John D. Hogan, PhD
St. John’s University, NY
As many members are aware, the charter for Psi Chi was signed September 4, 1929, at Yale University (CT) during the meeting of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology. With that signing, the association was formally created. There are no archival records at Yale recording the event and it is probably safe to assume that the founders had no idea of the extraordinary history that would follow. In the 90 years since that day, the Society has gone through tremendous growth, not only in numbers but also in function. From a simple record-keeping association, it was transformed into a vital force in American psychology. Now, in its latest re-creation, it has become an international organization, engaged in an outreach that was undreamed of by its founders and yet one that is perfectly consistent with its beginnings.
The Congress at Yale in 1929 was a watershed event for American psychology as well as for Psi Chi. When modern psychology began, its center was in Europe—mostly in Germany, France, and England. The strongest European center was the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt and his psychology program at the University of Leipzig (Germany). It is estimated that he participated in the doctoral preparation of at least 187 students, some of whom later became leaders of American psychology. Through his American students and their fertile home climate, psychology in the United States prospered. By the late 1920s, the United States was in the process of becoming the world center for psychology, a distinction it holds to this day.
The fact that the Ninth International Congress was held at Yale in 1929 was an outward sign of the new U.S. stature. And what an extraordinary Congress it was! The American Psychological Association (APA) cancelled its annual meeting in favor of the international meeting, the only time since its founding in 1892 that it did not hold an annual meeting. Almost three quarters of the APA membership attended the Congress as well as more than one hundred international visitors. Ivan Pavlov, the famed physiologist and psychologist, was one of the keynote speakers. He spoke in Russian with an interpreter at his side. All of the founders of Gestalt psychology—Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler—were in attendance. Even a young Jean Piaget came from Switzerland to New Haven for the convention.
It was in that environment that the Psi Chi charter was signed, an event that was long in planning. Edwin Newman and Frederick Lewis had been students at the University of Kansas in 1927 when they conceived the idea of a national honor society in psychology. It took two years of meetings and letter-writing to bring their idea to fruition. Fourteen colleges and universities signed the original charter, several by proxy. Others were allowed to join in the months that followed. In the end, 21 colleges and universities were granted charter status. With Edwin Newman as the first president, the association was off to a good start.
As effective as the Society was, it did not begin to achieve its potential until 1959 when Ruth H. Cousins assumed leadership of the organization. Ruth agreed to the position as a favor to one of her graduate school teachers and planned to stay with Psi Chi for only a year. She ended up staying for 33. With the help of her husband, who had a background in accounting, she established a stable financial foundation for the organization. Under her direction, Psi Chi assumed a greater presence at both the annual APA meetings and regional meetings. Grant programs were created. Publications were initiated. And with her considerable personal charm, Ruth made friends with the most important psychologists in the United States, many of whom were more than willing to speak at Psi Chi sponsored events.
The organization continued to prosper after Ruth’s retirement, but it could not ignore how the climate for students around the world was changing. More and more U.S. students completed at least part of their studies abroad, and the number of international students increased at U.S. universities. Modern society demanded a more global outlook for its graduates. In 2009, with a two-thirds majority, the chapters of Psi Chi voted to modify the Constitution and become an international organization. It was a bold move, but one that was facilitated by the increased ease of world-wide communication as well as the push within psychology to develop a more global outlook.
The transition was not without problems. Academic cultures are different in different parts of the world. And not all Board members were enthusiastic about the new direction. Drs. John Davis (Psi Chi President 2006–07) and Virginia Andreoli Mathie (Executive Director, 2004–08) were particularly important players in the efforts to work through the differences and achieve a change in the Constitution. Dr. Davis initiated a task force to study the implications of an international direction for Psi Chi, and established a formal relationship between Psi Chi and the APA Committee on International Relations (CIRP). In his four presidential columns in Eye on Psi Chi, he wrote about the importance of becoming more international. His efforts were rewarded with the final vote in 2009.
With its new international status settled, Psi Chi began to explore other initiatives. A Research Advisory Committee (RAC) was created to “advance the science of psychology,” a major goal of the organization. The RAC advises Psi Chi on new research projects and initiatives, initiates possible partnerships, and keeps abreast of emerging research and methodology, all designed to benefit the Society and its membership. Consistent with its international mission, and with increased sensitivity to the changing social climate, Psi Chi issued a robust statement on diversity and inclusion, reaffirming its commitment to recognize and value people of every background imaginable, including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and social class.
In 2017–18, Board President Dr. R. Eric Landrum devoted his presidential year to establishing a “help helped me” initiative in an effort to create a safe place where people who need help feel encouraged and free to ask for it. His goal was taken up by local chapters which inaugurated projects ranging from natural disaster assistance to helping victims of cancer. Also in 2017, the Society broadened its student research opportunities with the creation of the Network for International Collaboration Exchange (NICE), a potent resource for cross-cultural research.
Today, Psi Chi has more than 1,130 active chapters, 17 of them in 11 non-U.S. countries. Psi Chi Executive Director Martha S. Zlokovich travels to international conventions to advertise the activities and goals of Psi Chi. Job openings on the Psi Chi Career Center were viewed more than 700,000 times in the past fiscal year. Almost $400,000 in awards, grants, and scholarships were dispersed in 2017–18. Annual citations from the Psi Chi Journal continue to grow steadily, attesting to its vitality and increasing impact. After 90 years, the Society has changed in a multitude of ways—more international, more diverse, with many more opportunities. But it has always maintained its focus on students. And it has never been stronger.
John D. Hogan, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at St. John’s University, NY. A past moderator of his local Psi Chi chapter and past Eastern Regional Vice-President, he was the keynote speaker at Yale University (CT) for three events celebrating the 70th, 75th, and 80th anniversaries of the founding of Psi Chi. He received his doctorate from Ohio State University in developmental psychology. Recently, his work has focused on the history of psychology and international psychology. From 2006–18, he was the history and obituary editor for American PsychologistTwenty-Four Stories From Psychology (SAGE Publications).
Copyright 2019 (Vol. 24, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology