Cover story

Berlin 2008: Host to International Psychologists

One of the innovative programming features at the conference was “controversial debates,” which pitted scholars arguing two sides of a current issue.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

This July, Berlin and the German psychology community were hosts to the 29th International Congress of Psychology. It was a stunning success on many fronts, from the attendance (the largest at an international congress yet) to the weather (not too hot) to the venue (surprisingly conducive to interaction and meetings) and most importantly to the programming -- the program book includes 376 packed pages of scientific program as well as young scientists programs, pre-congress workshops and post-congress tours.

The International Congress of Psychology, which occurs every four years, is sponsored by the International Union of Psychological Science (see story this issue and see and hosted by a National Member (in this case a federation of the German Psychological Society and the Association of German Professional Psychologists), who provides the Congress organization, including its scientific, cultural and capacity-building programs.

What were some of the highlights? There is clearly not enough space to list them all but some stand out – in addition to well-attended sessions at most times of the congress (no small feat when one is competing with Berlin the city in the summer, or with a talk by US presidential candidate Barack Obama), there were innovative programming features. One was the “controversial debates” – which pitted scholars arguing two sides of a current issue. Topics included discussions of the contributions from functional neuroimaging, ability grouping in schools, randomized trials and evidenced based practice and education, whether chimpanzees have culture, and the role of laboratory experimentation in empirical practice. Another noteworthy feature was the choice to plan the schedule in blocks, generally placing invited plenaries and symposia in the mornings, and papers and posters in the afternoons. Another was a variety of programs for young psychologists, and a welcoming attitude to students.

There were also content highlights – again too numerous to mention more than a couple of examples. One was over 100 presentations on media issues in psychology. Another was a substantial set of programs on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues – in total 58 presenters from 20 countries. Clinton Anderson, Director of the APA Office on LGBT issues, noted that this strong presentation stream was facilitated in part by the Congress organizers, who added LGB issues as an index term for Congress submissions.

APA was well represented at the Congress. There were several hundred APA members on the program as presenters, and most of the 10 APA staff and six board members who attended also presented in the program. APA President Alan Kazdin spoke in one of the controversial debates, and both he, President Elect James Bray and Board member Douglas Haldeman participated in symposia. Among APA staff, CEO Norman Anderson, Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke, International Affairs Director Merry Bullock, APA Public Communications Executive Director Rhea Farberman, and LGB Office Director Clinton Anderson organized and participated in symposia on topics ranging from the public face of psychology to ethics. APA staffed a books booth, and Alan Kazdin and Norman Anderson hosted the German organizers, invited speakers and APA members at a reception held during one of the Congress evenings at the “radio tower lounge” on the Congress grounds.

To a person, the APA staff and Board of Director members who attended agreed that the Congress was a success. As APA Director of the Ethics Office, Stephen Behnke put it, “I was struck by the vibrant atmosphere of the Congress…I left the Congress feeling that I had attended both an academic conference and a celebration of the global role of psychology in the twenty-first century.” 

Here are some further impressions of the Congress from APA Congress-goers:

  • The prevalence of students – “I was struck and greatly joyed by the participation and attendance of students and early career psychologists… at the Congress it added an electricity, energy, and enthusiasm to the meeting…  whatever practice was used to bring in such a high proportion of students ought to be seized for our own annual convention” said APA President Alan Kazdin; this was echoed by APA Books Editor Mary Lynn Skutley: “…[the] students .. who stopped by the booth had a lot of questions about APA and all facets of study and were very interested in affiliate membership. It was great to chat with them and get a better idea of how psychology operates in their countries.” 

  • A conducive atmosphere for international exchange – James Bray, APA President Elect noted “This was my second ICP and I was very impressed with this one in terms of programming and having the opportunity to discuss current issues regarding science and practice with colleagues from across the world. I found the informal interactions and discussions at receptions and dinners to be as important as the formal program presentations.“  Stephen Behnke added, “Psychologists and psychology students from all over the world gathered to listen, speak, discuss, and debate.  As Ethics Office director, I was most interested in sessions that addressed the ethical aspects of what we do, and found many.  Ethics was more than discussed, though, as the International Union adopted the Universal Declaration of Ethical Principles for Psychologists, which represented the culmination of many years of effort in drafting a set of principles that psychologists’ worldwide support.  And Steven Breckler, Executive Director for Science noted “I was especially pleased by the opportunity to meet and talk with colleagues from around the world.  As psychological science becomes increasingly international, meetings such as the ICP provide important common ground and a place to interact that we don’t get from national meetings.”

  • A welcoming physical environment – in the Congress Center: As Alan Kazdin said, “the physical facility fostered interaction and attendance … the convention center with all the presentations, places to sit and chat, places to have something to eat… all in one place for me meant that meetings, conversations, etc. continued after a sessions.  Any meeting I had (symposium or one of the meetings for other business) invariably continued informally at other points in the conference center as we encountered or sought out each other.” Julia Frank-McNeil, Publications Senior Director added: “It was a very exciting and lively crowd.  The facility was far superior to those we have had at recent meetings.”  And outside -- Steve Breckler, added “I soon realized that Berlin was a great place to hold an international meeting.  Attendance seemed especially high, which I attribute in part to the central and accessible location… I loved the many “extracurricular” activities that were organized.  I went on the tour to Leipzig, and it was fantastic!  I got to appreciate an important part of psychology’s history, and I was able to spend additional time meeting and talking with psychologists from around the world.

Enriched by this international experience, many APA members and staff are now preparing for the APA annual convention in Boston. Those who were in Berlin will take with them the depth and richness of interaction with colleagues from around the world. As James Bray noted, “It is clear that there are some issues that are truly international, such as the implementation of evidence-based practice in different countries and cultures, and there issues … more unique for the US, such as funding for science and practice.”

Facts about the Congress (from the ICP2008 website

The ICP 2008 in numbers as of 18 July 2008:
More than 8,600 registered delegates
Invited Adresses: 90
Invited Symposia: 159
IUPsyS Invited Symposia: 12
Symposia: 298
Poster presentations: 4,180
Oral presentations: 4,400