Psychology Departments Are Changing Their Behavior
Neuroscience brings pricier
laboratories and new collaborations--and shuts
out their more traditionally oriented
By David Glenn
It is hard to open a newspaper without finding
a story about how neuroscientists have linked
some part of the human experience ΓΆ€" fear,
gambling, memory, hunger ΓΆ€" to activity housed
within our skulls. For many psychologists,
these revolutionary discoveries about the brain
have been thrilling.
But the neuroscience revolution has also
brought a set of difficult, and not always
comfortable, changes in university-based
research psychology. The same technologies that
allow scholars to probe the structures and
functions of the human brain are also causing
profound alterations in the structures and
functions of psychology departments. Curricula,
hiring patterns, budgets, and tenure-and-
promotion expectations are all shifting
A generation ago, most research psychologists
worked in small teams and with small budgets.
Today, large psychology departments typically
include big laboratories. The neuroscientists
there work and publish in teams with as many as
eight members, and their equipment costs can
run into the millions. Down the hall, their
more traditionally oriented colleagues continue
to work in smaller teams, with much smaller
budgets, and sometimes at slower paces.
That is not to say that there is a bitter
cultural divide within psychology. On the
contrary: Most research psychologists say that
this has been an exciting and fruitful era for
combining neuroscientific and non-
neuroscientific insights. (There are occasional
flare-ups ΓΆ€" often about access to federal
research money or about breathless news-media
accounts of brain-imaging studies ΓΆ€" but in
general, everyone gets along.) The challenge is
not intellectual harmony but cross-disciplinary
"The individual investigator who has a great
idea and can follow that idea with a couple of
graduate students over a 10-year period ΓΆ€" that
era is probably gone," says Alan M. Kraut,
executive director of the Association for
In neuroscientific work, Mr. Kraut says, "you
can't know enough on your own. If you're doing
brain imaging, you have to have a methodologist
on your team, and you might want to have a
Mr. Kraut points to his association's past
president, John T. Cacioppo, a professor of
psychology at the University of Chicago who
recently co-wrote a well-received book about
loneliness. Mr. Cacioppo himself is apparently
far from lonely: As the director of Chicago's
Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience,
he oversees large federal grants, several
laboratories, and a small army of graduate
assistants. Mr. Cacioppo "is almost like the
manager of a corporation," Mr. Kraut says. That
sort of role is familiar in departments of
biology and physics. But for psychologists, it
is something new under the sun.
Roughly half of the young scholars recently
hired to tenure-track positions in Mr.
Cacioppo's department had extensive graduate-
level training in magnetic resonance imaging
and other tools of neuroscience. "But that's
not a requirement for us," says Mr. Cacioppo,
who emphasizes that his department continues to
hire people with more-traditional training. The
important thing, he says, is that the two
groups are encouraged to communicate and
collaborate with each other.
"There used to be a strong tension between
neuroscientifically and behaviorally oriented
psychologists," Mr. Cacioppo says. "But no
longer do those two groups seem to be spinning
away from each other. That's a new and
important development. They're working
together. And the training we offer reflects
Bernadette M. Park, a professor of psychology
at the University of Colorado at Boulder,
agrees with Mr. Cacioppo that the two camps are
no longer at odds.
"Neuroscience has played about the role it
should in the social sciences," Ms. Park says
in an e-mail message. "It would be silly for
social psychologists to not make use of
neuroscience techniques to learn what we can
about the connection between mental processes
and social behavior. At the same time, it would
be silly of us to imagine we can just study
patterns of brain activation devoid of measures
of social behavior and hope to really learn
about social beings."
One of Ms. Park's former students, Joshua
Correll, is an assistant professor at Chicago.
Mr. Cacioppo says that Mr. Correll is a good
example of a young scholar who does not have
intensive training in neuroscience but who is
happy to try such techniques.
Mr. Correll studies how (possibly unconscious)
racial prejudice can affect police officers'
split-second decisions about whether to fire
their guns. Most of his studies are simply done
in front of computer screens. But recently he
has been placing electrodes on his research
subjects' heads to measure brain activity known
as "event-related potentials" while they
complete the experiments.
This technique, known as
electroencephalography, is much cheaper and
less cumbersome than functional magnetic
imaging, but it yields less-detailed
information about brain activity.
Like many other departments, Chicago has
recently expanded its neuroscience course
requirements for doctoral students. At the top-
ranked programs, even students who intend to
become clinical psychologists must take several
courses in biological psychology. "At Indiana
University, a student almost has to get two
Ph.D.'s ΓΆ€" a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a
Ph.D. in cognitive psychology," Mr. Kraut says.
"And I think that's the future of the field.
You can't simply be unidimensional in
And today almost every young research
psychologist, whether neuroscientifically
inclined or not, completes a postdoc before
entering the job market. People are entering
tenure-track jobs with more publications under
their belts than was the case two decades ago,
according to Richard A. Carlson, a professor of
psychology at Pennsylvania State University's
main campus Park.
But Mr. Carlson adds that when some of those
publications have five, six, or seven authors ΓΆ€"
which is often the case in neuroscientific work
ΓΆ€" it can be a chore to unthread how much credit
each person deserves. "It is sometimes
difficult to weigh the value of collaborative
work with multiple authors, and this is a
frequent subject of discussion in our promotion
and tenure committee," he says.
Change in Research Priorities
Even as they collaborate more frequently with
neuroscientists, many traditionally trained
psychologists have the uneasy feeling that they
no longer have much access to federal research
support. In 2004 the National Institute of
Mental Health announced a sweeping
reorganization of its research priorities.
Since that year, a much higher proportion of
its grants have gone to studies with
neuroscientific or genetic components.
Jennifer Crocker, a professor of psychology at
the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has
received grant money from the institute since
1998 to support her studies on how people
pursue a sense of self-worth (and the
sometimes-destructive effects of that pursuit).
But she has been told that her grant will not
be renewed after it expires in March, because
the institute no longer finances basic
In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, Ms.
Crocker says that she respects the mental-
health institute's right to set its own
priorities. But she says that its recent
overwhelmingly biological emphasis is a
"Genes, childhood environments, and their
effects on the brain no doubt play a role," she
says, "but this view is unlikely to ever
account for much of the variance in mental
illness, even for highly heritable illnesses
such as bipolar disorder. And it neglects the
role of current social motivations, cognitions,
and experiences, which can lead to changes in
symptoms in surprisingly brief periods of
A similar story is offered by Nancy Darling, an
associate professor of psychology at Oberlin
College who studies adolescent couples. Ms.
Darling says that she gladly includes
physiological measures when appropriate. But in
the current climate, she feels compelled to add
biological components to each and every grant
proposal, even if they don't really fit the
Taking these measurements, she says, means that
her studies are much more expensive, and also
means that she works with smaller and less
diverse population samples.
Mr. Kraut sees a serious problem here.
"Everybody, I think, would recognize that
behavior is ultimately the result of
biological, environmental, and genetic
processes," he says. "But that doesn't mean
that every study needs to have a biological
component. That's sometimes a hard message to
get through to those who control funding."
Mr. Kraut would like to see new large-scale
support for behavioral research, probably based
in some other unit of the National Institutes
But despite his wish for more behavioral
research, Mr. Kraut says that neuroscience has
made this the most intellectually exciting
period for psychology that he can recall.
"We're thriving together," he says. "It has
been psychologists who have come in with more
rigorous thinking and who have raised the level
of the game for neuroscience. When you read
about them in the newspaper, they might be
called neuroscientists. But they got their
Ph.D.'s in psychology, and usually they're
teaching in psychology departments."
Chronicle of Higher Education
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