with the world around us, we need to know what something is and where it is located so that we may guide our actions to interact with it or avoid it as needed.


Walter Mischel
“Demystifying Willpower: Delay of Gratification and Willpower”

Self-control and willpower were excluded from serious scientific study until Mischel demystified these concepts by showing that the capacity to overcome immediate temptations and direct one’s behavior towards long-term goals: 1) is present and measurable early in life, 2) has profound long-term consequences for mental and physical health, and 3) is open to modification and enhancement by the use of specific cognitive strategies. In his studies of preschoolers, Mischel invented what is commonly known as “the marshmallow test” to measure willpower, and showed that children could be taught cognitive strategies to exert more self-control. His longitudinal studies demonstrated that self-control in early life appears to have a protective buffer effect that reduces the risk for later development of psychological vulnerabilities and personality disturbances for which a person is otherwise at risk.


Ronald Melzack
“Gate Control Theory of Pain”

Melzack’s idea proposed that the key to understanding pain lies in the perceptual, emotional and cognitive functions of the brain and not in a specific pain sensation pathway. His original publication of the Gate Control Theory of Pain with the late Dr. Patrick Wall in 1965 produced a paradigm shift by making psychology an integral part of pain research and therapy. Prior to the Gate Control Theory, scientists and physicians accepted the simple, commonsense view that pain was transmitted as a single signal from sensory receptors (in the skin, for example) to the brain and that there was no voluntary control over this process. In contrast, Melzack showed that as pain information is transmitted through the areas of the spinal cord, other processes can potentially block, decrease, or increase the feeling of pain. He emphasized that pain is experienced in the brain rather than elsewhere in the body.


Anne Treisman
“Feature Integration Theory”

The brain analyzes components of a visual image (such as shape and color and motion) separately, but people experience multi-featured objects as wholes, not separate parts. Dr. Treisman’s theory addresses this issue, known as the “binding problem”. Simply put, her theory proposes attention as an internal spotlight in the brain that rapidly scans the representation of features such as color, shape and motion. When the spotlight of attention lands on the location of that object, the features are bound together. The integration of features by attention in this way is considered by some as a model for consciousness in general. As such it has stimulated discussion in fields outside of psychology, such as philosophy. In short, this important, provocative and influential theory has had a very significant impact and is likely to continue to provide more insights for understanding the human mind.


Albert Bandura

Bandura proposed that perceived self-efficacy, our belief in our own capabilities, is an important determining factor in behavior. At the time, the field of psychology was immersed in reductionist behaviorism and skeptical about the scientific usefulness of inner psychological processes. Bandura demonstrated that self-efficacy affected the tasks that people chose, how much effort they put into them and how they felt while doing them. People with high self-efficacy put more time and effort into a task, and were likely to be more successful. Bandura’s ideas have impacted a remarkably broad range of behaviors including mood disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse, stress and coping, physical health, academic success, athletic performance and work performance. His work has also been applied to the perceived efficacy of groups such as social and political systems, known as “collective-efficacy.”


Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi
“Mirror Neuron Systems”

The simplest form of understanding the actions of others is the ability to imitate their actions. But how do we imitate? How is the pattern of visual activity (what we see) translated into motor activity (what we do)? “Mirror neuron systems” provide the answer. Recording from neurons in a portion of the monkey brain that is involved in motor control (the pre-motor cortex), Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi discovered neurons that discharged not only when the monkey executed a specific action, but also when it observed another individual performing a similar action. They termed these neurons “mirror neurons” and subsequently documented their presence in humans. In addition to a role in understanding the actions, emotions and intentions of others, a malfunctioning of the mirror neuron system may provide insight into neural disorders, in particular the autistic syndrome.


John M. O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel
“Cognitive Map Theory of Hippocampal Function”

Functioning in the world requires knowing where you’re currently located and how to navigate to other locations. O’Keefe and Nadel proposed that an area of the brain called the hippocampus forms a “cognitive map” that allows an organism to know where it is located in the environment. They demonstrated that this cognitive map is embodied in hippocampal neurons called “place cells” that encode information about distances and directions in the environment. O’Keefe and Nadel elaborated their idea to show how the hippocampus can serve as a system for episodic memory (recollections of personally experienced events). Because of the extremely comprehensive nature of their model of hippocampal structure and function, O’Keefe and Nadel’s theory has transformed paradigms and assumptions about research on learning and memory.


Elizabeth F. Loftus
“The Malleable Nature of Memory”

Loftus’ idea is that people not only forget, but also falsely remember. Loftus has shown how it becomes impossible to separate the real fragments of the event itself from those added to it by suggestion and previous attempts at reconstruction. Thus memory is malleable. What makes her work so important is not that we sometimes fill in the gaps in our memories, but that we cannot distinguish what has been filled in from what really occurred. People sincerely and vividly think that they recall events that never happened. Because of her ideas and her research findings, Loftus has changed the way that both scientists and lay citizens think about the nature of human memory. Her work has made it clear that human memory is not a literal and faithful recorder of experience.


Aaron Beck
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”

Aaron Beck systematically demonstrated how cognitive principles could be used to explain the basic mechanisms underlying depression, anxiety, and symptoms of personality disorder. He then developed a theoretical framework for the therapeutic application of principles of cognitive psychology to treat these disorders. When Beck formulated his ideas, cognitive psychology was unknown to most psychiatrists and was incompatible with the prevailing Freudian theories. Among psychologists, behavioral theory had developed from principles derived from research with animals, and these ideas were beginning to dominate the clinical practice of psychology. Thus, Beck’s original and creative ideas ran counter to the two prevailing approaches of the time. His cognitive approach to therapy has had a broad impact on the fields of psychology and psychiatry.


Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky
“Judgmental Strategies and Heuristics”

Prior to Kahneman and Tversky’s contributions it had been common to view decision-making as more or less rational. Although people could not be expected to calculate exact probabilities or payoffs, a large body of psychological research was based on the belief that people were attempting to estimate the actual probabilities from whatever evidence they had. Contrary to this assumption, Kahneman and Tversky showed that in the face of uncertainty, human behavior is guided by a series of psychological principles, often leading to erroneous simplification of a problem. Rather than following a rational model, Kahneman and Tversky proposed that people employ heuristics to compensate for the limitations of memory, numerical calculation capacity, and prior experience with what might be novel and unique events. Such ways of thinking will sometimes produce a correct answer, but often will not.


James McClelland and David Rummelhart
“Parallel Distributed Processing”

McClelland and Rumelhart proposed how brain cells may work together to collectively process information. Theories of the mind inspired by the serial digital computer had dominated cognitive psychology for more than forty years. However, serial digital computers are built around one extremely fast central processor, which manipulates symbols one at a time. In living nervous systems, information is processed in parallel (or in a rapid cascade) by a vast number of individual processing units (neurons) that arrive at a decision by their collective activity; no single unit is in charge. In volume one of their two-volume set “Parallel Distributed Processing: The Microstructure of Cognition,” McClelland and Rumelhart introduced parallel computation to a wide audience in psychology, neuroscience and computer science. This idea also goes under the names “connectionism” and “neural networks.”


Michael I. Posner, Marcus E. Raichle, and Steven E. Peterson
“Imaging the Human Mind”

Over the past 30 years, psychology has been transformed by “the cognitive revolution” reflecting the rapid advances that have occurred in the isolation and measurement of mental operations. Over the past 15 years, this revolution has evolved into the field of cognitive neuroscience, which is the mapping of mental operations onto the brain. In 1985, Michael Posner, Marcus Raichle, and Steven Petersen established a collaboration at Washington University-St Louis that formed the backbone for the development of cognitive neuroscience. The combination of assessment of mental operations with methods for functional neuroimaging by Posner, Raichle, and Petersen led to seminal discoveries of neuroanatomical networks that support attention and language processes. These discoveries continue to dominate cognitive neuroscience today.