Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector
Making A Difference
James P. Kahan, RAND Europe
I am by inclination a generalist; some might even say dilettante (but see last year's APS Observer1 on that topic). Even at Reed College, that bastion of liberal education, I was a generalist, taking courses on the philosophy of religion and Shakespeare in my senior year instead of the departmentally-recommended independent studies in psychology. In graduate school, I was fortunate to have a pair of mentors - Lyle Jones (himself a Reed person) and John Thibaut - who had broad views and were not defensive about my crossing intra-departmental specialty boundaries between quantitative and social psychology.
After a postdoctoral year sampling the wines and culture of Provence and learning that not only Americans understand social psychology (Thibaut's recommendation), I attempted an academic career. Without some help from my long-term collaborator and dear friend Amnon Rapoport, it could have been a total disaster. Amnon and I, working half a world from each other during the academic year, but spending summers together in Chapel Hill, put together an intellectually and professionally gratifying experimental research program on game-theory-based decisionmaking that resulted in publications and the accompanying recognition that normally comes with academic success. But the nine months between summers were often depressing. Department heads and others would say things such as "He's good, but is he really a quantitative psychologist? For that matter, is he a psychologist?" I took perverse pride in the fact that my first 13 publications were in 13 different journals, most of which were not exclusively psychological in nature; the people who evaluated my performance were just plain perverse about it.
I tried to stay fresh by teaching a wide variety of courses, but was viewed as unable to settle down on a standard set of materials. I wound up advising those graduate students who didn't fit into anybody's apprenticeship routine. Increasingly, I was dissatisfied with the petty politics and much-ado-about-nothing infighting that characterized the department of psychology that I nominally belonged to. When I asked what could be done about it, I was told that the solution was to get research grants and buy back my teaching time. If that's the way of the world, I thought, then I might as well do a different type of research and, by the way, get paid more for it.
The result was that I resigned from a tenured position and went to RAND, a move that I have never regretted. At RAND, I use the psychological skills I learned studying with Lyle and John, and apply them to a broad variety of topics where I can feel that I make a difference. In the past ten years at RAND (half living in the United States and half living in Europe), I have worked on (and this is not a comprehensive list): group decisionmaking to determine the appropriateness and necessity of medical and surgical procedures; ratio-scaling methods to determine physician payment; the design of command-and-control structures for high-level military planning; whether gays in the military will cause degradation of cohesion and military performance; how to balance safety and environment in protecting Dutch rivers from flooding; the organizational structure needed for the investigation of transportation safety; how to keep the blood supply safe from contamination; what might be the consequences if Portugal inserts an intermediate layer of government between the municipal and national levels; how the Dutch Ministry of Justice can best responsive to public needs; and how cities can best address the problems of drugs.
In all of these studies, I was never too far from my mathematical social psychological roots, in terms of the methods I employed and the thinking behind the design of the studies. Game theory, seminar gaming, small group behavior, quantitative modeling, social exchange theory, cognitive modeling, meta-analysis, focus groups - all of these can be found in the research on the list of topics. I have been able to make a difference in many areas, and feel fulfilled and justified as a generalist/dilettante.
Both specialists and generalists with training as psychological scientists are needed both in academic and nonacademic settings. The academic setting as currently constituted makes it difficult to be a generalist; nonacademic settings can, depending on the setting, accommodate both types. Individuals should be aware of the opportunities to move beyond specialty, and should be encouraged to do so if they believe that is where their talents lie. We should all be fortunate enough to have mentors such as mine who encourage independence and taking risks. My path is most certainly not the common one, nor even the right one for most psychologists, but it has worked for me.
1"In Praise of Dilettantism" by Robert J. Sternberg, APS Observer, May/June, 1999; letter to the editor, James Kahan, APS Observer, July/August, 1999