Presidential Column

‘There Is Something Very Important Going on Here and I Want to Be a Part of It’

Mahzarin Banaji

Mahzarin Banaji

Lloyd Richards, Dean of Yale’s School of Drama when I first arrived to teach there, was well known for having changed the face of American theater. In 1959, he had dared to direct the first play on Broadway by an African American writer about an African American family — Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which made her the youngest American playwright to have received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play.

In an interview, Richards told the story of trying out the play in New Haven and being justifiably nervous about the reception it would receive. He recalled that on opening night, an older black woman arrived at the theatre, obviously directly from work, in her maid’s uniform, and when Richards asked if he could help her purchase a ticket she said, “I don’t know. All I know is that I heard in the neighborhood that there is something very important going on here and I want to be a part of it.”

There are times when each of us knows that there is something very important going on he re. In 1988, I had such an experience. A society was forming that was to put front and center a commitment to scientific psychology for the first time. Like that working woman inexplicably drawn to a theater in New Haven on a March evening in 1959, I had heard in the neighborhood that such an entity could change the future of my science, and I wanted to be part of it. I handed out buttons announcing the new society and attended the now famous first conference where the social hour was held in a parking lot! APS has been “my society” since the moment of its existence and I am delighted to be a part of it this entire year as President.

Events like the formation of a society that shift the landscape don’t happen without the engagement of people at two levels. APS needed leaders, and they came forward to start the organization and make it viable. There continue to be leaders now who run the office in Washington, DC, who manage its journals, put out news about our research, and organize conferences, and yet others who lobby on our behalf and write statements on important issues that represent our scientific values.

But the ability of APS to achieve its mission lies in the nearly 23,000 Members who individually, and especially collectively, are its greatest asset. And it is with this in mind that I raise the idea of the second type of engagement, not the one that brings forward individual leaders, but the one that involves the collective, the kind we call grassroots engagement, which can, sometimes quietly, create transformations. In this first column as President, I call on you to think about your role as a scientist or educator or both and to ask if there might be something beyond the crucial work you already do that would draw on your interests and passion for contributing in new ways to psychological science. I am asking this because it is clear that our membership has talents and gifts to give to this science of ours that are deep and broad and underutilized.

To consider what can be done over the course of this year, we begin with a reiteration of APS’s mission: to promote, protect, and advance the interests of scientifically oriented psychology in all ways — through the creation of new knowledge, by the teaching of the science to new generations, and in fostering applications that improve human welfare. In whatever we undertake this year, I would like to find ways to support the aspirations of the members of APS who have dedicated themselves to advancing these most fundamental goals and to those who would like to be a part of it.

In the coming year, there are several issues on which I intend to focus. I hope to carry forward the work that several previous presidents are responsible for seeding and nurturing. These will include highlighting our core research questions so that existing and especially new funding sources can understand them; it was during Linda Bartoshuk’s term that APS reaped the rewards of many years of investment to help create a new era for basic behavioral science funding with the launch of the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network at the National Institutes of Health. I will continue to look toward other disciplines whose axons meet our dendrites as Walter Mischel did. I will continue to play a role in the development of psychology internationally as John Cacioppo did. If you have ideas about these endeavors, and about the all-important one of bettering and making more exciting the teaching of psychology, send them to I will collect them, read them, and find ways to use your considered opinions in whatever way I can over the course of this year.

On the horizon of new initiatives, there are, as I see it, many ways in which APS can begin to think about the use of existing and new media to transmit knowledge effectively, create awareness about the science, and provide informal education beyond the high impact APS journals and the successful annual conference. I am optimistic that the technologies that are at our disposal already can be used effectively to enhance both research and education. Take as an example, something that several of us routinely do: we write entries for encyclopedias, many of which sit gathering dust on library bookshelves. Instead, there is an alternative, a vibrant, evolving, accessible consultant called Wikipedia, which is as good as we can make it. If you type into Wikipedia one of your favorite psychological theories, methods, discoveries, and people, I am betting that you will not be pleased. Yes, you will find some entries that are quite good, and some that are decent, but the vast majority of them are either nonexistent (“This article is an orphan”) or, worse still, quite impoverished and even embarrassing. Take a look at the entry for attitude and you will find not much of value, unless you think Jung’s definition of attitude and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is what we want to world to know about this concept. This is nobody’s fault but our own. So a few months ago, I asked Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon University; Amy Bruckman, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech; and Brian Nosek at University of Virginia to give thought to what we might do to improve this state of affairs and the role that APS could play in improving the state of psychological knowledge on this seventh most frequented website in the world. They have produced a very effective document, detailing what can be done and its complexity, and I will report on it in the near future.

In the meantime, remember that the Wikipedia project will be but one way to increase the presence, accuracy, and accessibility of psychological knowledge. There are many others and, because you believe like me that something important is going on here and that you’d like to be a part of it, I ask that you let me know your thoughts about how we can, as a collective, improve ourselves. ♦

This first column is dedicated to Beth Loftus, Marilynn Brewer, and Kay Deaux, three past presidents of APS who gave me jobs to do and responsibilities to shoulder that deepened my sense that something important indeed is going on here.

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