The American Psychological Association (APA) suffered a 7.6 percent loss of its members from 2010 to 2011 — from 91,306 to 84,339. While in recent years, the APA has suffered from smaller membership declines, this is the first time ever in the organization’s 120-year history it has suffered such a significant one-year decline in members.
Is this downward trend specific to the American Psychological Association, or are other professional organizations suffering similar losses?
And what’s to blame for this precipitous loss of members in a single year? A few factors come to mind.
The APA’s 2011 Loss of Members
The APA is the largest professional association representing psychologists. It is, however, by no means the sole voice of psychologists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 174,000 psychologists in the U.S. — which includes master’s level professionals. So the APA represents about 44 percent of psychologists in the U.S. — 75,746 of whom are full-fledged APA members with doctoral degrees.
Here is some speculation as to the reasons behind the decline:
- It’s the economy. Indeed, one of the first items to go in a tough economy is a person’s membership in different clubs and organizations. However, since professional dues are a tax write-off (meaning it helps reduce the professional’s tax liability), it’s unclear how many professionals gave up their membership due to the economy alone. A professional may, however, trim their membership if they are members of a number of professional organizations and keep only the one or two they truly feel are most beneficial to their career.
- Lack of perceived benefits. This is something many professional and non-profit organizations struggle with. Since all organizations offer virtually the same set of benefits and perks (like discount magazine subscriptions), you may not keep a membership in an organization where you don’t feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.
- Graying of members without replacements. Although more new psychologists than ever are joining the profession every day, not nearly as many are joining the APA. Instead, they’re focusing on smaller organizations from the get-go that seem to better cater to their interests (see comment from the APS executive director below). Less than 13 percent of new APA members join a specialty division (where the actual networking takes place), and the average age of the APA member today is over 54 years old.
- Torture. The APA took what seemed like forever to come out and say that torture was wrong and shouldn’t be practiced by APA members. They had to keep revising their statementto satisfy the APA’s critics, and it was a PR disaster that just wouldn’t die. This may account for some of the initial downward trend in the late 2000’s.
- The practice assessment controversy.For nearly two decades, the APA has been charging some of its members — those who are in clinical practice — a “practice assessment” fee. This fee was thought to be mandatory by most members who paid it, because of the way it was worded and appeared on a member’s annual dues statement. It was used to fund a separate, independent political lobbying organization associated with the APA.In 2010, it came out that the mandatory practice assessment wasn’t mandatory after all. It makes sense that some clinical members may have been upset about this perceived deception, and spoke with their wallets.2
The American Psychological Association is not alone in this downward trend on membership numbers, however. The American Psychiatric Association — the professional association of U.S. psychiatrists — is also suffering.
“APA has experienced a decline in membership over the past few years, from 35,899 total members in January 2009 to 33,387 in January 2012, an approximately 7 percent loss in three years,” Susan Kuper told Psych Central. Kuper is the Directory of Membership for the American Psychiatric Association.3
“There are several variables contributing to the membership loss, including an increase in membership dues in 2010 (the first increase in almost 15 years) as well as the general state of the economy.”
The Association for Psychological Science, an organization founded in 1988 largely made up of research psychologists, hasn’t seen the same downward trend. In fact, their membership numbers keep going up-up-up: Overall growth since 2007 is 16.3 percent with an average annual growth of just over 4 percent.
- 2011 – 23,500
- 2010 – 23,300
- 2009 – 22,700
- 2009 – 22,700
- 2008 – 21,500
- 2007 – 20,200
“We also see huge growth in things like journal submissions,” Alan Kraut, Executive Director of the Association for Psychological Science, said. “I am guessing APA scientists have gotten older and fewer – just take a look at the average age of those in Division 1 (General) or 3 (Experimental) – whereas our growth is particularly in younger psychologist scientists.”
Touting Its Members and Non-Members as The Same
When this article was first researched, it seemed a bit ironic that, for an organization that promotes professional ethics, the APA continued to proudly state — without any qualifications up until a few days ago — that the “APA has more than 150,000 members and 54 divisions in subfields of psychology” on its website’s About page:
Snapshot of the APA “About” page one year ago,
and similarly up to a few days ago.
After we pointed out the discrepancy in how the APA describes itself and its membership numbers, the page’s wording changed:
Snapshot of the APA “About” page today.
This is still technically inaccurate, since student affiliates are not APA members. And since we didn’t point out that the discrepancy exists throughout APA’s website, you can still find it on the APA History page (for the moment):
We think that it’s incumbent upon the APA to be honest and transparent about the size of its organization, because its size denotes representation and unity. Counting student affiliates — who are not APA members and have little say in how the APA is run — as a part of the representation without clearly delineating the difference is disingenuous.
The APA’s true size today is an organization consisting of 84,339 members.4 That’s nothing to be ashamed of — it’s a big professional association representing the guild interests of many psychologists. It’s downward decline is not necessarily a sign of a permanent trend — but it is a disturbing one that signals the changing times.
With access to social media and other communications modalities not as readily available 20 years ago, some of the APA’s purpose — helping like-minded professionals socialize and network with one another — is going away, replaced by profession-neutral organizations.
The APA’s challenge is to repurpose itself, showing that it can adapt to the changes in the profession. It also wouldn’t hurt it to become more transparent and responsive to its members’ concerns.
Edited on July 14, 2012 to add detail.
- In the past, the APA’s Public Affairs office has readily responded to our requests for comment. [↩]
- Some members were so upset, they filed a lawsuit against the APA, which was dismissed earlier this year. [↩]
- The APA’s membership numbers reflect a total that’s actually higher than the reported number of psychiatrists in the U.S. — about 23,000 — by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, probably because the statistics don’t capture self-employed workers. [↩]
- Full disclosure: I’m still a member of the APA. [↩]