Senior director's column

Consensus on substance and process: A tall task for psychology

Psychology has a long involvement in psychometrics, and questions such as test adaptation, translation and validity across cultures is a prevalent topic

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Every other year two of the major regional associations of psychology, SIP (Interamerican Association of psychology) primarily with members drawn from across all the Americas and EFPA (European Federation of Psychology Associations) with 35 European country members representing well over 200,000 psychologists, hold major, back-to-back congresses. The themes of this year's congresses, "A Road Toward Peace and Democracy" (the Interamerican Congress—CIP) and "A Rapidly Changing World — challenges for psychology" (European Congress—ECP) each reflected common goals of using psychology to address central issues of our time.

Attending both congresses highlighted contrasts in geography (Guatemala City is 15oN, 90oW; Oslo is 59oN, 10oE), wealth (Norway ranks 3rd in measures of average individual wealth, Guatemala ranks 110), history (Maya, Vikings), culture and language (Spanish was the official language of the CIP; English of the ECP). But attending both congresses also provided important constants — the celebration of local culture in formal congress events, the delight of enthusiastic student volunteers, well-crafted local organization, the buzz of research presentations, and attention to asking where psychology is now, where it is going, and how it is going to get there.

Among the many presentations were some that looked not at where psychology is, or where it has been, but that predicted where it will be. One, a talk by a Brazilian physicist, turned editor and observer of psychology, provides a good example. The task Piotr Trzesniak set himself was to predict the most significant changes to psychology in the next 30 years. His answers — international agreement on psychological constructs and measurements, more sophisticated modeling and simulation (life outside of statistical packages), and differential diagnosis through neuro-imaging — were especially thought provoking.

Pursuing one of Trzesniak's ideas, discussion at a forum of presidents of international organizations turned to whether it was possible to move toward international consensus on measurement. Participants gave several examples of how agreement on nomenclature and measurement have provided important advances. Comparisons of demographics benefit from common definitions of adolescence, adulthood or aging; comparisons of health status are possible only with common measures of crucial indicators. Could psychology generate a set of universal, standard measures? Would psychology want to? We know the same (presumed) underlying construct can have different behavioral manifestations depending on age, culture, history, environment – does this preclude standard measurement? Psychology has, of course, a long involvement in psychometrics, and questions such as test adaptation, translation and validity across cultures is a prevalent topic (see for example Guidelines on Test Adaptation from the International Test Commission).

Another kind of consensus was also a topic at the regional congresses — consensus among psychologists and psychological organizations at the national, regional and international level on the principles guiding our profession — ethical principles, educational standards, methods of evaluation, consensus on how to implement these principles, and consensus on common standards. Although it is abundantly clear that we are far from achieving consensus (or even knowledge of each others' practices) in most areas, the recent agreement at the international level on "universal principles of ethics for psychologists" and recent adoption of the EuroPsy standard offer models.

These conversations may provoke us, as a profession, to two things. One is to continue trying to understand the continuum of universal to particular that binds us together. A second is to develop opportunities to allow individuals and organizations to explore areas of agreement or of common activity — in measurement, in standards, in evaluation, in ways to apply psychology to the common good. Approached in the spirit of learning shown at this year's Interamerican and European congresses, such meetings might serve an important unifying function for the discipline.

End note

Many of you may have heard of recent personnel changes at APA. At the beginning of July, fueled by the general economic crisis and by the more immediate threat of a persistent deficit budget, APA implemented a "reduction in force" or RIF. As a result, 32 filled positions and 5 unfilled positions (about 6% of the central staff) were permanently eliminated from APA's roles. Thirty-two of our colleagues learned that their position was eliminated. This correction will, the association believes, keep APA on a steady course and able to fulfill its goals of serving its members, the discipline, and society.

In this context, the Office of International Affairs is saddened to say farewell to the International Communications Manager, Amena Hassan. We will miss Amena's exquisite skills in making APA's international presence in print and web media sparkle, her role as production editor of Psychology International, her caretaking of the international contact databases and web pages, and her enthusiasm in promoting international exchange and experiences through interviews and outreach to authors, students and colleagues. Ψ