UN Report

Psychology at the United Nations: A Brief History

While psychology has been an international field since its origins in 1879, its place in the UN is unusual.

By Harold Takooshian, PhD, and Siroon P. Shahinian

Since the United Nations was formed in 1945, what has been the role of psychology in the UN? While psychology has been an international field since its origins in 1879, its place in the UN is unusual, and can be summarized in three points: (1) Psychology organizations are few and recent at the UN. (2) As individuals, many top psychologists have long been involved in UN work. (3) Psychologists today are low-profile among far larger UN interest groups (like economists and social workers), see much more to do, and are accelerating their efforts.

Those unfamiliar with the innards of the United Nations should know it is truly an amalgam of 3 separate units: (a) Its Secretariat and General Assembly, with diplomats from 192 governments. (b) Its dozens of global agencies like WHO and UNICEF, with paid staffs working on their specific charge. (c) Its “Civil society” or non-governmental organizations (NGOs)--the 3,000 organizations like APA and Rotary, which are registered with the UN as volunteer “observers” or “consultants” in UN work, either with DPI (UN Department of Public Information) or ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council).

1. Organizations. Among about 100 international psychology organizations today (www.iupsys.org), barely a dozen of these are among the 3,000 NGOs registered with the UN. Table 1 shows the first psychology NGO was AWP in 1976, then ICP in 1981. These inspired a reluctant SPSSI Council to make SPSSI the third in 1991. All others have followed since then. After APA and its CEO Ray Fowler accelerated APA international activities in 1996, APA registered with the UN in 2000. ICP and Selma Sapir produced a video on psychology at the UN. Oddly, the first time some of these dozen psychology NGOs convened was only recently—at Pace University on April 1, 2004. Since then, this emerging consortium has identified about 60 psychologists working with NGOs at the UN, compiled a directory, hosted an annual gathering in New York City each September (since 2004), and on October 10-11, 2007 hosted the first “Psychology Day at the UN.” (The second is November 20, 2008.)

2. Individuals. Since the 1940s, top psychologists in the USA and overseas have long been involved in UN activities through its agencies (more than Secretariat or NGOs). A partial list of these includes APA CEO Roger W. Russell and Ed Hollander in the 1950s, Charles Osgood and Herbert Kelman in the 1960s, Henry P. David and Morton Deutsch in the 1970s, Mark Rosenzweig and others in the 1980s. Key among these was the prolific Otto Klineberg (1899-1992), who began with UNESCO in Paris in the 1940s, and headed its Division of Applied Social Science in 1953-55. Such individual involvements continue today where, for example, in 2007 APA Presidential candidate Steven J. Reisner was a consultant for a UNICEF conference in Paris. There is likely only one psychologist diplomat, Ambassador Anthony J. DeLuca of Kyrghyz, who formed a unique graduate degree program for UN staff, www.ignatiusu.com. Since UN records are so dispersed, and not indexed, this fascinating history of individual psychologists at the UN remains piecemeal, elusive, and yet to be written.

3. Acceleration. While psychology groups were late to reach the UN, it is clear that their involvement is accelerating, in at least a few ways. Several now chair diverse sections of the 22 CONGO committees in New York, if not the entire committee (www.ngocongo.org ). These groups increasingly work with one another to offer timely events, publications, and two-way communication between psychology with the UN and public. Not least of all, many more students and colleagues are now interested in international issues; in 2006, over 30 psychologists applied for 1 opening on the 7-person APA volunteer team at the UN, and in 2008 many students competed for one APA volunteer intern opening.

Table 1 . Psychology NGOs at the United Nations.


Organization Formed  NGO  Website 
APA: American Psychological Association 1892 1999 www.apa.org
IPA: International Psychoanalytic Association Trust 1910 1998 www.ipa.org.uk
IAAP: International Association of Applied Psychology 1920 2003 www.iaapsy.org
IAQ: International Orthopsychiatric Association 1924 1999 www.amerortho.org
SPSSI: Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues 1936 1991 www.spssi.org
ICP: International Council of Psychologists 1941 1981 www.icpweb.org
IUPsyS: International Union of Psychological Sciences 1951 1998 www.iupsys.org
AWP: Association for Women in Psychology 1969 1976 www.awpsych.org
IOA: International Ontopsychology Association 1978 1999 www.ontopsicologia.org
ISPA: International School Psychology Association 1982 2004 www.ispaweb.org
ISTSS: International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies 1985 1993 www.istss.org
IFTA: International Family Therapy Association 1987 1999 www.ifta-familytherapy.org
WFMH : World Federation for Mental Health 1948 1963 www.wfmh.org


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** Presentation to the symposium on “Psychology in Action at the United Nations,” at the meetings of the American Psychological Association, Boston, August 2008. The authors thank their many UN and other colleagues for their kind cooperation to prepare this. Direct any inquiries to Harold Takooshian, PhD.