APA's 2003 president, Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, has never been afraid of swimming against the tide. In high school, he conducted an experiment showing that the textbook his biology teacher was using was less effective than one used by another teacher. As an untenured assistant professor, he kept his focus on human intelligence research even when other, more prestigious fields seemed to offer better chances of professional success. Since then, he has made a career out of challenging conventional ideas about intelligence, wisdom, creativity, love and hate.
Now he is bringing that same willingness to challenge the status quo to the APA presidency, with initiatives that focus on broadening the scope of education, combating hate and promoting wisdom, improving the peer-review process and increasing prescription privileges for practitioners.
He also has a broader goal: showing the disparate communities that fall under APA's broad umbrella how much stronger they are when they work together than when they struggle against each other.
"I ran for the presidency because I thought I could have an impact on APA and the field, and change some things for the better," says Sternberg. "I guess I'll find out this year whether it's true."
An early focus
Except for a few years in California in his twenties, Sternberg has spent most of his life on the mid-Atlantic seaboard. Born and raised in New Jersey, he now lives just north of New Haven in Hamden, Conn., and on weekends he can sometimes be found fixing up his country house in Norfolk, Conn., near the Massachusetts border. His two children, Seth and Sara, recently graduated from Yale University, his alma mater.
Sternberg's enthusiasm for psychology began early, sparked by his experiences in elementary school with intelligence tests that purported to show how successful students would be.
"When I was young, I did poorly on IQ tests," says Sternberg. "And what happens when you do poorly on tests is that teachers think you're dumb, you act like you're dumb, it reinforces their view that you're dumb--so it's just a downward spiral."
Sternberg's own slide down that spiral was stopped by Virginia Alexa, his fourth grade teacher, whom he credits with being the first teacher to believe in his potential despite his poor test performance. Much of Sternberg's work since then can be seen as an attempt to change the way student potential is measured, and to help those poor test-takers who might not be lucky enough to find their own Mrs. Alexas.
During middle school and high school, Sterberg continued to study intelligence testing, occasionally to the consternation of the classmates he tested. Then, as an undergraduate at Yale, he solidified his interest in a career in psychology while studying under renowned memory researcher Endel Tulving, who he says taught him a number of important lessons.
"I learned a lot from him, but one of the most important things was that just because a lot of people believe something, it doesn't mean it's true," says Sternberg. "And sometimes just because a lot of people believe something means you should be particularly skeptical about it. That's just had an enormous influence on my career."
He went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford University, where he completed a dissertation on his componential theory of intelligence under the guidance of Gordon Bower, PhD. According to Sternberg, Bower taught him the importance of trying to lead a field rather than follow it. Since then, he has focused his research primarily on intelligence, though not without a few excursions into other research areas, such as love, hate, wisdom and leadership. Recently, he has also begun studying psychology itself, writing about what makes certain psychological theories succeed, how faculty members can best mentor their students and how students can navigate their way through the training process and the first few years of a professional career.
The cornerstone of his work is his triarchic theory of successful intelligence, which posits three independent kinds of intelligence--analytic, practical and creative. The theory suggests that traditional tests, which focus on analytic abilities alone, often fail to provide a complete measure of a test-taker's intellectual potential for success. In 2000, Sternberg founded the Yale Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise (PACE Center), which now holds more than $7 million in grants to study teaching, learning and assessment.
Making a difference
In addition to his work as a researcher, Sternberg has also been intimately involved with professional leadership. He has edited Contemporary Psychology and Psychological Bulletin, served on various committees and been the president of APA Divs. 1 (Society for General Psychology), 10 (Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts), 15 (Educational) and 24 (Theoretical and Philosophical).
Those experiences, his conversations with APA's diverse membership, and input from APA staff members have helped shape Sternberg's presidential initiatives for this year. They include:
Advocating for prescription privileges: Sternberg has worked for prescription privileges in his home state of Connecticut, testifying in their favor in front of the state legislature and helping raise funds for the state campaign. Now, he says, he is ready to help the Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice and APA's Practice Directorate advance the national campaign. "Many academics have legitimate concerns about the advisability of prescription privileges for psychologists," says Sternberg. "I plan to institute a dialogue with them in the coming year to show them that such privileges can be put into place in a way that will simultaneously address their concerns and also help practicing psychologists serve their patients in the most efficacious way possible."
Seeking more civility in the peer-review process: Many researchers have had the unpleasant experience of receiving a "savage review" of a submitted paper--one that is destructively, not constructively, critical. Such reviews are not just rude, says Sternberg; they also tend to be hypocritical, misleading and damaging to the field as a whole, since they reflect poorly not only on the reviewers who write them but also on the editors and publishers who allow them. The solution: heightened awareness, better education about professional standards and less tolerance of violations of those standards. "It's really everyone's responsibility," says Sternberg. "It's our responsibility as reviewers not to write ad hominem reviews; it's the editor's responsibility, if someone did write one, not to send it out; and it's the publisher's responsibility to tell the editors that such reviews are unacceptable."
Combating hate and promoting wisdom: In recent years, there have been a number of massacres and attempted genocides around the world, says Sternberg. In the short term, governments may be able to stamp out groups that act on their hatred, but in the long term, that strategy is bound to fail, he believes. Psychology has something important to contribute to a solution: an understanding of the factors that reduce hatred. "One good way to combat hate is through wisdom, which is using your intelligence and experience for a common good," says Sternberg. "It's true in APA and it's true in the broader world. We need to resolve things so that there's a solution that works as well as possible for everybody."
Broadening education: Sternberg has assembled a task force to address the use of psychology in schools. With the help of Cynthia Belar, PhD, and Rena Subotnik, PhD, of APA's Education Directorate, the task force has come up with a list of attributes that schools should be paying more attention to, including "the other three Rs": reasoning, resilience and responsibility.
Reasoning means not just traditional analytical skills, but also creative and practical reasoning. "There are many kids who have abilities to succeed that schools don't recognize," says Sternberg. "The result is that they are viewed as not having the potential to succeed, and then they are treated in a way that leads them not to succeed."
Resilience is another important attribute that schools do too little to encourage. "As you get older, you get struck by disasters that you never imagined. You wake up and your world changes," says Sternberg. "You need resilience to move beyond these things and not let them destroy you."
The importance of educating children in responsibility has been underlined by the recent corporate scandals, says Sternberg; they show the damage that can be done when intelligent people fall victim to the fallacies of egocentrism and imagined omniscience, omnipotence and invulnerability. Schools, with the help of psychologists, have an important role to play in teaching children how to use responsibly the skills and knowledge they have gained.
Unifying psychology: A psychology that appears weak and divided will be taken advantage of by its opponents, says Sternberg. That's why the field needs to make a concerted effort to resolve its differences. All too often, psychology's internal battles have been driven by "negative leaders," he says: people who attempt to gain power by impugning the motives or actions of others. What psychology needs instead are positive leaders who recognize that raising up their own areas of psychology does not depend on bringing other areas down, and that the barriers between subdisciplines can sometimes be more hurtful than helpful.
The interests of scientists and practitioners, for example, are often much closer together than the two groups realize, says Sternberg. Practitioners depend on scientists to generate new ways of understanding and treating mental disorders, while scientists depend on practitioners to keep their work relevant. And both groups depend on the strength of psychology as a whole to advance the government initiatives they favor, such as increased research funding or prescription privileges.
"Sometimes we get so bogged down in the day-to-day bickering," he says, "that we lose sight of the bigger picture: that what's good for some of us is ultimately good for all of us. A rising tide raises all ships."