Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

Presents an interview with Nicholas Charney, Ph.D., founder of 'Psychology Today.' How he came up with the idea; Support of the professional community; Where psychology was 25 years ago compared to now; How he sees 'Psychology Today's' role in today's world.

By Nicolas Charney, published May 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A conversation with Nicholas Charney,Ph.D., founder of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.

Owen Lipstein for PT: How did you come up with the idea for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY?

NC: When I was a kid, my favorite magazine was Scientific American, and the most popular articles were often about psychology, which were the only kinds of articles most people could read in the magazine. And I said to myself in my third year of graduate school (at the University of Chicago), what the country needed was sort of a Scientific American of the social human psychological sciences. I thought it was important that people have access to information about psychology that was different from the kind of information they would get in Cosmopolitan or some of the more popular sources.

PT: But Scientific American is a magazine about science for scientists, whereas PSYCHOLOGY TODAY became the magazine about psychology for the educated layman. Do you disagree with that?

NC: I always believed that a psychologist who was reading about or learning about an area of psychology which was not his/her own main subject was no more than an educated layman himself. So just as I knew that the magazine would be successful among the 50,000 or so psychologists in the country, I also knew that it had the opportunity to appeal to people who were in college or had a college education. And those are fairly large numbers. I always thought that the magazine had the potential to reach millions of people, but I also knew it had to start with a core and have the support of the psychological community in order to be successful.

PT: Well, did it have the support of the professional community from the start?

NC: Absolutely. In fact, it has had the support of the psychological community all the way through its existence, which is why the American Psychological Association bought it. It was far more important in defining what psychology was in our society then was the APA. Psychology was almost reinvented for the American public by PSYCHOLOGY TODAY. There was no other publication devoted to it. Everyone endorsed the idea of trying to educate the public about psychology.

PT: This was 25 years ago. Where was psychology then as compared to now?

NC: There are probably twice as many psychologists now as there were then. I think there are the same number of students in psychology now. We had a very conscious plan to bring psychology into the classroom. We believed very strongly that if it could have its grass roots in the colleges and among the professors, then we would be very successful. One of the reasons PT began to lose some of its momentum in the 1970s is because the educational-film division was spun off, the book club got sold, the textbooks became part of Random House, and all these other things that had enabled PT to penetrate into the school and college market weren't there. Another reason why a lot of people today feel so strongly about PT is because psychology was a big part of their education and how they learned about the world.

PT: My belief is that, in 1967, psychology had for college students an excitement and discovery about it that it does not have now. When it was your major in '67, it said you were avant garde, you were interesting. I don't think it has the same excitement now. Do you think this is true?

NC: I have an advantage, I was there in '67. They said exactly the same thing back then. That's why the theme of promotion was "What is psychology?", and then "What is psychology today?" In 1967, I was told by every professional in the business that PT would get maybe a quarter of a million people to read it, that it wasn't a popular enough subject. People thought we'd run out of material. I think psychology has always had sort of a bad reputation as being wishy-washy and soft, the people who study it are a little kooky themselves. Everybody is interested in it, but not everybody respects it.

PT: What about 15 years later, when you went back as editorial director?

NC: PT ran into the problem of copying itself. That was sort of the stagnant state it was in when I took over. That's always bad--a magazine should always be stretching forward, never looking back. You want it to be alive, on the cutting edge. The first seven or eight years really set the tone for what the magazine was to become. When I went back 10 years ago, I was a very different editor.

PT: How so?

NC: It became increasingly clear to me that psychology was much too important to leave to psychologists. I believed what was important was the subject or content, and not necessarily whether the professionalism came from a psychologist or physicist or psychiatrist. You don't have to lose your integrity at all to be interesting. It is much more important that the star is the subject matter, not the contributor.

PT: You're saying that you consciously took it out of the academy. Why?

NC: Because I knew it would represent the subject better. It would make for much more interesting matter, which readers I could relate to better. When the APA tried to make the magazine a house organ, we had a lot of fights. They didn't want psychiatrists to contribute to the magazine; they were always thinking of the association and its members first, and not paying enough attention to the real readers. They had no idea how to edit that magazine for the public.

PT: Do you think there will ever be a time when we understand ourselves so well that we won't need such as thing as PSYCHOLOGY TODAY?

NC: Psychology has been around since humans have existed. The human brain hasn't changed very much in 25,000-50,000 years. So the idea of wanting to understand behavior, prove relations, and deal with emotions--these issues have been around forever. To be able to learn and understand more in quantitative and predictive ways will never go out of style. There well always be a tremendous thirst for this type of knowledge.

PT: How do you see PT's role in today's world?

NC: Everyone's talking about how bad life is right now. Personally, I don't think it's that bad at all. I think the most important thing is that the chances for long-term peace are far greater; the resolution of conflict which comes through negotiation and not military force, and the opportunities for enrichment of life--they are better now than ever. We have an incredible standard of living now, with plenty of options.

PT should be out there with a positive tone, asking "How can we feel better?" "How can we think better?" PT should have an uplifting scientific spirit, and should have some faith in people and society and free thinking and controlling one's own destiny. That's what psychology and PT are all about--being able to understand and predict human behavior, hopefully for the better of man kind.

PT: How should we understand PT's history?

NC: Every magazine has a life of its own. I certainly hope PT will be here in another 50 years. It would be very sad if this magazine were not able to fulfill its lifelong destiny. PT gives people the tools for a better life. There's always a need for Psychology Tomorrow!

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): CHARNEY: A Class of '67 alumnus looks back to the future of PT.

Nicholas Charney is currently at work on a "video-magazine"--produced entirely on video--called Psychology 2000.