President's Column

When my children were little, I once suggested we go out to eat. I asked them what restaurant they wanted to go to. Both kids were excited with this prospect. Seth insisted on going to one place, Sara, on going to another. I suggested a compromise. No third restaurant would do. I suggested we go to one restaurant that day and another one some other day. They wouldn't hear of it. Eventually, I got disgusted. We ate at home.

At times, we psychologists are like Seth and Sara when they were very young children. Two or more groups of psychologists, each certain it is right in what it wants, insists on having things its own way. Ultimately, the groups all lose. None of them gets its way, and no one outside these groups wishes to pay attention anymore. Like Seth and Sara that day, opposing interest groups within our field can end up "cutting their nose to spite their face."

Recently, my colleague Elena Grigorenko and I have proposed that psychologists concentrate more on what holds them together than on what keeps them apart. We have pled for a "unified psychology" (Sternberg, 2002; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001; Sternberg, Grigor-enko & Kalmar, 2001). The basic idea is simple: to acknowledge our differences but also to rise above them, especially in our dealings with the outside world.

There are several reasons why unity is important to us:

  • Conserving resources. Opposing factions in conflictual organizations end up consuming their resources--fighting each other rather than fighting for the organization and its interests as a whole.

  • Credibility. No one on the outside wants to listen to a group that cannot ultimately speak with a unified voice, any more than I was willing to listen to Seth and Sara when each insisted on having his or her way. If we want to have the option of prescription privileges for psychologists or more money for research support, we will get nowhere if we do not speak with a unified voice. Quite simply, we will lack credibility.

  • Profiting from each other. Groups that fight each other suffer rather than profit from the diversity they have to offer each other. We see this suffering in countries where ethnic groups battle each other rather than work together.

  • Recognition of our interdependence. We all need each other. Scientists need practitioners. Without practitioners, there would be few psychology students for scientists to teach (because most students, when all is said and done, are particularly interested in practice issues) and hence fewer university slots for psychologists; grant support would diminish as congresspersons, whose main interest is in serving constituents' needs, such as for mental health, would see less reason to fund psychological research; and there would be no one to use the results of our science to make a difference to the world. Without scientists, there would be few theories, fewer therapies and little hard data on which practitioners could draw.

  • Asking the right questions. When we become beholden to particular fields, methods or paradigms, we often ask not the best question, but the question that our allegiance "allows" us to ask. For example, instead of asking what is the absolute best way to treat a patient, we ask only which of the methods of our paradigm we should use. Or as another example, if we study memory but see ourselves only as "cognitive" psychologists, we fail to ask the interesting questions about memory that a biological psychologist, developmental psychologist, clinical psychologist or educational psychologist might ask.

  • We're all the same at heart. Great scientists have a style, like a good artist. They are artists as well as scientists. Great therapists also have a style. They, too, practice in ways that draw upon both science and art.

  • Positive affect. It feels better to be part of a unified team rather than a fractured one.

When I ran for the APA presidency, I ran on a "unity platform." Since being elected, I have made unity my No.1, all-embracing presidential initiative (of the five initiatives I have proposed). I have formed and met with a Presidential Unity Task Force. I have put together plans and a set of authors for an edited volume on unity in psychology, to be published by APA. And I have preached the message of unity. I have tried to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I have worked with psychologists of all stripes to make APA the most cohesive organization it can be. I invite you all to join me in our unified psychology. Unify!

References:

  • Sternberg, R.J. (Ed.). (2003). Psychologists defying the crowd: Stories of those who battled the establishment and won. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Sternberg, R.J., & Grigorenko, E.L. (2001). Unified psychology. American Psychologist, 56(12), 1069-1079.

  • Sternberg, R.J., Grigorenko, E.L., & Kalmar, D.A. (2001). The role of theory in unified psychology. The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 21(2), 99-117.