Reis Drives Current Directions

Harry T. Reis grew up smack in the middle of Manhattan. He even pursued his education there, finishing with a doctorate from New York University in 1975. But while many native New Yorkers are legendary for not knowing how to drive, Reis got his license the first chance he could, when he turned 18. “I just couldn’t wait,” he said, even though he didn’t have any immediate need to drive.

More recently, he couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of APS’s journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, which he views as an important vehicle for conveying the breadth of the field. Since mid-2003, Reis has been commissioning articles and planning his editorial calendar for Current Directions, a bimonthly publication that features brief invited scholarly reviews on emerging trends, controversies, and issues of enduring importance to the science of psychology.

Reis succeeds Alan Kazdin, Yale University, who has served as editor of Current Directions since 1999.

Reis, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, grew up fascinated by science. As a student at the Bronx High School of Science, he developed a passion for mathematics. “I was always fascinated by people too,” he said. “And I had no idea there was something called psychology until college.”

But his first exposure to psychology was unpleasant. “My introductory psychology class at the City College of New York was a terrible class. I hated it,” he said darkly. “They taught two things: Operant conditioning and Freud. Neither appealed to me. So that was that. It’s unlikely I would have taken another psychology course.”

Except for the Vietnam War. “I was a chemistry major, doing reasonably well. But I was prime fodder for the draft. And one of the ways you could get out of the draft was to teach at an inner city school. I was something of an activist, and the thought of teaching chemistry at an inner city school was in keeping with my values, so I started doing what I needed to do to get a teaching certificate. It happened that most of the basic teaching courses were really psychology courses, and from the very first course I was hooked.”

His first course was in child development. The second was theories of cognition and learning. “I thought they were great,” he said. “These classes were taught in the education school and these people were totally on top of the field, perhaps more so in terms of where the field was going than the more traditional psychology classes. Then I started taking more advanced psychology courses [in my junior year], and I loved those too. So in the final three semesters and that summer, I took every psychology class they would let me take.”

After getting his doctorate from NYU, he finally left Manhattan for Rochester. “It seemed a very exotic location to me,” he chuckled.

Since coming to Rochester, Reis has seen a tremendous evolution in the field. “That’s something I very much want to reflect in the journal,” he said.

“The range of phenomena that psychologists address now is so much more dynamic and interesting than it was 30 years ago, when the questions were much more limited,” he said. “In my own field, social psychology, there was virtually no research on close relationships at the time. Social cognition research then spanned an incredibly narrow set of questions; to me it didn’t look like the way that people thought about the things that mattered to them. There were no good models for looking in a sophisticated way at how people might represent their social world, and how those representations would actually influence the way they behaved.”

Reis has also seen an exciting explosion of methodological developments. “The methodological tools that we have available are so much more interesting than they were 30 years ago,” Reis said. “And by tools I mean everything from reaction time techniques to fMRI to PDAs to structural equation modeling. We can ask many deeper and more interesting questions than we used to.”

He sees Current Directions as possessing two interrelated functions. The journal’s primary function is its role as a communications vehicle, but inextricably bound to this is its ability to instigate learning. “Good psychology articles in this journal don’t settle things but rather raise more questions,” he said. “One of the joys of Current Directions is it can raise questions for people who study a very different problem. When you write an article in a standard journal, the people who read the article are the people who work on that or a closely related problem. So you might spur knowledge about that issue, but by and large it tends to be limited to a specialized domain. People read Current Directions because they don’t do that area of research, because the article looks interesting, because they always wanted to know more about some other area. And one of the things I hope will happen is cross-fertilization and growth across areas. People will see that article and think, ‘Hey, that relates to something I’m doing.’ Because truth is interdisciplinary. No one theory, no one approach, has a monopoly on the truth.”

Reis refuses to be drawn into a discussion of hard versus soft science. “I think there’s something called science,” he argued. “Science is a method of investigation. I’m always troubled by the confusion people have between science and technology. Often people think the term “technology” infers science, and if something doesn’t have a lot of fancy tools and fancy instruments then it’s not science. But science is a method of asking questions, and testing hypotheses, and using data to tell you what’s true as opposed to resting on your own intuition. And that method doesn’t care about whether one is using the latest technology or the fanciest tools. We strive to be objective, and methodology helps us be more objective, but pure objectivity for its own sake is not the ultimate goal – understanding how we behave in the world is. There are many questions that psychologists answer that require different kinds of tools. The questions and realities dictate what we do.”

Many wonder whether psychology is a way for us to comprehend the world, or a kind of medicine that can help people. Reis believes it’s both. “The primary goal of psychology is understanding. At some point understanding has to be accountable to questions about application and intervention, but it is almost impossible to know that in advance. Many of the most important findings in science came about because someone took advantage of some obscure piece of basic science that was done without regard to questions about application. Basic science has an important function in its own right. Questions of application come later. Application and usefulness are important, and of course we need to give emphasis to issues of usefulness, but in the end gain knowledge and understanding about the behavioral world has to be the number one goal of psychological science.”

Reis was already a fan of the journal even before he was asked to become editor, and recognizes there are high expectations. “My predecessor, Alan E. Kazdin, Yale University, did an absolutely spectacular job in making the journal interesting and influential,” he said. “Even before I considered the editorship I was reading about half the articles in every issue. If I can simply maintain as high a standard as he has set I will feel satisfied.

“I want the articles to fascinate our readers. It’s writing for psychologists and people who are interested in psychological science. Writing for both those audiences is a skill, it’s an art form. Given the short form of the articles, it’s a challenge to avoid jargon and becoming too technical while remaining clear.

“I think almost all of the ideas that I’ve encountered in psychological science can be expressed in a way that an educated reader can understand,” said Reis.

“This is not being written for the lay public. I don’t expect the articles to be something that a high school sophomore could casually pick up and understand. You have to start with a background of knowledge in psychology. My hope is that people who have some basic understanding of the theories and methods of psychology would be able to understand articles that are not in their area of specialization,” Reis said. As an example of this wide dissemination, Reis referred to the Current Directions readers, a series of supplementary undergraduate materials published by Prentice Hall. (See Observer, October 2003.)

“If I do have an agenda, it’s that I want the articles to be as interesting as possible to as many people as possible. I want to stay away from obscurity. If Professor X has done 75 studies on a phenomenon that nobody else cares about, even if they are impeccably good studies they won’t appear in Current Directions during my term. Breadth of impact, relevance, good science, and developments that people across the discipline need to learn about are going to be the hallmarks of the journal.”

Observer Vol.17, No.2 February, 2004

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