Feature article

What’s in a name?

The executive committee recommends that our division amend the bylaws to adopt a new name: Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology.

By David Washburn, PhD

Duane Rumbaugh, PhD—one of my heroes in our field—described how a chimpanzee named Lana taught him about the importance of names. In the early 1970s, Rumbaugh and his collaborators developed a computer-based communication system and attempted to teach young Lana a language-analog that featured a vocabulary of visuographic “words” called lexigrams. The work was revolutionary, both for its technological innovations and also for its ambitious research design. Nevertheless, it was slow going in those early days. Lana readily engaged the computerized keyboard, but early progress in teaching Lana to use the keys in ways that suggested anything like symbolic meaningfulness was difficult to obtain. Then, as Rumbaugh described, it just seemed to click for Lana: Things have names. People and places and items and activities have unique names, and the lexigrams representing those names could be used to request, label and refer to those things. Things have names, and names are important. Lana began rapidly to learn the names of many things in her world. She began asking researchers to tell her the names of things. She even began using the pronoun this to refer to things for which she didn’t know the name. Much of the progress made in Project Lana was catalyzed by the chimpanzee’s understanding of the power of names.

I recalled this anecdote as I thought about the challenges that we face in Div. 6. Div. 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology) is one of 54 subdisciplines or interests within the American Psychological Association. Whereas many APA members choose not to affiliate with a division (and indeed, as will be discussed below, one can affiliate with a division without joining APA), much of the work of the association is accomplished through the efforts of its divisions. Given how fractionated our discipline tends to be, the term divisions is in many ways the appropriate name for these groups. The threads of science, practice and education that serve to unify psychology belie tremendous differences within our discipline and profession. I understand why the term divisions was used, but the connotation is unfortunate.

The challenges that Div. 6 currently faces are not caused by the fact that it is called a division—although I don’t think that helps.The truth is that our division is dying. Although behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology (at least comparative cognition) seem to be alive and well, Div. 6 is on an unsustainable trajectory toward irrelevance or even extinction. According to the most recent membership-demographic data available from the APA Center for Workforce Studies (2013), Div. 6 has 25 percent fewer members than in 2005, and 9 percent fewer than just five years ago. We are in the bottom quartile of size, with fewer members than 42 other divisions. It is true, of course, that our current membership includes many of the most distinguished and highly accomplished scholars in all of psychology. Although we are fortunate to have the long-time commitment, leadership and service of these senior scientists; more than 70 percent of Div. 6 affiliates/members/fellows are at least 60 years of age. More than 40 percent are age 70 or older. In 2013, the average age of Div. 6 members was 67.3 years, and only 3.5 percent of the members were under age 40. Compare those figures to the 2009 data (65.7 years and 3.6 percent) and the picture is clear: Our division isn’t just getting smaller. It’s getting older. Unless we can figure a way to ensure that the 76 percent of our members who earned their PhDs more than 25 years ago live forever (and I’m all for that!), our division will literally die unless we become more effective in attracting young behavioral neuroscientists and comparative psychologists.

These problems are not new, or even unique to Div. 6; but they are intractable. Our membership trends have not reversed despite aggressive and targeted recruiting efforts, outstanding convention programming, improved communication, early-career initiatives and the leadership of many excellent Div. 6 officers who in recent years have invested considerable energy, creativity, time and resources into addressing these serious problems. We are at a crisis. Change is required. Without suggesting that any one change will turn this tide, I do want to argue that we should consider any changes that might help. The distinguished and longstanding members who constitute the majority of our division must now decide whether steadfastly to maintain the traditions of the division or to consider changes that might allow Div. 6 to outlive our generation.

For one such change, we return to the importance of names. Behavioral neuroscientists and comparative psychologists shouldidentify with Div. 6, but many do not affiliate with our division because they have made the decision—for whatever reasons—not to join APA. We believe that there are many excellent reasons for paying APA dues, and the benefits of APA membership can be articulated elsewhere. However, as was mentioned above, one does not need to be an APA member to affiliate with Div. 6. Just like APA members can pay division dues to join Div. 6, qualified scholars interested in behavioral neuroscience or comparative psychology can pay Div. 6 dues and affiliate with our division without joining APA. Few do this, however. Among the reasons why this might be the case is our division name.

About half of the current APA divisions have already changed to “Society of…” or “Society for…” names. For example, Div. 2 became the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP). Div. 12 became the Society of Clinical Psychology. Division bylaws (including ours) allowqualified individuals to join a division without joining the APA, but these “Society…” names encouragesuch membership. In speaking with presidents of these other divisions, I’ve learned that many have seen membership growth since their name changes, particularly in the number of affiliates. This influx of affiliate members and the division dues they pay have served to revitalize those societies without undermining their role in APA governance, their support of the APA’s missions or their value to APA members. Further, I’ve been surprised at the level of support and encouragement that the APA Division Services Office offers for divisions like ours seeking to change names and to grow membership by recruiting affiliates.

After careful consideration, your executive committee is recommending that our division do as so many other APA divisions have done, and amend the bylaws so as to adopt a new name: Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology (SBNCP). I see great opportunities for growth if Div. 6 becomes the SBNCP, and no downside. The academic qualifications for division membership will remain unchanged. Our role in APA will remain unchanged; we will still be Div. 6 (just as STP is still Div. 2 and so forth). It is a name that embraces the two branches of psychology that already identify us. It’s a name that emphasizes what we are forrather than stressing our differences with other psychologists. It is a name that early career and senior scholars alike should want to join—a professional society—whether or not they also join the association.

So, what’s in a name? In this case, I believe that our future rests, at least in part, in a name. When you receive the ballot, I’m asking all Div. 6 members to endorse the name change to the Society for Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology. This change alone won’t solve our many problems, but it will make it much easier to expand our membership and the benefits we provide. I welcome questions/comments about this recommendation, and I look forward to working with each of you to help our division to adapt and to grow so that it remains the kind of society that we—and our students—will want to join.