President's Column

The unification of psychology as a discipline is a recurring theme in our history. Many leading figures in psychology (e.g., Hans Eysenck, Gregory Kimble, Arthur Staats, Robert Sternberg) have addressed the topic to convey ways in which, despite our many differences and areas of specialization, we come together in our methods, history, converging foci and broad goals.

We learn early in our education that unification is a function in part of climbing a ladder of abstraction; as one goes up a rung or two, a higher level of abstraction allows for unification not available at a lower level. For example, unless you are at a picnic, ants and beetles are rather different, but up a rung or two of abstraction they are unified (in the Class insecta); to these we can add aunts and the Beatles and unify this diversity by ascending another rung or two (Kingdom: animalia or metazoa). What do we gain with efforts to unify the diversity of our field?

Challenges to unity

Discussion of unification itself may serve a critical purpose. Reconsidering our connections as psychologists perhaps is analogous to waving a national flag, and that can move individuals closer to the center from their usually more extreme positions (cf. Hassin et al., 2007). In addition, unification is important to revisit periodically in light of enormous changes within our field and science more generally. First, changes within our field reflect increased specialization and challenges to unity. In universities, for example, occasionally psychology departments shed content areas to form new departments or institutes (e.g., cognitive science, behavioral neuroscience). Professional meetings, journals and societies also include an expanding set of specialties that can detract from participation in the more unified organizations.

Second, fusion, combined and hyphenated sciences, as well as psychological branches of different fields (e.g., neuroeconomics, epigenetics, behavioral gerontology), and other disciplines reflect expansions related to our identity and unity. An example I find particularly fascinating is the recent movement of experimental philosophy. This is philosophy with research, data collection and empirical (not linguistic) analyses of the problems of philosophy. Wait, I thought that, among other things, we were the empirical offshoot of philosophy. Do we have to worry about a new federal agency (NIMI-National Institute of Moral Imperatives) as yet another drain on grant funds for our work?

Finally, unification is important to mention more broadly in our relation to other sciences. Based on extensive citation data, psychology is one of seven hub sciences with physics, medicine, math, chemistry, earth sciences and the social sciences (Cacioppo, 2007). We are deeply connected to and relied on by other disciplines, all the while keeping our identity. This adds to our strength but also can diffuse our own identity and unification.

Why unify?

Insufficiently discussed is the importance of the unification of psychologists. Our scientific advances depend on increased specialization, broad collaborations and interdisciplinary networks. Yet, to keep our specialties robust requires that we bring to bear the discipline and profession acting as a unified whole on a daily basis. This facet of the unification of psychology is critical as we make the case to the public and policy-makers of what might make a difference (e.g., in health care and reimbursement of services, funds for basic research). Here, acting as fractionated or narrow special interests is not as adaptive as it is in making the substantive advances of our field. When it comes to making strong cases, partnering with other national and international organizations, and achieving goals that will concretely help our subspecialty interests, the heft of a large professional organization presenting a unified front, with experts in moving legislation, accumulated know-how, and contacts that can make things happen are for the good of individual segments of the field. It is stunning to see APA teams form on multiple specific and specialized interests (e.g., in research, education, practice) and respond to issues of public as well as professional importance. This aspect of APA is very much like an immune system that must hover and be ready to respond quickly to needs as they emerge from different sources. The unification of psychology is not incompatible with fragmentation and specialization. Indeed, unification is our protection that recognition of and resources for our many segments and areas of specialization are enduring and secure.

Further Reading

  • Cacioppo, J.T. (2007). Psychology is a hub science. Observer, 20, (5), 42.

  • Hassin, R.R. et al. (2007). Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior. PNAS, 104, (50), 19,757–19,761.