Running Commentary

Decades tend to get named as if human behavior proceeds in 10-year increments. We have had the roaring '20s, the passive '50s, the violent '60s and the selfish '80s. For psychologists and other behavioral scientists, we've just started the Decade of Behavior.

Following a successful model

Ten years ago, a large coalition of federal agencies and scientific associations, including APA, collaborated to make the '90s the Decade of the Brain. Virtually all of the progress in understanding the functioning of the brain took place in the 20th century, and it was appropriate that the last decade of the century focus on the tremendous progress made on that important frontier.

Just as it was appropriate for the last decade of the 20th century to be a time for reviewing and publicizing progress in brain science, it is appropriate that the first decade of the new century be devoted to promoting the importance of how human beings learn, behave and function in the world; hence, the Decade of Behavior.

The idea of designating a Decade of Behavior originated at APA but it has grown into a powerful coalition of more than 50 behavioral and social organizations and federal liaisons. The 16-person National Advisory Committee on the Decade of Behavior includes distinguished members from across the behavioral and social science disciplines--from anthropology to economics to nursing to neurosciences.

While quite new, the Decade of Behavior is deeply rooted in our history. Our fourth president, James McKeen Cattell, noted that "it is possible that the development of psychology as a science and its applications to the control of human conduct--individual and collective--may, in the course of the coming century, be as significant for civilization as has been the industrial revolution."

And, speaking more recently, George Miller, our 77th president, once noted that if the stated goals of scientific psychology were to be realized, the social and personal implications would far outrun the implications of atomic energy or recombinant DNA.

Why, with a century of such lofty predictions, does it seem that we still have so far to go? Partly, it is because scientific psychology, compared with physiology, medicine and biochemistry, got off to a late start. But more important, I think it is the enormous complexity of the social and behavioral sciences, which span a vast continuum from brain cells to international warfare.

In my 1988 APA presidential address, I noted: "If you doubt that the core problems of our world relate to human behavior, think for a minute about the problems that most endanger our species. Certainly, few could deny that human behavior, the subject matter of our discipline, is at the core of many of the most fundamental concerns of the inhabitants of the planet."

Bringing the behavioral sciences together

The official launch of the Decade of Behavior, described in this month's cover article, combined the best of the scientific, policy and social worlds by bringing together congressional representatives, scientists, federal agency chiefs, the press and representatives from the broad range of behavioral and social sciences. Through the Decade of Behavior, we in psychology have the opportunity and obligation to play a leadership role in promoting these science fields, in promoting partnerships across disciplines and in promoting collaboration across science/practice activities. APA will continue to play an important role in this endeavor--a role we are well suited for. APA has a culture that welcomes and invites collaboration, credit sharing and expansiveness, all qualities required in our support role for the Decade of Behavior. The Decade provides yet more opportunities to facilitate collaborations with other organizations across the behavioral and social sciences, both here in the United States and abroad.

APA Public Interest Director Henry Tomes has observed that APA has "great convening power." As the largest of the social and behavioral sciences, APA's broad convening power will serve the Decade of Behavior well as it grows from year to year. Just as APA draws its own strength from the breadth and variety of interests and expertise represented by our 156,000 members, so will we continue to lend this strength to the coalitions, partnerships and initiatives that help us fulfill our mandate to improve society and the human condition.