Cover Story

Consider the facts:
  • Most of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States--from AIDS to heart disease to automobile accidents--are firmly rooted in behavior.
  • One-fifth of the nation's adults possess only rudimentary reading and writing skills.
  • Scarcely half of those eligible voted in the 1996 general election, the lowest percentage since 1964.

Those statistics illustrate what behavioral and social scientists are eager to emphasize: that even as strides in genetics and neuroscience have captured the public's imagination, behavior--what people think, and decide, and do--drives some of society's best achievements, as well as some of its worst failings.

"There is a recognition in many quarters that many of society's greatest problems have a foundation in behavioral questions--that technology will only get us so far," says Richard McCarty, PhD, APA's executive director for science.

"The most fundamental answers to many issues--poor schools, violence in the streets, unhealthy behaviors, safety--are in the behavioral sciences," agrees University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist Robert Bjork, PhD, president of the American Psychological Society. "There's a need to sell the behavioral sciences as a national resource."

That's the rationale behind the "Decade of Behavior," an interdisciplinary effort to promote the importance of behavioral and social science research modeled after the 1990s' "Decade of the Brain." The initiative, whose five themes include health, education, safety, prosperity and democracy, was officially launched on Capitol Hill in September (see sidebar).

The launch event marked the culmination of almost three years of planning. In that time, organizers have secured broad-based support in the scientific community, and a 16-member, multidisciplinary National Advisory Committee has laid the groundwork for a long-term public education campaign.

The time is right for behavioral and social scientists to make a concerted push for public recognition and expanded funding, says Roger Downs, PhD, a geographer at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the initiative's National Advisory Committee.

"The elections this fall and the issues that have been salient--issues of educational policy, quality of life and social equity--are exactly the issues that social and behavioral scientists have something to say about," he says. "We can make a real contribution to the debate."

"It is not an exaggeration to believe that we can save this nation billions of dollars over the coming decade if we apply ourselves well, if we do good research, and if we apply that research to public policy," U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (D­Wash.), PhD, a clinical psychologist, told scientists gathered at the launch. "If we do that, we'll have performed a great service to this country."

The launch event emphasized the diversity of topics that fall under the rubric of behavior, says Walt Wolfram, PhD, a North Carolina State University linguist whose research was featured there. It also underscored, he says, that "these are not esoteric issues that simply preoccupy the careers of social scientists--that basic social science research is fundamental to making the universe a more compatible place for human beings to exist."

First steps

Although the initiative is scarcely past its infancy, organizers have already taken several important steps:

  • One of the nation's largest public broadcast affiliates, WETA in Arlington, Va., is seeking funding for a four-part, prime-time public television series describing advances in behavioral and social science research. The series will explore decision-making, violence, relationships and what organizers dub "the pursuit of happiness."
  • Paired with the television series, a public education campaign will lend behavioral and social science further visibility. The outreach will include a "behavior quiz" to be distributed nationally, a companion Web site and a series of 10-minute excerpts from the television series for classrooms and youth groups. To assess the success of the series and outreach campaign, Decade planners are arranging to sample public opinion about behavioral and social science research before and after the television series has aired.
  • APA's Science Directorate, working with the Science Student Council, has recently begun pilot-testing materials for graduate students to introduce high school and junior high school students to the field of psychology. The hope is that the outreach program will expand to involve more graduate students and that Decade of Behavior partners from other disciplines will soon follow suit.
  • A scientific lecture series supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation will fund five lectures each year for five years, beginning in 2001. The lectures will take place at scientific societies' national meetings, and lecturers will be selected by the Decade of Behavior's Advisory Committee.
  • With funding from the National Science Foundation, Decade organizers plan to launch a searchable Web site that details funding opportunities in the behavioral and social sciences.

* This fall, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D­N.Y.) and Rep. Brian Baird (D­Wash.), organized a Congressional Health and Behavior Caucus with the goal of highlighting the importance of behavior in health.

In breadth, strength

APA's Board of Scientific Affairs and science directorate initially developed the idea for a Decade of Behavior in 1997 and began to take the fledgling idea to other organizations late that year.

"We wanted to shape the initiative enough so we could take it to others, but not enough so that it was fixed or immutable," McCarty recalls.

Among the first to join were the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences and the Consortium of Social Science Associations. Both organizations represent a wide range of scientific societies. Now more than 50 scientific organizations have joined the initiative (see list). In addition, liaisons from more than a dozen federal agencies have supported the effort and President Clinton has written a letter of support. Initiative planners continue to recruit more backers, including inviting international psychological groups to join the International Union of Psychological Science and the International Social Science Council in endorsing the Decade.

The Advisory Committee that oversees the initiative represents the full spectrum of disciplines sponsoring the effort, from psychology, economics and political science to demography, sociology and medicine. The initiative's interdisciplinary foundation, McCarty argues, is likely to benefit behavioral and social scientists far more than would working alone to secure greater research funding--not least because funding agencies increasingly seek research that takes an interdisciplinary approach. More importantly, he says, many of the problems that confront contemporary society reside at the intersection of many scientific disciplines.

"We have a tendency, each in our own disciplines, to think in terms of the group, or the individual, or the cell or the DNA," agrees Troy Duster, PhD, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University and a member of the Advisory Committee. "At all of these levels, behavior can be explained--but in each case it's a partial explanation. We've reached a point at which many people have concluded that no single level of analysis can really take us far enough."

Judging success

Organizers of the initiative recognize they'll face challenges getting their message out. For one, critics argue, the model for the Decade of Behavior, the Decade of the Brain, was itself not entirely successful in achieving all of its goals, including promoting the importance of brain research to the general public. Maybe so, says Merry Bullock, PhD, APA's associate director for science. But, she says, the Decade of the Brain was well-known in the scientific community. To be successful, the Decade of Behavior must do the same and more.

One measure of the Decade of Behavior's success will be in the public policy that emerges, suggests University of Pittsburgh health psychologist and Advisory Committee member Stephen Manuck, PhD. "If we could see the empirical basis of behavioral science come to replace ideology alone in debates over issues of public policy, that will be a great success," he argues.

"Society is always willing to believe that the brain and other aspects of physiology influence important outcomes--it's easier to grasp," says Christine Dunkel-Schetter, PhD, a University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist whose research was featured at the launch event.

"Traditionally, psychological and social factors have been discounted by the medical community, and often by some federal funders and policy makers. The Decade of Behavior offers the possibility of showing truly integrative, interdisciplinary behavioral science to be powerful."

McCarty adds, "We don't purport to be able to solve all of the planet's problems in a decade. What we hope to do is to provide a foundation from which those problems can be addressed. I don't think we can yet imagine all the opportunities that will present themselves."


Further Reading


The following organizations have endorsed the Decade of Behavior:

  • Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research

  • American Anthropological Association

  • American Association for Public Opinion Research

  • American Association of Colleges of Nursing

  • American Association of Spinal Cord Injury Psychologists and Social Workers

  • American Educational Research Association

  • American Institute of Stress

  • American Organization of Nurse Executives

  • American Political Science Association

  • American Psychiatric Nurses Association

  • American Psychological Association

  • American Psychological Society

  • American Public Health Association

  • American Society of Criminology

  • American Sociological Association

  • Association for Behavior Analysis

  • Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy

  • Association of Schools of Public Health

  • Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine

  • Behavior Genetics Association (president and past presidents)

  • College on Problems of Drug Dependence

  • Consortium of Social Science Associations (13 member societies)

  • Council of Applied Masters Programs in Psychology

  • Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology (more than 350 member departments)

  • Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences (18 member societies)

  • German Neuropsychological Society

  • Gerontological Society of America

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

  • International Social Science Council

  • International Society for Developmental Psychobiology

  • International Study Group Investigating Drugs as Reinforcers

  • International Union of Psychological Science

  • Linguistic Society of America

  • National Academy of Neuropsychology

  • National Communication Association

  • National League for Nursing

  • Neurobehavioral Teratology Society

  • Psychonomic Society

  • Public Health Institute

  • Research Society on Alcoholism

  • Society for Computers in Psychology

  • Society for Judgment and Decision Making

  • Society for Personality and Social Psychology

  • Society for Public Health Education

  • Society for Research in Child Development

  • Society for Research on Adolescence

  • Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco

  • Society for Stimulus Properties of Drugs

  • Society of Behavioral Medicine

  • U.S. National Committee of the International Union of Psychological Science

  • U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Science

  • Virginia Psychological Association

  • Wide Range