In memory of Francesco Foroni

On July 21 st of this year, an aggressive tumor took the life of our dear friend and colleague Francesco Foroni, who was only 50 years of age. He was in Sydney, where he had moved with his wife Arianna in 2016 and where he was Deputy Director of the School of Behavioral and Health Sciences at the Australian Catholic University.

The last of 8 brothers, Francesco (Kekko to his Italian friends) grew up in a large and loving family in Pieve di Soligo, a small town in the North-East of Italy, surrounded by vineyards. Despite the geographical distance, Francesco remained very attached to his family throughout his life.

Francesco got his early training in Psychology at the University of Padua where he received his Laurea degree (roughly equivalent to an American MS degree) in 1998. During his studies, he also spent a year as Erasmus student in Germany, which was the beginning of his international career. Already during these early years, it became clear that Francesco was a true intellectual and a deep thinker. He liked theory as much as he liked the technical aspects of research, two features that characterize his entire career.

Francesco expressed interest in joining Myron Rothbart’s lab at the University of Oregon in 1999, the same year in which Myron had officially retired from formal teaching. Faced with the difficult decision whether to commit himself to supervising a last graduate student for 4 to 5 years or spend his time relaxing on the beaches of the Mediterranean, Myron chose Francesco, which he considers one of his absolutely best decisions. Francesco was a joy to work with, and the collaboration lasted for 6 years. During that time Francesco completed a number of diverse research projects. The two most important included the way in which an overarching narrative can influence scores on the IAT (with Ulrich Mayr), and the other on the effects of the ‘strength’ of category labels on the perception of similarity between group members occupying the same or different categories. The latter studies attempted to assess whether perceived similarity was influenced by category labels when the labels themselves added no new information to the existing uncategorized objects. Francesco found such effects, found they were influenced by the ‘strength’ of the labels, and in addition, that these effects persisted when the category labels were subsequently removed. These were not easy studies to design or conduct, but the results have clearly made a major contribution to the work on categorization. During his years in Oregon, Francesco received another MS and a PhD in Psychology.

In 2006, Francesco went to the Netherlands to join Gün Semin and his research team as a postdoc, at a time when work on ‘embodiment’ was taking root. He started at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and then moved to Utrecht University with Gün in 2011. He contributed to some of the most frequently cited work that was produced by that lab during this period, such as a paper in Psychological Science in 2009. This was a groundbreaking piece of research showing that verbal stimuli (action verbs) that refer to emotional expressions, even if presented subliminally, elicit the same facial muscle activity (facial electromyography) as visual stimuli do. This and other related research were possible thanks to Francesco’s professional many-sidedness. He mastered EMG and co-developed the research on embodiment with his keen and constructively critical mind. His open and friendly nature made creative collaboration possible.

In 2012 Francesco joined, in the role of senior research fellow, Raffaella Rumiati’s lab at SISSA in Trieste where he remained until 2016. The School had received funding for a multidisciplinary project to study the psychological and neuronal mechanisms underlying food choices. Francesco joined the project with contagious enthusiasm and contributed to this innovative and productive line of research with his passion for theoretical analysis and with extremely accurate experimental skills. The collaboration with the lab members continued long after he moved to Australia, up to now. During the Trieste period he also collaborated with Andrea Carnaghi on the influence of hormones on social cognition.

In 2016, Francesco joined the Australian Catholic University in Sydney as Senior Lecturer in the School of Behavioural and Health Sciences, where he became Deputy Head of School in 2020.

All of us feel extremely lucky to have known Francesco and to have had the opportunity to work with him. We came to appreciate the depth of his thought, his intellectual integrity, his outstanding methodological skills, and his “slow science” philosophy that gives precedence to depth and quality over sheer quantity.

Much of Francesco’s work has been at the forefront of newly developing fields, attesting to the originality of his thought. During his career he has made very creative and influential contributions to implicit stereotyping, to the then emerging field of embodiment, and, more recently, to the psychology of food and eating. All of these contributions relied on Francesco’s unusually multi-disciplinary background that situates him somewhere at the intersection of psychology, neuro-science, and health sciences and that makes it difficult to place him in a clear disciplinary box. His broad theoretical and methodological knowledge allowed him to tackle research questions from multiple standpoints and with multiple research tools (such as combining explicit and implicit measures from social psychology with physiological and neuro-science tools such as EEG and fMRI). Possibly as a consequence of his exposure to different research cultures, Francesco has turned into a particularly thoughtful, theory-driven researcher.

Collaborating with Francesco also gave us the opportunity to discover many of his non-academic skills (including volley ball and his amazing skills as pastry chef) and to develop a friendship well beyond our academic engagement. As a colleague, as a friend, and as a generous human being, Francesco was unparalleled. As an example, Myron’s wife at some point required emergency neurosurgery which forced him to cancel all appointments, without knowing when they would return home. Upon their return, they noticed a warm, freshly baked fruit tart next to the front door. Francesco had determined their return date and had anticipated their arrival. In true Italian form, the dessert looked beautiful, and was as tasty as it looked.

We all were unprepared to learn that Francesco had passed away. His unexpected departure makes it very difficult to visualize the world without his colorful and creative presence. His sudden death deprived us and the people who belonged to his network forever of his friendship and his selfless critical voice. He will be missed deeply, both as a friend and scientist.

Anne Maass, Myron Rothbart, Gün Semin, and Raffaella Rumiati