Giving Psychology Away
A Personal Journey
Cambridge Center for Behavioral
Studies, Concord, Massachusetts; University of
California, San Diego; and Psychology
Today, New York, New York
ABSTRACTIn this autobiographical essay, I trace the
of my passion for communicating with the public
about mental health and the behavioral sciences and make
a case for spreading such passion among psychologists. I
also describe the circuitous route that led to my
4-year tenure as editor-in-chief of Psychology
magazine and describe some of the inner workings of this
New Yorkbased, commercial enterpriseformerly
property of the American Psychological Association. I
made some progress in that role to return the magazine to
its scientific origins, providing an outlet for hundreds
scientists and practitioners to speak directly to
Americans about their work. This is an essential task, I
argue, if our field is to flourish. I also detail my
as editor-in-chief of Psychology
and describe the
magazines rapid return to
popstatus. Media sources do
not automatically welcome participation by clinicians or
behavioral scientists. Through a contingency analysis, I
suggest ways of improving our ability to interface
with media professionals.
I can imagine nothing we could do that would be more
human welfare, and nothing that could pose a greater
to the next generation of psychologists, than to discover
how best to
give psychology away. (Miller, 1969a, p. 74)
As a college student in the early 1970s, I felt I had a
calling. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I suppose
every young American had a calling of some sort. Mine, I
thought, was from Godalthough I was not sure that
In this essay, I talk about the odd journey upon which
calling has taken me, complete with brief stops at
University, the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies,
Readers Digest, the White House, several radio
most notably, Psychology Today magazine. Along the way, I
about some contingencies of
reinforcement and punishment that
allow us as professionals to educate, or that prevent us
from educating, the public about mental health and
the behavioral sciences. But first, back to God.
The calling came in my late teens, and I interpreted it
that I was supposed to become a rabbi. So immediately
graduating from college at age 20, I sold almost
everything I had
and, under a program run by the Hebrew Union College
Reform rabbinical school in New York, I left for Israel.
program proved to be too lightweight for my religious
so I soon left it to stay in an Orthodox religious
yeshiva, in Jerusalem, where I spent 11 hours a day in
study. It was an extraordinary experience, for which I
entirely well suited. For one thing, I kept questioning
and my fellow students about exactly where our prayers
going, and I also occasionally disappeared into the city
on nonkosher food.
After 6 months in Israel, I reinterpreted my calling,
that I was not supposed to be a rabbi, but that I was
help people. I had been a psychology major in college,
and I was
also an ardent Skinnerian. I had brought my copy of
Human Behavior (Skinner, 1953) with me to the yeshiva,
had more faith in Skinners book than I did in my
ultimately, I left Israel, determined to make
lasting contributions to
humankindactual words from my
notes at the timethrough a career in psychology.
When I returned from Israel in early 1975, I wrote at
about how I planned to fulfill my calling. In a blue
notebook, I made grand plans about how I was going to get
best training I could in psychology and then make the
better place by spreading the word about the scientific
of behavior and its possible applications. My focus,
I thought, would be self-management. A number of books on
behavioral self-management were published in the early
mid 1970s (e.g., Goldfried & Merbaum, 1973; Kanfer
Goldstein, 1975; Mahoney & Thoresen, 1974; Stuart,
Thoresen & Mahoney, 1974; Watson & Tharp, 1972;
& Long, 1975), and I had studied every one. I was
in a modest research project on
this topic that was eventually
published in Behavior Therapy (Epstein & Goss, 1978).
I had collected every book, article, and scrap of paper
that Skinner had ever published. I even owned copies of
all of his
patents and of the abstracts he had published in
Abstracts when he was a graduate student at Harvard in
1920s. I was, to use Hoffers (1951) term, a
with, it seems, some compulsive tendencies.
In the spring of 1975, at age 21, I gave a formal
about my plans to the scholar who had mentored me during
college days: William Mace, an ecological psychologist
then chair of the psychology department at Trinity
Connecticut. I even brought snacks and a selection of
him to consume as I lectured to him from his own
listened patiently and never laughed once, undoubtedly
his natural inclinations.1
In the fall of 1976, I entered a masters program in
where I learned about the experimental analysis of
from A. Charles Catania, one of Skinners most
and where I learned about applied behavior analysis from
Richard Foxx, a pioneer in that field who had worked
with Nathan Azrin, also a prominent student of
addition to working in Catanias pigeon lab, I
worked with Jacob
Gewirtz of the National Institute of Mental Health on
research he was conducting with human infants. I was off
That year I also corresponded with and then visited
at his home and then at his office. When he showed me
his basement study, I brashly told him what was on the
shelves, and once or twice I completed his sentences for
Then age 74 and retired, Skinner was visibly shaken by my
forward manner, but he was also impressed by my passion
my knowledge of his work. He asked me to do some editing
the autobiography he was writing, and, ultimately, he
that I work with him the following summer. Our
which I have written about previously, were intense and
productive (Epstein, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1991, 1996b,
1997d; Epstein, Lanza, & Skinner, 1980, 1981; Epstein
Skinner, 1980, 1981; Willard & Epstein, 1980).
Among other things, I convinced
Fred, as he insisted
on being called, to conduct research again; he had
his pigeon laboratory nearly two decades before. Some
of our laboratory work was eventually captured in a
film that was cited as the best new educational film of
year by the American Psychological Association (APA) in
1982 (Baxley, 1982). By the end of the summer of 1977,
I was invited to be a full-time graduate student at
in the same program that Skinner had entered 50 years
I never told anyone at Harvard about my calling, but I
clearly on a mission. By the end of my 4 years there, I
publications either in print or in press, and I also gave
address about the Columban Simulation
Projecta series of
pigeon simulations of complex
human behaviorat the APA
convention in Montreal in 1980. To the consternation of
fellow graduate students, I was excused from having to
dissertation. The department chair simply called me into
office one day and advised me to staple some
of your publications
together and get out while you still
I did not find entirely encouraging.
I also got married and had two sons during my graduate-
student years. One highlight: Skinner, who apparently did
have the good sense to look away at the right moment,
my younger sons circumcision ceremony. After the
was complete, the rabbi who had done the
with a heavy Yiddish accent, no lesssurprised the
group with a lengthy sermon about how my wife and I were
supposed to raise our new son in programmed
positive reinforcement. Skinner, seated on a
nearby sofa and
conscious but still weak at this point, nodded repeatedly
agreement, undoubtedly thinking he had died and gone to
Heaven. (I learned later that the rabbi had read about
work while in rabbinical college in the 1950s. He had
write a programmed text to teach the Talmud but had never
gotten around to doing so. When he walked into my
and saw the elderly man, he asked someone who the man
thinking he might be the new babys grandfather. He
shocked to learn that the man was Skinner, and he later
everyone else with his Skinnerian sermon.)
Around the time I completed my degree, I founded an
studies institute called the Cambridge Center for
Studies, dedicated to advancing the study of
and its humane applications in the solution to practical
and the prevention and relief of human
teaching and conducting research part-time, I then spent
as the centers executive director. Skinner had
to my taking this route, telling me that administrative
a complete waste of time, but I
was on a mission, and I thought
I could have more impact through a new institute than
After leaving the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies
1990, I started writing in earnest for national magazines
newspapersamong them, Readers Digest, which
had a readership
of more than 100 million. I also began doing small on-air
segments about behavior for the Voice of America and
Public Radio. I was looking for new venues through which
I could communicate with the
general public about behavior.
Could I find ways to package the behavioral sciences so
people might enjoy what they were learning? More
could I develop platforms that would allow other
scientists and practitioners to talk to the public in
on a regular basis?
I spent long hours trying to figure out how to get people
national media to help me fulfill my mission, which, for
reason, they were seldom inclined to do. I had helped to
and was directing an annual contest of artificial
Loebner Prize Competition (Epstein, 1992), and that gave
some good media contacts. The contest got first-page
The New York Times in 1990 and over the next couple of
was picked up by hundreds of media outlets, including CNN
PBS. I exploited these contacts vigorously in my attempts
to the public about behavior. I also spent several years
people in the Hollywood area. Psychology, I thought,
have its own daily television show, and I was able more
to convince writers and producers to put proposals
shop them around to the studios. There were a number of
calls, and promises were made, but no show appeared.
is a tough town that I am still trying to crack. The
media can be frustrating, for sure. After a while,
though, I did
have some success with a relatively venerableor, I
Psychology Today is only one step
removed from Skinners pigeon
laboratory. It was founded in 1967 by George Reynolds, a
behavioral psychologist who got his doctorate under
Nicholas Charney, one of Reynoldss graduate
Winslow Marston, a childhood friend of Charneys. It
to be the Scientific American of the behavioral sciences,
packaging these little-known sciences in terms the
public could understand and enjoy. By 1975, it had a
base of 1.2 million and a readership of perhaps 10
million, which made it one of the most popular magazines
Skinner got ample coverage in the new magazine; that
come as no surprise, given both Skinners prominence
magazines origins. The August 1971 issue excerpted
Skinners best-selling book Beyond Freedom and
nearly unreadable psychedelic cover dispensed with the
cover photo and included, in large type, no text other
Psychology Today/B. F. Skinner/Beyond Freedom
The magazine published portions of Skinners
autobiography (Skinner, 1979, 1983), as well as original
articles he wrote (Skinner, 1969, 1977), extensive
with him (E. Hall, 1972; M.H. Hall, 1967b; Yergin, 1979),
excerpts from one of his books (Skinner, 1981).
But Skinner was not the only prominent thinker featured
the magazine. In its early years, Psychology Today was a
table Whos Who of the behavioral sciences,3 and
because of its
visibility, the magazine also gave major career boosts to
young unknown psychologists. Memory researcher Elizabeth
Loftus, for example, has long credited her public fame to
article she published in Psychology Today about her
effort to assist a public defender in a murder case
Loftus & Ketcham, 1991). When the American
announced her receipt of a major award in 2003, the
text reported that after the Psychology Today article
her life would never be the same. The circulation of the
was nearly a million [actually substantially higher] and
by many lawyers and judges. The phone started ringing off
hook . . . and the next few decades of her life would be
scientific discoveries and legal cases, intermixed and
(Elizabeth F. Loftus, 2003, p.
In the mid 1970s, a survey published in an academic
journal identified Psychology Today as one of the top six
in which psychologists hoped to publish (out of 100
journals included in the survey), not far behind
Review and the American Psychologist (Koulack &
Success often leads to ruin, and such was the case with
Psychology Today. Because of its large circulation, the
founders made a fair amount of money in the 1970s
by selling the magazine to Boise-Cascade, a large paper
company, which then sold the magazine to Ziff-Davis, a
New York publishing company. Executives there thought
could grow the magazine even further by
T. George Harris, the charismatic, psychology-loving
chief who had lifted the magazine to its height, was
and psychologists Paul Chance and Carol Tavris left soon
afterward. The content began to soften, and the decline
As Smith and Schroeder noted in a 1980 content analysis
the magazines performance in the late 1970s, both
content of the magazine and the proportion of articles
written by psychologists were dropping fast; as it
was the circulation.
In the early 1980s, in a somewhat
deal, Psychology Today was purchased by APA (Kimble,
APA has a mission, too, and part of that mission is to
psychology away to the general public
(Miller, 1969a, 1969b;
Zimbardo, 2004). But the APA leadership had miscalculated
several fronts. Many members of the organization were
at the immensity of the investment that had been made
their knowledge or consent, as well as by the fact that
most of the
magazines revenues came from cigarette and liquor
ads. A 1988
report suggested that there was little
support for publishing
the magazine among the general membership (Pion et al.,
p. 1044), even though the quality of the content of the
under APAs ownership was considerably stronger than
been under Ziff-Davis. APA sold Psychology Today in the
1980s at a loss of about $16 million, forcing the
sell its buildings in Washington, DC, in order to avoid
(Five-Year Report, 1991; Kimble,
For a year or two, Psychology Today ceased to exist,
it was finally purchased in 1991 by a small New York
company called Sussex Publishing, which was making its
by resuscitating needy but respectable magazines such as
Mother Earth News and Spy. Sussex made the magazine
by keeping operating costs low and developing new
advertising markets, mainly in the natural-health
the content was largely pop, and
APAs bad experience kept
the magazine isolated from the profession that it
In 1995, I published a short article in Psychology Today
Skinners baby box (Epstein
& Bailey, 1995), marking the
50th year since the publication of his article about the
the Ladies Home Journal (Skinner, 1945). My article
the results of a survey in which graduate student Shelly
Bailey and I traced aircrib usage with about 50 children.
rumors notwithstanding, the survey showed that the baby
was in all respects an excellent crib.
Psychology Todays reputation was not strong in
1995, but I
started making regular trips to New York to try to build
there. In 1996, I published a feature article called
Capturing Creativity, which was
about some of my laboratory
research (Epstein, 1996a), and I was also made a
editorwhich meant little more than that
I got my name on the
masthead. In 1997, I published two more feature articles
Psychology Today (Epstein, 1997a, 1997b) and continued my
visits to New York.
In 1998, I was approached by a salesman from a talk-radio
station who said that for a mere $3,500, he would put me
the air an hour a week for 3 months in Providence, Rhode
Island. All I needed was a telephone, he saidand
also said he would get lots of advertisers for the show
ultimately, I would make money by splitting the
revenues. This was a scam, but I did not know it. Most
talk radio pay to be on the airsometimes because
drawn in by unscrupulous salespeople and sometimes to
their egos, but usually because they have something to
any case, I told John P. Jo
Colman, at that time the principal
shareholder of Sussex Publishing, about the offer and
that we call the show Psychology Today
Live in order to help
market the magazine. He wanted to sell subscriptions, so
agreed to pay $2,500 of the required amount, and I paid
Now I had a show, but it was not clear that I had any
listeners. Each week, students and interns came to my
in San Diego, and I called in to Providence to do the
program. My helpers spent most of their time calling in
the show from a second line in another room in my house,
to be Providence residents who were just dying to learn
about psychology. Over the 3-month period, I think I got
real callers, and Colman figured he got 12 subscriptions.
also got some good experience doing talk radio, and I had
some bonding with Colman, albeit through a failed
In March of 1999, I learned that Anastasia Toufexis, then
editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, was thinking of
was a career journalist who had previously been the
editor at TIME magazine. Psychology Today was a
operation compared with TIME and other magazines with
she had worked, and she was getting frustrated by the
resources. In particular, she did not like the fact that
budget was too small to provide adequate compensation
for the journalists and professional writers who were
most of her articles. A little contingency-driven
off in my head. I called Colman and suggested that I
next editor-in-chief. No, I knew nothing about magazine
and no, I knew nothing about journalism, and no, I knew
nothing about art or layout, but I just knew I could do
the job. He
But then I started talking about money. I told Colman
could reduce editorial costs while upgrading the content
magazine, improving its reputation, and restoring its
mental health professionalswhich, I said, could
mean a large
number of new subscriptions. I would do this, I said, by
back to the original Psychology Today model, the one that
led to its great success in the 1960s and 1970s: I would
psychologists once again write most of the pieces, using
writers to rewrite and edit as needed. Psychologists are
accustomed to writing for nothing, I said, so we would
not have to
pay them much, and the rewriting could be done
using in-house staff and freelancers. By getting top
back on our pages, I said, we would gradually improve the
prestige of the magazine, and we would also reestablish
APA and other professional organizations. The magazine
get back into classrooms and waiting rooms, and Colman, I
would make more money.
In April of 1999, I became the first nonjournalist
chief of Psychology Today, and my first issue was printed
in August. Psychologist David Elkins of Pepperdine
wrote our cover story on spirituality (Elkins, 1999), and
put Madonna on the cover because at the time she was
KaballahJewish mysticismin Los Angeles. The
was far-fetched, but the issue sold well, and Colman was
When APA owned Psychology Today, a supervisory committee
headed by psychologist Gregory Kimble exercised strong,
total, control over every aspect of the magazines
including advertising (G. Kimble, personal communication,
October 14, 2005), but my own control was limited. In
experience of running the magazine, especially during the
production of my first few issues, was nightmarish, in
I chose to run the magazine from San Diego (the
was in New York), in part because I was not a journalist,
and in part because I was the only psychologist on the
Psychology Today. Among other
problems, I was unprepared
for the brutal way staff members sometimes treated each
(and me), and I could not understand why important prose
constantly being cut to make way for preposterous
art or ads
for breast enhancers.
Over the first 6 months or so of my editorship, I
gradually and painfully, about a set of contingencies,
practices of which I had been completely unaware before
coming to Psychology Today. Here are a few:
Local organizational culture is always important, and it
out that it is not uncommon in the culture of New York
for people to insult, yell at, and abuse each other
especially near the close of an issue.
Journalists are trained to reduce beautiful, distinctive,
prose down to Steinbeckian minibites, even if the
prose comes from someone of great standingsay, the
general of the United States.
The sales, art, and editorial departments of a magazine
constant competition with each other. Space is always
because of the financial contingencies that govern
printing and distribution, and because adssolicited
sales staffbring in most of the revenues, they tend
to take up
as much space as they need. Meanwhile, whereas writers
editors want to see every one of their words in print,
director is determined to fill the pages with large
photos; a magazine, I was told, must be
appealing or the public will not buy it. In
other words, the
behaviors of sales, art, and editorial professionals are
governed respectively by conflicting contingencies of
In theory, the editor-in-chief gets final say over
the edit, that
is, the textual matter in all of the articles, but the
of content makes it impossible for the editor-in-chief to
complete control, and smart, ambitious staff journalists
like to be micromanaged. What is more, the
one with the checkbookoccasionally expresses an
sometimes causing complete chaos.
Having provided some context, I summarizewith, I
small degree of pridehow Psychology Today changed
1999 and 2003:
Advisory board: To try to reconnect the magazine with
proper, we established an advisory board consisting
of some of the fields most distinguished
several members of the board proved to be especially
trying to improve the magazine.4
Circulation: To boost and stabilize newsstand sales and
the image of the magazine, we began routinely putting
top celebrities on our covers, struggling sometimes to
legitimate reasons for having them there. During my
we maintained a circulation of about 350,000a
number, given that magazines in general were declining
after the attack on September 11, 2001), and major
magazines like George and Mademoiselle were being forced
out of business. That circulation put Psychology Today on
par with The Atlantic Monthly and
subscribers behind the former and 100,000 ahead of the
latter. Consumer subscriptions, newsstand sales, library
subscriptions (high for a commercial magazine),
placements, and pass-arounds gave
us a readership of well
over 3 million.
Testing: I am a researcher by background, and I have also
taught courses on research methods on and off over the
so I suggested that we test cover images before going to
Covers at Psychology Today used to be selected by
matches, but we were using street and on-line surveys to
determine which images and headlines potential buyers and
Minds Eye: Most issues began with a photo of
people, along with a commentary by a prominent therapist
feature called the Minds Eye.
Editorial: I wrote a substantive, fairly serious
every issue, such as one titled Physiologist
Laura: Shes Not a
Psychologist and We Dont Want Her
(Epstein, 2001a), an
attack on radio personality Laura Schlessinger.
Informational column: In each issue, we ran a
columnAsk Dr. Ein which I tried to inform and
educate, rather than give advice.
Authorship: The biggest change was our shift away from
journalists. During my tenure, most of our feature
were written by distinguished scientists and therapists,
sometimes with the help of professional writers, and
prominent psychologists appeared in interviews.5 One very
successful article we published was a parenting piece by
psychologists Jacob Azerrad and Paul Chance (2001), which
even included a graph of a single-subject reversal
not something one sees very often in national magazines.
one of several articles that nearly got me fired,
psychiatrist Loren Mosher (1999) criticized the American
Psychiatric Association for its close ties with the
industry, and Senator Arlen Specter was one of many
high-ranking government officials who had opened their
to us (Specter, 2000). We also were the first publication
publish an advanced copy of the executive summary of the
new Surgeon Generals Report on Mental Health
Readings: To aid students and serious readers, we ended
every feature with a short list of suggested readings.
Heads Up: To reconnect with the profession, as well as to
help and entertain readers, we started a department
Heads Up, in which the presidents of national
answered a question of interest to the general public,
as How can we stop school
violence? or Should you
punish your child? Participating
APA, the American Psychological Society (APS; now the
Association for Psychological Science), the American
Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling
the National Association of Social Workers, and the
Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy,
News: The news section of the magazineusually 12
with more than 20 short articlessummarized recent
studies in lay terms, and the staff took great pains to
avoid interpreting correlational studies in causal terms.
Health psychology: We established a Health Psych column,
edited for a while by psychologist H. Melbourne Hovell,
founder and director of the Center for Behavioral
at San Diego State University.
Cutting-edge research: We also created a Frontiers
which featured interviews with scientists conducting
leading-edge research; this column was edited by APA
scientist Nancy Dess for nearly 2 years and then,
Kurt Salzinger, the new director of APAs Science
and former chair of the board of trustees of the
Center for Behavioral Studies. Salzinger was succeeded by
Susan K. Fiske, a professor at Princeton and former
B. Stuart (2002); and Philip Zimbardo (Maslach, 2000).
Book and Web reviews: Our new book and Web reviews
was edited by Chance, who also wrote occasional features
us. We brought him back to Psychology Today after a long
hiatus, and he was a tremendous asset.
Langer column: We also ran a regular commentary, Just
About It, by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer,
brought her distinctive perspective to many everyday
History page: We concluded most issues with a historical
photo supplied by the Archives of the History of American
My Story: To connect in a meaningful way with people
with behavioral, cognitive, and emotional disorders, we
a department called My Story, in which a reader told
or her experience with depression, bipolar disorder, a
or some other debilitating problem. In one of the first
of this sort, a reader provided a meticulous and
account of what it had been like for her to undergo
therapy. In another issue, actor Christopher Reeve
gave a moving account of his struggle to regain
after sustaining a spinal cord injury.
Mental health awards: In 2000, Psychology Today began
giving annual awards to people who helped improve the
mental health of Americans. Nominations in eight
categoriesgovernment, media, research, and so
invited each year from 300 leaders in mental health and
behavioral sciences nationwide, and recipients included
Tipper Gore, Rosalynn Carter, Fred Rogers, and Albert
among others, both notables and unknowns. For the first
round of awards, we printed a congratulatory letter from
President Bill Clinton.
National radio show: Somewhere along the way, I also got
Psychology Today Live, my radio
program, onto the national
airwaves. This program allowed me to put nearly 200
guests on the air over a period of about 2 years.6
On one of the occasions when David Satcher appeared on
Psychology Today Live, I
complimented him on the unprecedented
efforts he was making to address the mental health
problems of Americans. He replied, with great warmth and
complete surprise, I have great appreciation
for the work that
you do, and I think youre reaching a lot of people
magazine and your program. Keep it up! We need
with an endless barrage of deadlines from the magazine,
radio program, and my professorship, and not having taken
off in years, I felt more fatigued than appreciated, but
my efforts were paying off were indeed appearing.
In 1999, the magazine was invited to participate in the
House Conference on Mental Health, organized by Tipper
who later agreed to be interviewed for the magazine and
program (she holds two degrees in psychology, after all).
I was invited to talk about the magazines progress
annual meeting, and that fall Rhea Farberman, APAs
director, and Norman Anderson, APAs incoming chief
officer, dropped by Psychology Todays office in New
check out our operation. Also in 2002, an empirical
report in a
volume on teaching suggested that Psychology Today
were helpful in motivating students in introductory
courses (Appleby, 2002). We were also getting regular
to attend events at the Carter Center, where former first
lady Rosalynn Carter had long run an ambitious program to
make the mental health needs of Americans a high priority
media professionals and government officials; both
on the radio program and in the magazine.
Changes in the magazine were also getting noticed in the
media. Articles about our new direction appeared in both
and The Chronicle of Higher Education early in 1999, and
included hopeful but cautious comments from Alan Kraut,
of APS, and APA president Richard Suinn
Today, Long Ignored, 1999; Rehab
for Psychology Mag,
1999). And a lengthy article in a January 2000 issue of
Baltimore Sun, titled Serious Therapy for a
Magazine, read in
part as follows:
After 25 years of sliding circulation, creeping inanity
respect, Psychology Today is undergoing sober analysis .
For the third time, Psychology Today will make a run at
psychology away. Its editor has pledged to
reassert the voice of
authority over the bubble-headed
gurus and vacuous self-help
books that he says have tarnished the
profession. It may sound
like the kind of talk more likely to emanate from a
lounge than from a New York publishers suite. But
Psychology has an image problem,
says Gregory Kimble,
emeritus professor of psychology at Duke University and
one of the
new advisors. Psychology Today can help to
correct it. (Dorsey,
2000, p. 2)
Although the feedback I was receiving was generally
I did run into trouble at one point with some gay
activists. In its
November/December 2002 issue, the magazine ran a small ad
for a new book titled A Parents Guide to Preventing
(Nicolosi & Nicolosi, 2002). Shortly after the issue
came out, I received an angry phone call from an APA
who identified herself as a lesbian activist and who
objected to the ad. I assured her that I had nothing to
do with the
magazines sales department and that I was confident
could tell the difference between editorial content and
advertisements, but she was far from satisfied. I soon
myself flooded by angry e-mails, many from people who
were canceling their subscriptionseven though,
our records, some were not subscribers. Some people even
protested the magazines antigay
article. I settled the matter, it
seems, to almost everyones satisfaction with a long
titled Am I Anti-Gay? in which,
among other things, I reviewed
evidence suggesting that homosexuality is partly genetic
in origin (Epstein, 2003a).
By early 2000, Psychology Today magazine was empirically
based from cover to cover, delivering valuable and
information to the American public. It provided a
for prominent, credentialed scientists and practitioners
communicate directly with a large audience, and some key
people had noticed and praised the changes. Those signs I
perpetually seekingsigns that I was making a
were now glowing brightly, but one of them, it turns out,
ABRUPT END OF A BRIEF ERA
On a Monday morning in March of 2003, the publisher of
Psychology Today called to inform me that he was
methat very minute, it seemedwith my
news editor, a bright, energetic journalist with no
in the behavioral sciences but with a salary much lower
than mine. I would now have the honorary title
By this time, I was expendable. In 1999, I had marketed
myself by promising both cost cutting and new revenues. I
indeed kept costs low, but my fantasies about new revenue
sources had proved to be just that. I had thought that by
the credibility and prestige of the magazine, I could
create connections between the magazine and various
of the academic and mental health communities, which
turn generate more income for the magazine. But a
classic Psychology Today articles I edited for classroom
1999 (Epstein, 1999) sold poorly over the next couple of
and we had no indication that students were interested in
newly renovated magazine.
Moreover, various proposals I had made to APA and other
organizations (including APS) for distributing the
their members had gone nowhere. Some APA officials had
around during the dark years when Psychology Today had
bankrupted the organization; the mere mention of the
raised hackles. Ray Fowler, APAs executive
pointed out that no matter how good the editorial
magazines ads would undoubtedly stir protests from
organizations many contentious and passionate
to abandon lucrative ads had helped sink the magazine
when APA owned it during the 1980s, and I had had a taste
this kind of trouble over a small book advertisement.
RICHES TO RAG
The June 2003 issue of Psychology
Today was my farewell issue
as editor-in-chief. It featured actress Susan Sarandon on
cover, focusing on her political activism. A supporting
sought to spell out the conditions that turn people into
The issue also included a provocative article about the
administrations color-coded warning system; titled
Menace: Is Washington Terrorizing Us More Than Al
was written by then APA president Philip Zimbardo
2003). My editorial, Of Ants and Men: The
Lust for War,
mourned the 175 million people who had been lost to war
the 20th century and listed some of the factors that
scientists say contribute to the warlike tendencies of
beings (Epstein, 2003b). What happened next is not
least if you have a genuine interest in educating and
The Sarandon issue of Psychology Today, the last over
had any influence, was followed by one with cartoon
Homer and Marge Simpson on the cover. Almost overnight,
complex apparatus I had assembled to connect the magazine
the behavioral sciences was dismantled: The advisory
evaporated, and so did the history page, Heads Up,
My Story, the informational question-and-answer column,
on. The venerable Psychology Today Interview, a staple
the magazine was founded, was also eliminated, because
I was told, were boring.
The main change had to do with the authorship of
Psychologists were eliminated, replaced by freelance
In 2002, 83 credentialed clinicians and scientists
original material to Psychology Today; in 2004, exactly
1 credentialed individual did so. Even the advice column,
sometimes dealt with serious mental health issues, was
written by a career journalist rather than by a mental
professional. Scientific advances were still described in
news section in the front of the magazine but were
absent. Important social issueswar, mental illness,
and so onwere gone.
The cover of the September/October 2005 issue exemplifies
the change. The image is of an attractive model, her face
surrounded by segments of a folding tape measure. The
the strip above the magazines namereads,
Porn Impasse: His Problem or Her Hang-Up? The
line (upper left) is Status Anxiety: Why
Measuring Up Matters,
and the other cover lines are, respectively,
Rise of the
Trophy Kid, Crude Rude CEOs: Why
the Boss Acts Like a
Barbarian, 10 Soothing Truths
About Pain, Are the New
Suburbs Right for You? Why Funny
Women Are Intimidating,
and Infidelity: When to Confess.
The only item that
seems out of place on the page is the magazines
name. All of the
cover lines and most of the content of the magazine could
easily into Redbook! Except in news blurbs, Psychology
magazine no longer said much about psychology
today, or tomorrowand it no
longer provided a means for
psychologists to talk to the public. 7
ON FEEDING THE MEDIA BEAST
The sinewy path along which my
calling has taken me over the
past 30 years has been problematic in some
respectsit cost me
my marriage, for surebut it has also taught me a
especially about how to use various media outlets to talk
people about mental health and the behavioral sciences.
are the five most important lessons I have learned:
First and foremost, personal relationships are critical.
you know is important, but even more important is being
about getting to know key people. If you are persistent
patient, you can eventually develop a relationship with
any journalist, editor, or producer. Without such
you and your message are likely to remain invisible.
Second, media professionals need your ideas, no matter
standoffish they may seem at times. In fact, very few
stories are actually initiated by journalists or
professionals are constantly, and sometimes desperately,
searching for good stories. The media machine is a giant
beast, ingesting tasty tidbits about the world through
thousands of small orifices, then quickly excreting those
barely digested, through a much smaller number of
for public reconsumption. Because the beast is ravenous,
long as you are willing to do what it takes to hold its
the first lesson), you can become one its feeders,
with a diet that meets your own high standards of
Third, contingencies of reinforcement are critically
To produce reinforcers for yourself, you first need to
reinforcers for the media professionals. Never approach a
professional with your great
important story. Rather, find out
what he or she needs, and try
to help. Say straight out, as I still do frequently,
How can I help
you do your job? And look for areas where
your needs and the
journalists needs are both servedthat is,
where the contingencies
of reinforcement overlap.
Fourth, if you have attempted to
help a media professional
by sending him or her a pitch, a
query, or a media release
that you feel might suit his or her needs, and if you
have gotten no
response or even a negative response, you should not give
take offense. Send in a gentle
reminder (that is exactly how I
label my e-mail messages) every week or two. Ask for
how to improve your proposalin other words, on how
it so that it better serves that individuals needs.
Take action to
strengthen the relationship. Stay informed about that
ever-changing needs for new
content. Send in new ideas from
time to time, and, even if you do not have any, keep the
going. Sooner or later, something you have to offer is
almost certain to be appealing.
Fifth, and finally, the media machine is flawed by its
nature. If you forget this, you will be deeply
whatever eventually hits the airwaves or is published in
or in print. If you understand how and why the beast is
flawed, you will be more effective in making it work for
you will also be more realistic about the possible
Journalists move rapidly from one story to another, and
they are always working under firm deadlines, they have
any, time for nuance. Generally speaking, they also lack
training and the inclination to get things entirely
right. They are
not laboratory scientists; they are trained to produce,
putter. Stories need to get the critical facts right;
they need to be
readable by the average reader;
they need to fit into the space
or time or budget available. But despite what you might
journalists do not need to get your quotes quite right,
are strongly opposed, by nature, to pushing your agenda
coverage. It is their coverage, after all. Do not let
this scare you;
as long as you play by the rules, the beast can be tamed
first four lessons).
How many Americans know that the Lamaze method of natural
childbirth, now ubiquitous in American hospitals, was
by Pavlovs research on classical conditioning (N.C.
& Brouder, 1979; Lamaze, 1970; Velvovsky, Platnov,
Ploticher, 1960)? Not many, I suspect. Psychologists are
bad at playing the public-relations game. In contrast,
the medical fields barrage the public daily with
what they have accomplished in the past, with reports of
recent successes (however modest), and with extravagant
promises of advances to come. Our own efforts to reach
public, laudable and substantial as they may be (e.g.,
& Kilburg, 1986; VandenBos, 1992), are modest by
We are hampered by many factors, but perhaps the most
has been the existence of pop
psych, a massive
amalgam of pseudo-expertise that has shadowed the
field for more than a century (Benjamin, 1986). The
no way of distinguishing empirically based findings from
ramblings of self-proclaimed experts, and there is no
to this problem. One sad result is the ever-wavering and
often negative image that people have of both clinicians
behavioral scientists. In its early years, Psychology
have been the best corrective the field ever had for all
psychology; in its current form, the magazine is probably
harming psychologys name more than helping it.
To me, this means we must redouble our efforts. Prominent
psychologists have reached out to the public since the
founded (e.g., G.S. Hall, 1894; Jastrow, 1908), and our
organizations have devoted considerable resources toward
this end. But we need more people to take the plunge, and
we need to think bigger. To build and maintain a strong
well as to share our expertise with people who might
it, we need to reach tens of millions of people every
counter the ill effects of charlatans, we need to expose
offer sound alternatives to their prescriptions, and to
do so aggressively
and repeatedly. We need to build infrastructures that
utilize fast-emerging wired and wireless technologies in
that make it easy for thousands of credentialed
clinicians to communicate with the public regularly, and
need to give our graduate students the skills and
need to fulfill this important mission. We have a great
deal to be
proud of and to offer; we do both ourselves and the
public a disservice when we hide even the smallest
our light (cf. Bevan, 1982; Pallak & Kilburg, 1986;
Millers (1969a, 1969b) stirring call for action
decades agopublished in Psychology Today, by the
it appeared in the American Psychologistis as
guidepost for our field now as it was in the 1960s. We
guilty of the public modesty
(Miller, 1969a, p. 53) that Miller
protested; the world is still a dangerous, inhospitable
most of its inhabitants; psychologys public image
is still mixed;
and charlatans still dominate every branch of the ever-
expanding public media empires. Miller (1969a) urged us
[instill] our scientific results . . . in the
public consciousness in
a practical and useful form so that what we know can be
by ordinary people (p. 68). To do this
requires large-scale and
continuous communication with the American public; it is
that Psychology Today was helpful for a time, and it is
we must all do better.
|Notes and References
3Early contributors included
Elliot Aronson (1970), Richard Atkinson
(1968), Nathan Azrin (1967), Aaron Beck (A.T. Beck &
Jeffrey, 1978), Daryl
Bem (1967), Ellen Berscheid (Berscheid, Walster, &
Bohrnstedt, 1972), Bruno
Bettelheim (1969), Sidney Bijou (1968), Gordon Bower
(1973), Jerome Bruner
(1975), Raymond Cattell (1968), Noam Chomsky (1968),
Kenneth Clark (1970),
Paul Ekman (1975), Albert Ellis (1973), Erik Erikson
(1969), Hans Eysenck
(1967), Viktor Frankl (M.H. Hall, 1968), Erich Fromm
(1971), Harry Harlow
(Harlow & Harlow, 1967), Donald Hebb (1969), Arthur
Jensen (1973), Jerome
Kagan (1968), Alan Kazdin (1976), Sigmund Koch (1969),
(1968), Lewis Lipsitt (1971), Ivar Lovaas (Chance, 1974),
Masters and Johnson
(M.H. Hall, 1969b), Rollo May (1968), David McClelland
Mead (Harris, 1970), Stanley Milgram (1967), George
Miller (1969a), Marvin
Minsky (1969), Jean Piaget (E. Hall, 1970), J.B. Rhine
(M.H. Hall, 1969a), Carl
Rogers (M.H. Hall, 1967a), Robert Rosenthal (1968),
Stanley Schachter (1971),
Martin Seligman (1973), Hans Selye (Cherry, 1978), Thomas
Joseph Wolpe (1969), Robert Zajonc (1970), and Philip
4 Advisory board members included University of
California president Richard
C. Atkinson, Nathan Azrin of Nova University, Gordon
Bower of Stanford
University, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate
Ellis of the Albert Ellis Institute, Gregory Kimble of
Duke University, Harvards
Ellen Langer, Elizabeth Loftus of the University of
Washington, Jerome Singer
of Yale University, Robert Sternberg of Yale University,
and Philip Zimbardo of
5Contributors included Norman
Anderson (Anderson & Anderson, 2003), now
APAs chief executive officer; David Buss (2000);
Bernardo Carducci (2000);
Albert Ellis (Epstein, 2001b); Roger Fouts (2000); John
Gottman (Gottman &
Carrere, 2000); Michael Lamb (2002); Elizabeth Loftus
(Loftus & Calvin, 2001);
Paul Rozin (2000); Daniel Schacter (2001); Robert
Sternberg (2000); Richard
6 Guests on the show included Jimmy Carter, the surgeon
general (four times),
Ruth Westheimer, Sally Field, Patty Duke, Fred Rogers,
Christie Brinkley, Steve Allen (twice), Jamie Lee Curtis,
and dozens of other
notables, as well as more than 150 behavioral scientists
among them Brian Baird, Herbert Benson, Robert Bjork,
Albert Ellis, Michael Faenza, Raymond Fowler, Daniel
Gordon, Judith Rich Harris, Kay Redfield Jamison, Norine
Kramer, Ellen Langer, Jack Mayer, David Myers, Russ
Newman, Sidney Parnes,
Susan Perry, Alvin Poussaint, Steven Reiss, Nancy Segal,
Jerome Singer, and Robert Sternberg. Since 2005, I have
been hosting a similar
program, Psyched! on Sirius
7On a brighter note, Scientific American Mind, the
magazine created recently by the editors of Scientific
American, seems to be on
solid ground so far, and the French publisher Hachette
Filipacchi MeŽdias, the
largest publisher in the world, recently launched a
British version of their
popular French magazine, Psychologies. An American
version may be coming
within the next few years. It will likely prove to be
even softer than todays
Psychology Today, but the competition might push
Psychology Today, once
again, back toward its origins.
Volume 1Number 4
AcknowledgmentsIn preparing this article, I have
from comments I received from a number of friends and
Edward L. Anderson, Jr.; Paul Chance; Nancy Dess; Ed
Diener; Karen Edwards; Edmund Fantino; T. George Harris;
Gregory Kimble; Elizabeth Loftus; Kurt Salzinger; Alberta
Swett; and Charles G. Thomas. Ignacia Galvan tracked down
many of the references.
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