Executive Director's Column

Translational Psychology

Beyond health-related matters, psychology enjoys fantastic translation in areas such as human factors, education, organizational behavior, decision-making, environmental design, and social influence.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Writing in the June, 2006 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, I suggested that psychology is translational science. Our discipline has always incorporated a flow of scientific discovery from bench to bedside. The basic research of psychology has long played a central role in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. And beyond health-related matters, psychology enjoys fantastic translation in areas such as human factors, education, organizational behavior, decision-making, environmental design, and social influence.

I wrote that Monitor piece because of growing concern in the basic research community of psychology about the emerging priority of translational research at NIH. Rather than seeing this new priority as somehow representing a threat to psychology, we need to recognize that psychology is the model of translation.

Commenting in the February issue of the APS Observer, Peter Vernig also called our attention to the tradition and value of translational research in psychology. Vernig was extolling the virtue of translational research in psychology, focusing especially on the value for students in clinical psychology to be involved in translational studies.

I would like to suggest that the discipline of psychology embrace translational research in a far more ambitious way. It is easy to find instances of basic research in psychology that has been translated into successful application and intervention. It may or may not be recognized as translational research, but that’s what it is. What is missing, I think, is an organized effort to celebrate psychology’s success at translation – to recognize translational psychology as an important, valued, and proper sub-discipline of psychology.

A great example is the December 2006 American Psychologist article by Tashiro and Mortensen. These authors focused specifically on the conceptual and methodological challenges of translating social psychology to improve psychotherapy. Translational research is elevated from a side-benefit of an individual study to an organized and coherent effort in its own right.

It is not always obvious to the lay public, to federal funding agencies, to legislative leaders, or even to ourselves that psychology is translational science. We can address this by recognizing translational psychology in more formal ways. We could start, for example, by dedicating sections of our journals to translational research. Tashiro and Mortensen’s article is an example of what I have in mind.

Think about it. Every journal of psychology featuring at least one article, perhaps a regular section, on translational research. Every psychology journal can do it, because translation is everywhere in psychology. Collections of such articles can be assembled into special volumes, to further promote the translational science of psychology. Perhaps one day we’ll see entire journals of translational psychology.

This is just one approach. I’m sure others can be developed. The point is to achieve greater visibility and coherence for translational psychology. In my earlier Monitor column, I asserted that translation is woven into the fabric of our discipline, and that we excel at it. It is time to make translation a center piece of psychology, to celebrate it, and to communicate it.