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One on one... with Adrian Furnham

Professor of Psychology at University College London. Includes web-only answers.

07 November 2011

One moment that changed the course of your career

My mother bringing home one of the early Eysenck Penguin paperbacks which were (and are) easy to read, interesting and provocative.

I read it in one sitting and was captivated. I resolved in fifth form to read psychology rather than maths.

One thing that you would change about psychology

Specialising too early. When I was a student at an obscure colonial university we had to read Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life; Fromm’s The Art of Loving; and Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring as preparation for the first year.

I would add to that list Gregory’s The Intelligent Eye and the new book by Lilienfeld et al., 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology to get some idea of the breadth and range of the subject. One needs to learn that no behavioural issue is the exclusive province of one branch of psychology.

One thing psychology has achieved

I teach students from many areas – medical and business students, economics and philosophy students. What I have noticed is that my students acquire multiple skills others don’t. They are numerate and literate; they can critique theories, arguments and analyses; they know how to gain access to knowledge. And, by third year they can take a ‘hot off the press’ article from a top journal and understand its message and see its flaws. We do some things right.

One memory of South Africa

Being taken to the local mental hospital by a supercilious and unpleasant lecturer in abnormal psychology to see and interview ‘real mental patients’, including a number who had had a lobotomy. I recall how easy it was to spot a schizophrenic and near impossible a psychopath.

One persistent challenge

Overcoming the scientist/practitioner divide in all areas of applied psychology. Practitioners soon become out of date and are driven by the agendas of their clients, companies and institutions. Scientists pursue journal impact factors and their h- index with little or no regard to the applicability, usefulness. You can see this in the learned societies (e.g. APA, BPS) which many academics view as largely pointless semi-trade unions and so start their own societies (e.g. EPS, APS).

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists

Beware becoming a fashion victim of the latest statistical or methodological craze. Do three things to become well known: First, devise and validate a good test (of any sort); Second, do a few good meta-analyses and/or systematic reviews (and update them); Third, start, or try to get hold of a large longitudinal population sample to look at causal effects over time. That will do wonders for your citations and advancement.

One final thought

I argued 30 years ago, in the Times Higher, that I had the best job in the world. A don’s job offers flexi-time and flexi-topic... you can follow your passions, write books and papers on anything that takes your fancy and make work your hobby; you are always surrounded by young, talented, forward-looking students; having respect-worthy, if not always supportive, peers some of whom are remarkably gifted; and a very light touch from the university bureaucrats. That still remains true, though the shadows of managerialism and centralism are changing the latter benefit.

Web-only answers

One proud moment

Achieving my ambition to have a chair before I was 40 (harder then than now) and getting a DSc (London) the year before from Princess Anne our Chancellor.

One persistent problem

I have been a weekly columnist for three newspapers: Financial Times, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times. This involves coming up with 850 words each week. I enjoy trying to slaughter some of the more preposterous shibboleths of management gurus and modestly educating the public in psychology. But the cost is often rather nasty hate mail, sometimes typed on old ribboned typewriters, even threats... as well as many compliments and invitations to give talks. Put your head above the parapet; be controversial and you inevitably pay a price. It certainly exposes a great deal of ignorance about psychology, psychologists and what we know about human behaviour.

One person who inspired you

Actually three: Bruce Faulds who introduced me to psychometrics at the University of Natal; Michael Argyle my D.Phil supervisor at Oxford; Hans Eysenck for his brilliance and bravery.

One challenge that psychology faces

Coherence and unity. The tectonic plates seem to be moving and the archipelago of psychology drifting further apart. The first inaugural lecture I read was a man who in 1950 said he would probably be the last Professor of Psychology because all the signs were that the different parts would dissociate themselves from each other. The other related issue is identity and psychologist now wanting to be called brain scientists, or cognitive neuro-scientists. Jerome Bruner observed 25 years ago that the best way to compliment British psychologists was to mistake them for biologists or medical scientists.

One regret

Not embarking sooner on my Oxford D.Phil and spending the whole decade of the 1970s at universities procrastinating adulthood and doing three masters degrees, which in the end proved to be useful rather than critical to my career.

One alternative career path you might have chosen

My careers master suggested my test results indicated law or journalism. For a time I contemplated becoming an Anglican Priest but hedonism and scepticism destroyed that. But I hope to do a PhD in history once I retire.