Psychology's ability to reach all people was on display at APA's opening session, which recognized psychology's luminaries.

APA President Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, and CEO Norman Anderson, PhD, presented renowned developmental psychologist Edward Zigler, PhD, with APA's highest honor, the Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology.

Zigler, an emeritus psychology professor at Yale University, contributed much to psychology's understanding of mental retardation as a developmental disorder, but he's most famous for being the "father of Head Start," the federal programs that promote education, nutrition, health services and parent involvement for low-income children.

"It's not enough to do your work, publish it in a journal that maybe 300 of your colleagues will read, or maybe write a book or two," said Zigler, accepting the award. "Those are great - but you also have the task of taking your knowledge and utilizing it to make our society a better place for children and adults."

Further underscoring the importance of benefiting society, Kazdin awarded a presidential citation to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who helped develop the mental health parity bill - which as of Monitor press time was winding its way through Congress. Kennedy was also instrumental in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.

"Senator Kennedy's commitment and dedication to the well-being of vulnerable populations has led to the enactment of groundbreaking legislation," Kazdin said.

Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), accepted the award on his behalf. He told the crowd that while great strides have been made toward achieving mental health parity - which ensures that mental health issues are covered by health insurance -- we must make sure that insurance companies abide by the new laws.

Kazdin also awarded a presidential citation to bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who gave the keynote speech. As he received the award, Gladwell, who is trained as a journalist but has written several books about psychology, such as "Blink" (Back Bay Books, 2007) and "The Tipping Point" (Back Bay Books, 2002), said he felt like the lead singer of a tribute band who gets invited to join the group he's spent his life emulating. He urged the psychological community to study the notion that adversity breeds success.

"Our contemporary rags-to-riches interpretation is an economic one," he said. We try to erase disadvantage from our society to provide everyone the same opportunities. By contrast, "the 19th century interpretation was a psychological interpretation," he said. In that version, disadvantage was thought to endow positive attitudes, motivations and work ethic, Gladwell noted. The author told the story of Sidney Weinberg, who rose from a humble beginning as an assistant janitor at investment firm Goldman Sachs to lead the company to unparalleled success.

Gladwell argued that Weinberg's disadvantaged beginnings taught him the interpersonal and workmanship skills necessary for his achievements. When Weinberg offered his opinions, people listened because they thought, "if you can make it to the highest levels of Wall Street having come from such humble beginnings, you must be good."

Instead of equalizing every advantage, "why don't we set up structured disadvantages?" Gladwell asked, tongue somewhat in cheek. The danger, he said, lies in not even entertaining the question.