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One to one... with Dame Glynis Breakwell

Professor of Psychology and Vice Chancellor at the University of Bath

04 January 2013

One inspiration                                                                                 Serge Moscovici, who proposed the theory of social representations, a great theorist and an innovative experimentalist. He has a way of encouraging people to think beyond the given wisdoms. He does not believe academics should only be active in academe.

One early memory of The Psychologist
A fabulous series of Myers Lectures were published in the early issues that illustrated beautifully that psychology could be applied to effect in policy-building in any number of areas.

One treasured possession
A battered old copy of William McDougall’s 1908 Social Psychology. I picked it up in an Oxford second-hand bookshop on a wet Friday. Much annotated, it has been owned by many people, and part of its charm is the insight these margin scribbles give about the way social psychology has been seen over more than a century.

One misunderstood aspect of the Vice-Chancellor role
People think that you have to stop being an active researcher when you become a Vice-Chancellor. You do not. If you continue, it just means you have to cope on less sleep.

One book that you think all psychologists should read
The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. It was the first psychology book I read, having borrowed it from the library at the age of 15. By the end of it I was convinced dreams were the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ and that psychology was for me.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Giving up a tenured lectureship to take a Prize Fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford. There I found myself surrounded by great contemporary social scientists like Sen, Goldthorpe and Halsey and my eyes were opened to the diversity outside of psychology in theoretical preoccupations and in methodological preferences.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Learn how to use statistical techniques and how to interpret statistics.

One challenge psychology faces
The big challenge is to accumulate findings in a systematic fashion across researchers so that we can evolve theory that is coherent. Psychology has been too subject to fads and fashions and ghettos of activity.  

One alternative career path
I might have chosen to be an artist – a painter. It has always intrigued me how I cannot write and paint in the same period of time. It is as if there is a specific quantum of creative energy, and if I use it in one way I cannot use it in another. Yet I still paint.

One cultural recommendation
The film The Illusionist. I like films that keep me guessing right to the end.

One psychological superpower
Super-memory. I’d like to be able to remember everything at will. Note I do not want – Midas-like – to be unable to turn it off when I need to.

One final thought
As they say in Game of Thrones, ‘winter is coming’. Psychologists will have a hard time getting financial support for their research over the next few years. One survival strategy will be to work in multidisciplinary teams. But psychologists do need to get themselves into positions of greater influence so that they can shape funding policy. 

Online questions

One thing that you would change about psychology/psychologists
I would like psychology to be less tribal.

One way to ensure knowledge transfer from psychology to business
Get good psychologists into business.

One of my greatest achievements
It has to be developing identity process theory.  Of course, not everyone would agree it is an achievement at all!

One hero/heroine from psychology past or present
From the past: Marie Jahoda. She was a great applied social psychologist, conducting some of the fundamental research on the effects of unemployment.
From the present: Paul Slovic – who has transformed our understanding of the perception of risk, while seeking to understand how to deal with the hazards that he studies.
One thing that organised psychology could do better
Publicise the difficult psychology findings not just the lightweight stuff the media relish.
One great thing that psychology has achieved
Becoming one of the most popular undergraduate degree choices in the UK.
One problem that psychology should deal with
Dealing now with the enormous untapped potential of the graduate psychology community.

One proud moment
Receiving the Distinguished Social Psychologist award in August 2012 by the BPS Social Psychology Section, because so many of my friends and colleagues made a special effort to be there and to talk about our work and times together.