FSU professor to be honored for contributions to psychological science

Leading suicide researcher Thomas Joiner, FSU’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology

A Florida State University professor is being recognized for his groundbreaking work in psychology, specifically in the areas of eating disorders, depression and suicide.

Thomas Joiner, FSU’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology, has been selected as a recipient of the 2020 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association of Psychological Science. The award recognizes APS members for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the area of applied psychological research.

“It’s a validation of decades of work put in by my team and me,” Joiner said. “It is a major plank in a platform from which to advocate for the point of our work, suicide prevention.”

Nominees for the James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award must be APS members whose research addresses a critical problem in society at large. The association typically selects only three recipients for the award each year from across the entire psychological science field.

Joiner serves as the director of Laboratory for the Study and Prevention of Suicide-Related Conditions and Behaviors at Florida State University. Over the course of his career, he has authored or edited more than 695 peer-reviewed publications and 18 books, won major awards and grants, and made numerous radio, print and television appearances.

Despite the international recognition, Joiner said he refuses to rest on the laurels of this eminent award.

“I look up to my predecessors, and some of the ones of who have gotten this award before me were and are true heroes to me,” Joiner said. “The accomplishments of James McKeen Cattell, for whom the award is named, are awe-inspiring. To be at all thought of in that same company may not be fully accurate, but it is rewarding.”

Cattell was an American psychologist who became the first professor of psychology in the United States in 1888, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He dedicated his career to improving methodology for mental health testing and applying psychology to areas of education, business, industry and advertising. Cattell founded the journal Psychological Review and was editor of the journal Science for decades.

“Cattell began his career in psychology but transcended his discipline to become one of the giants of American science,” said Frank Johnson, chair of the FSU Department of Psychology. “This award recognizes that Thomas Joiner’s work and life have followed the same trajectory.”

Johnson said Joiner began his FSU career in a relentless effort to understand and prevent suicide, one of the most difficult challenges in the discipline of psychology. Along the way, he dismantled many harmful myths about the topic and his theoretical insights have led to a new level of scientific precision in real-world detection and prevention.

“Speaking on behalf of the FSU Department of Psychology — where we know Thomas Joiner as an incredibly warm colleague and principled mentor — I am delighted to congratulate him as the recipient of the 2020 APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award,” Johnson added.

The APS has bestowed this prestigious award to psychology trailblazers since in 1992.

Jeanette Taylor, former FSU psychology chair and current associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, supported Joiner’s nomination.

“Given how fearsome and daunting suicide is, it requires a form of fearlessness of physical ordeal and death,” Taylor said. “Joiner’s group has been the world leader in formulating and testing ideas regarding this novel yet fundamental insight.”

Joiner is widely known for his interpersonal theory of suicide. In this theory, Joiner proposed that a person will only die by suicide if they have both the desire to die by suicide and the ability to do so. Joiner’s team has found clear support for the theory’s tenets, with teams worldwide conducting more than 100 studies on the concept.

Taylor said this speaks to the influence Joiner’s theory has on the field, including inspiring new generations of scientists to study suicide.

“Thomas’ work has had a major international societal impact regarding suicide prevention,” Taylor added. “It has substantially influenced the way suicide risk assessment and intervention is conducted in day-to-day clinical practice.”

Joiner said he believes his work is making an impact, but there’s still more work to do.

“The whole point is preventing more suicides,” Joiner said. “I believe we’re doing that already, which seems at odds with rising rates. But the real question is what would those rates have been absent our efforts? Higher still, I’m pretty sure. Nevertheless, I want to deflect the trajectory of rising rates to flattening and then to decreasing, asymptoting toward zero.”

Joiner will receive his award in May 2020 at the 32nd APS Annual Convention in Chicago.