If you spy a student who suddenly quickens his step as hecrosses the Yale University lawn, it could mean he's just realized he's late for a class or team practice. It's also possible he's pretending to dodge his "Research Methods in Psychology" instructor Alan E. Kazdin, PhD.
That's because Kazdin, Yale's John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry, has a long-standing habit of pop-quizzing his grad students outside of class.
"Like Cato agreeing to repeatedly surprise attack Inspector Jacques Clouseau in order to keep his martial arts skills sharp, Alan would test our command of research methodology not only in class, but also in other classes, at parties, and even walking down the street," recalls former advisee Matthew Nock, PhD. "Quick: Name five threats to internal validity!"
Students love the ritual and flock to Kazdin's rigorous class, which Nock calls "the most highly anticipated course" in Yale's psychology curriculum.
"He's a master methodologist, and his passion about science, energy and humor are contagious," says Nock. "He actually made learning methods fun."
Students aren't the only ones who enthusiastically seek out the animated, ever-smiling Kazdin, who began his one-year APA presidency this month. His talks describing his clinical work with aggressive and antisocial children fill gymnasiums with clinicians. His groundbreaking research on conduct disorders and painstaking commitment to promoting sound science is highly respected. Recent articles on his clinical work brought an onslaught of calls from interested parents and clinicians from around the world.
And within minutes of meeting him, he has most people laughing.
Kazdin's range of experience-and his charm-will be a boon in pursuing his list of goals, which includes better promoting psychology's best science and services to the public.
"Alan understands the clinical world, the world of science and academia, is a gifted teacher and is poised as a communicator to the public," says social psychologist Peter Salovey, PhD, dean of Yale College. "These days, given the diversity of roles psychologists play, you need someone with that kind of breadth to help APA put its best foot forward."
Kazdin's looking for more than one foot forward from APA this year-he's aiming for at least three giant leaps. He's chosen three presidential initiatives:
Violence against women and children.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma in children and adolescents.
Showing the public the ways psychological science contributes to society's greatest challenges, such as energy conservation and healthful eating.
He says he picked issues that members could rally around and that had the potential to "stick."
"I'm not interested in doing anything that will die at the end of my term," he says.
Already he has organized the Summit on Violence and Abuse in Relationships, to be held Feb. 28-29 in Bethesda, Md., with 17 APA divisions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national and international organizations. Through the conference, he seeks to unite researchers and practitioners in the area and generate creative ideas on ways to help abused women and children.
His interest in childhood disorders is born of his clinical work at the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. There, Kazdin has seen how challenging it is to overturn conventional wisdom: Many of the parents he works with-from parents of seriously aggressive children to those who merely want to halt grocery-store tantrums-come to him after following unproven parenting advice.
In fact, most parenting books actually violate what we know in psychology by promoting advice that is myth-based or the opposite of what works, says Kazdin, himself the father of two grown daughters. "They say the equivalent of, 'Smoke a lot and you'll live longer,'" he says.
To deliver more research to the parents who need it most, Kazdin and his clinical staff decided two years ago to devote half of their time to training clinicians in the evidence-based treatments they use at the clinic-mainly, Parent Management Training and Cognitive Problem-Solving Skills Training, both researched by Kazdin and focused on replacing children's disruptive behavior with its "positive opposite." So far, they have trained several hundred clinicians in the therapies.
But just as Kazdin believes that APA can do more to deliver science and services to the public, so, too, he believes that he and his staff have only scratched the surface of their potential contributions to parents and families.
Although the parents greatly appreciate his interventions, he says, "It's kind of like a glass of water on a marathon. You drink it, and you throw the cup away and forget who even gave it to you. We have a serious task. And my clinic isn't going to make any difference at all if we don't change things in a broader way through training more clinicians and delivering more science to the public," he says.
Meanwhile, throughout his presidential term Kazdin will work hard with APA members and staff to overcome the barriers to promoting psychological science's value. For one, psychology has to compete with "the common-sense obstacle," or what people think they already know about topics such as raising children or caring for aging parents, he says.
The good humor man
Despite his serious dedication to childhood challenges, Kazdin has a self-deprecating, humorous side, which colleagues say cinches his ability to connect with children, colleagues and, well, most people.
"Alan can make me laugh out loud on a fairly regular basis," says Salovey. "His sense of humor is disarming."
Longtime colleague John R. Weisz, PhD, who directs the Judge Baker Children's Center of Harvard Medical School, says he saves Kazdin's e-mails on such topics as the merits of "Chi Round-chi square for continuous data" to reread when he needs a laugh.
All joking aside, Weisz says, Kazdin's people skills may help APA members receive his action-oriented outlook and big-picture thinking.
"APA is a very broad tent with lots of different points of views," he says. "Some of Alan's ideas will be popular, but they may not be universally popular."
Though it's likely the man behind the ideas will be. "Some people may disagree with Alan," adds Weisz, "but everyone is going to love him."