Letter from America – via Edinburgh: Words from the Chair of the Governing Board

I was a fan of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ presented on BBC Radio 4 until shortly before he died in 2004. As a USA-based British journalist he provided major insights for Radio 4 listeners over nearly six decades of political and cultural life in North America. Rarely did he touch on science but he had a deep understanding of the thinking, memory and behavio(u)r of American citizens and society. While I have never lived in the USA nor matched Alistair Cooke’s engaging prose style, in January this year I found myself as the first UK-based Chair of the US-based Psychonomic Society. In case you are wondering, the name is derived from the Greek ‘nomos’ and ‘psyche’ referring to ‘laws of the mind’. In the spirit of an Alistair Cooke letter for a British readership, I offer here a brief historical and contemporary context for the Psychonomic Society, and a few observations about academic psychology in the United States through the eyes of a British psychologist.

During the 1930s and late 1940s, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (MA), Burrhus Frederic Skinner was developing his experiments on the psychology of learning without reference to mental states. Around the same time, in Cambridge, UK, Frederic Bartlett was laying some foundations for cognitive psychology, and in 1946 the Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) was established. Ten years later in Cambridge, MA, George Miller kick-started computational approaches to cognition in the USA, and identified 7 ± 2 as a limit on verbal short-term memory. Then Chicago, 1959, saw the start of the Psychonomic Society. The UK and US societies had, and have similar scope and goals. Both were experimental-psychology-focused breakaway groups from the more practitioner oriented British Psychological Society (BPS) and American Psychological Association (APA), and both remain distinct but have friendly relationships with their larger siblings.

The Psychonomic Society has 2200 members, with 580 based outside North America. It runs six journals –Psychonomic Bulletin and Review; Memory and Cognition; Attention, Perception and Psychophysics; Cognitive and Affective Behavioral Neuroscience; Learning and Behavior; Behavior Research Methods. There is a conference in November each year (19-22 November 2015, Chicago) with no registration fee. Its website (www.psychonomic.org) had a recent major overhaul, with content organised by another UK based psychologist, Stephan Lewandowsky (Bristol). It has launched several new initiatives including early career and graduate student travel awards, and an annual competition for a leading edge workshop linked with a journal special issue and a conference symposium. The 12 members of the Governing Board will be presenting their research in Edinburgh on July 17th this year, followed by a jointly sponsored symposium at the European Society for Cognitive Psychology conference in Cyprus (September 17-20). In May 2016 there will be an international meeting in Granada, Spain.

Love it or loathe it, there is no REF in the USA, but there is no Government block grant for research which depends on grants and contracts. Many university staff are on 9 month salaries each year for teaching only, and add on a ‘summer salary’ by teaching summer courses or by building three months salary into research grants. There is no external examining or nationally regulated undergraduate curriculum for Psychology, yet some teaching intensive colleges have very strong reputations for teaching quality; as do some research intensive universities, although the latter often rely on postgraduates and post-docs to deliver the teaching. Post-graduate professional practioner training is regulated by the APA.

Student fees can amount to a small fortune, unless students obtain scholarships. In contrast, funding for postgraduates is common, often in return for teaching and research assistance. Student ratings are taken seriously but there is the inevitable tension between teaching quality and teaching popularity that crops up whenever students see themselves as paying customers rather than participants in learning. The wealthier (and some less wealthy) US universities build larger and smarter student facilities and university buildings to compete with rival institutions for attracting undergraduate students, and this elevates the fee levels. The 2014 film documentary ‘Ivory Tower’ offers a critical perspective on spiralling university fees in the USA. It questions the cost/benefit balance, and raises the spectre of student debt levels possibly leading to a collapse of the university system akin to the financial meltdown of 2008. Whether the danger is real or for dramatic effect in the film, there are serious lessons for the UK, and Government budget constraints in both countries are a real concern.

As in the UK, Psychology in the USA has seen a vibrant diaspora into neuroscience, artificial intelligence, human factors, and education, among others. Rather than an identity crisis, the diversity could be seen as a sign of the growth and influence of Psychology within other disciplines. There remains demand for the core of psychology, highlighted by its continued student popularity worldwide and the volume of high quality peer reviewed published research. UK Psychology as a whole seemed to do quite well in the REF, and the 2014 meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Long Beach, California was the largest ever with 2450 delegates. So, to end this letter on a positive note, Psychology on both sides of the Atlantic is facing challenges but appears to be alive and well.

Note: this post first appeared under the title Letter from America – via Edinburgh in the (British) The Psychologist, 28, 304-305.

You may also like