After 40 years on sidelines, Zimbardo seeks APA presidency–and wins

By The National Psychologist Editor
January 1, 2001 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Since receiving his Ph.D. from Yale University 40 years ago, Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D. never contemplated a political role for himself in APA leadership.

A seasoned, eminent academic and researcher at Stanford University for 32 years, he was rarely seen among the APA partisans who criss-cross the country on the “Red Eye” from San Francisco and L.A. to Washington without much hesitation to conduct APA’s business. While Zimbardo would conduct workshops and seminars at APA conventions, the polemics on budgets and buildings and APA governance issues didn’t figure in his plans or future.

Until now.

Zimbardo caught the APA “bug” about a year ago. In December, he was elected president-elect of APA with a presidential term beginning Jan. 1, 2002.

Winning the election on a first try is fairly rare in APA politics. But a prominent career in research, publication of books and articles extolled in the psychology text and trade press helped raise Zimbardo’s prestige to household name status.

In his quest for the APA presidency. he fulfilled all the requisite routines, attending psychological association meetings in six states, conducting workshops ranging from shyness to the psychology of evil, even contriving snappy campaign buttons (Zim4me). Eventually, the California vote put him over the top, Zimbardo postulates.

Although he campaigned hard for the presidency, Zimbardo concludes that the APA election process gets “a little out of hand.” Too much money has to be spent to become a viable candidate, he chides. His preference would be a cross-section of candidates from the fields of education, science, public interest and practice which he believes would limit the usual dominance of one group, clinicians, on the APA presidential ballot.

In the vote count–APA uses the so-called ‘Hare system’–Zimbardo, with 7,067 votes, led Stanley Moldawsky, Ph.D. and Gerald C. Davison, Ph.D. with 4,406 and 4,363 votes, respectively, after the first count. The election ended on the fourth count with Zimbardo’s total at 10,842 to Davison’s second place at 7,125 votes.

Zimbardo attributes his victory in the election to his decision to appeal to clinical psychologists for their second-place vote. “If you are committed to your clinical colleague as your first vote, will you consider me as your second choice,” he would ask them. He maintains that many academicians had pulled out of APA voting because the candidates were seen as too practice-oriented. Zimbardo believes he was helped by academicians who don’t normally vote but participated in this election.

The Stanford social psychologist claims to be a nonpolitical person except on occasions when he becomes energized by a cause, such as the Viet Nam War 35 years ago. What turned him around to become suddenly an APA aficionado was his disaffection with APA. He also felt increasingly that APA is important to the state of psychology. But unlike many of his academic colleagues, Zimbardo subscribes to the premise that researchers and scientists need to be as involved in their profession as clinicians are.

In his recent APA voyage, he found that many clinicians profess that APA is not working for them either. “When you talk to scientists and educators, they will tell you that the money (APA’s budget allocations) is going to the Practice Directorate, and when you talk with Practice people, they complain that the resources allocated to them are inadequate,” he observed. “There is a big image problem with APA. There is a lot that APA does that people aren’t aware of.”

The timing for Zimbardo seeking the top APA leadership post is “the right time in my life.” He is teaching less. His textbooks now involve more co-authors. He is doing more reading and less research.

Reflecting on contributions he hopes to bring to APA as president, Zimbardo says he possesses “a combination of talent and background to help move APA in the right direction” as a lifelong educator, researcher and through his involvement with clinicians.

“I am more than sympathetic to clinicians,” he said. “I will help unify APA and improve psychology’s public image. The issue for me is mutual respect which isn’t there at this time. Clinicians/practitioners don’t have respect for researchers and academicians. And the reverse is also evident. The two disciplines don’t know each other, and that needs to change.”

Beyond his vast array of publications that expanded his national prominence, Zimbardo points proudly to the world’s first clinic on shyness that he developed in 1977–and still functions in the Palo Alto community. He also developed a new model and conducted extensive research on the “normal” basis of madness. He also prides himself on having taught “more students in a greater variety of courses than virtually anybody–ever” during his 32 years at Stanford which was preceded by faculty positions at Yale, NYU, Columbia and Barnard. There is also the 26-part PBS TV series on “Discovering Psychology,” shown in most colleges and high school psychology courses as well as in 10 foreign countries. He is currently updating, revising, and adding new programs for the fall 2001 season.

Among Zimbardo’s crucial issues for the future are the aging of America, dealing with the rift between psychology and psychiatry, “how do we give psychology away to the public” and achieving collaboration between academicians, researchers and clinicians.

On giving psychology away to the public, he comments: “The public needs to know what we offer; they don’t read our books or journals. It’s through newspapers, TV, MTV and magazines that we have to sell ourselves.” Zimbardo wants to be more involved in the process through science writers, radio talk show hosts and the APA Media Division.

On prescription privileges: Zimbardo is cautiously optimistic. “What can we learn from what drug money has done to psychiatry?” Psychiatry has been bought out by the pharmaceutical company money which provides the major portion of the psychiatric association’s operating budget. Psychology should minimize such temptations. No drug money should be used for APA operating expenses. The money can go into the APA Foundation. We should supplement psychotherapy, never replace it with psychotropic medications. It is clear in recent research on chronic depression that the best outcome is a combination of medication with psychotherapy. And for some psychological disorders, psychotherapy is as effective or more effective without all the side effects of medication.”

At age 67, Zimbardo says he will be the youngest (newest) and oldest member of the APA Board of Directors. Actually, I am looking forward to both roles,” he declared.


Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D. resides in San Francisco and can reached by writing: Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.

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