Serious therapy for a magazine


Respect: After years of declining circulation and trivial articles, Psychology Today is trying to regain credibility as a conduit of scientific information.

January 11, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Within its glossy covers Joyce Carol Oates exposed her inner child, psychological references in rock lyrics came under scrutiny and an expert resolved physiological questions about nudism.

It covered a cyber-sex trial, examined hot trends in office romances and coined the one contemporary mental-health scourge never to appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: "Schlemiel Syndrome."

But after 25 years of sliding circulation, creeping inanity and dwindling respect, Psychology Today is undergoing sober analysis.

As the new year began, the magazine came under the editorship of a Harvard-educated professor and boasted an impressive set of scholarly advisers, including intelligence expert Robert J. Sternberg of Yale University and Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California. The new team has pledged to rekindle credibility and restore Psychology Today to the one arena from which it had been purged for years.

"This magazine has been out of psychologists' waiting rooms for at least a dozen years," says Robert Epstein, the new editor and a professor at the University of California at San Diego. "People in the profession have been so turned off by the extraneous material, they won't even leave it out for their clients to read."

Issues last year included stories about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis memorabilia, shoes and fast-food trend-watchers. Its covers have shown as much commercial interest in sex and fashion as Cosmopolitan.

"It published all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with legitimate scientific and clinical work," Epstein says. "We want to restore it to its former glory."

The magazine's "glory" days occurred before the term "psycho-babble" was fashioned to describe the patter of the 1970s.

Started in 1967 by Nicholas Charney, a psychology graduate student at the University of California at San Diego, Psychology Today initially reflected the singularly serious intent to publish, as Charney said, "a Scientific American of the psychological sciences."

True to that goal, the first cover article explored pain and aggression in lab rats. Editorial meetings were held under a eucalyptus tree or at a San Diego hamburger joint, and the work was done in a little adobe building where the dress code read, "No shoes and no bra."

In those days, the staff included a crew of out-of-work psychology graduates with newly minted doctorates who shared Charney's mission of bringing the latest news of their discipline to the masses.

"They saw it as an enlarged classroom," says T. George Harris, a Time magazine bureau chief who became editor in 1969. "At the time, there was almost no one reporting on the field, so we had this great opportunity. I wanted it to be a populist magazine, to take the latest knowledge to people from all walks of life so they could use it, so they could stand up and say, `I know who I am. I know what I'm doing here.' We thought of it as profoundly democratic."

Perhaps it's hard to fathom today, but at the time potential investors couldn't see how psychology would ever appeal to anything but an academic audience, and they insisted that the magazine would never reach more than a quarter-million circulation.

During those years it published articles by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, and ran a condensed version of B. F. Skinner's 1971 classic "Beyond Freedom and Dignity." By 1975, Psychology Today boasted a circulation of 1.2 million, making it one of the most popular magazines in the country.

Not surprisingly, it sold to a major publishing house and moved to New York.

The magazine's popularity, Harris says, rose in the midst of a national identity crisis. With vast social changes flowing from the women's movement, the counter-culture and demographic trends, research in psychology seemed fresh and pertinent.

"Before this, people did not really understand that psychology was more than the clinical psychologist who could tell you about [relationships with] your mother," he says. "They didn't know it was a way of developing tools for responsible self-management and understanding the relationship between the self and society."

The needs today are equally significant, Epstein says. The surgeon general reported recently that one in five Americans experiences a psychological disorder and that there is a widespread failure to seek treatment. Issues of family violence, depression, attention deficit and addiction touch large numbers of people for whom effective therapies exist.

The problem for psychologists -- just as it was 30 years ago -- is how to make the best information widely available. But with Psychology Today's circulation having dropped consistently for years before leveling off at about 250,000, one of the profession's most valuable resources seemed to have lost its potential.

"Where do people get their information about anxiety, about depression, about relationships?" Epstein asks. "They're getting it from quacks and charlatans like Dr. Laura."

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