Reflections on being a public interest psychologist: Toni C. Antonucci, PhD

A time of student activism, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the War on Poverty and The Feminine Mystique.

By Toni C. Antonucci, PhD

Toni C. Antonucci, PhDAs I reflect on how I became a public interest psychologist, I guess I would start with the fact that I came of age in the ‘60s. I grew up in Brooklyn (New York) and as a high school student, I used to take the train to the ”city” to hear folk music and listen to others sing about the troubles of the world. Later, I went “all the way” to Manhattan to attend Hunter College of the City University of New York. The city colleges were designed to educate the children of immigrants. I lived at home, took the train to the university and was the first generation of my family to go to college. It seemed like a great privilege and I was grateful. This was the time of student activism, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the War on Poverty and "The Feminine Mystique". We demonstrated against the war, racism, sexism, poverty and inequality. It was a time when everyone wanted to change things, we thought we could, and we all thought it was important to be relevant.

Now, fast forward to my graduate studies in life span developmental psychology. Developmental psychology traditionally focused on children and adolescents. Optimizing the growth of young people was always seen as in the public interest (or so I was taught), but I was not trained to think that making this research relevant to policy makers or actually applying our findings to the general public was the job of psychologists, that is, those of us who were “researcher scientists.” Then I started studying older people and aging. Here was a field that did not have a long tradition of compartmentalization. In fact, the field was so new that there were no compartments. But the population was aging rapidly and laws were being passed and policy was being created in what was essentially unknown territory. I heard Congress members arguing for misguided policies on the basis of one relative or neighbor — completely unaware that there was a body of literature that could inform policy decisions. This was a conversion experience for me.

Somehow before this, my experiences in the ‘60s had not seemed relevant to my career as a psychologist. Now serving in various leadership positions focused on aging in Div. 20 (Adult Development and Aging), in APA more generally and in the Gerontological Society of America, I realized that it was critical to convert the data we were collecting and the conclusions we were drawing, to actual law and policy. I was appointed to serve on APA’s Committee on Aging, where among other things, we developed the Life Plan for the Life Span (PDF, 1.96MB), and I co-chaired then APA President Sharon Brehms’ APA Presidential Task Force on Integrated Health Care for an Aging Population. All of these experiences made me aware that there is a lot that psychologists can offer to contribute to an improved society.

Of late, I have been impressed with the fact that the contributions that psychology has made, can make and will make to society go decidedly unrecognized. For 30 years, I have had the privilege of working in an interdisciplinary environment at the University of Michigan, especially the Institute for Social Research, whose motto is "social science in the public interest." This has led me to recognize and appreciate the roles of other disciplines and to recognize and appreciate the unique contributions that psychology makes to well-being, quality of life, organizational and community functioning, improving society, developing policy and creating useful laws. My goal as chair of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest is to increase recognition of psychology’s contributions to society, while influencing, supporting and enhancing psychology’s role in the public interest.