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One to One... with Dominic Abrams

We dip into the Society member database and pick out Dominic Abrams, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent.

27 September 2021

One book
Georg Simmel’s The Web of Group Affiliations (1955) is highly readable and worth a look as it sets the scene for how groups actually work, both as a set of relations within groups and between groups. It won’t look at all like (modern) psychology to most readers, but it is (see also an overview of its place in sociology by Chayko, 2015).

One psychological superpower
Perhaps instead of conducting power analysis to determine the necessary size of a sample, it could be superpower analysis – the ability to anticipate substantively relevant effect sizes for new research questions. Current conventions rely on statistical tools, and default assumptions when asking a new research question (e.g. determining sample size needed for an 80 per cent chance of detecting a small effect). But the reality of capturing an effect also depends on how stable the phenomenon is, how perfect one’s measurement is, and how well biases and errors can be controlled. It would be great if we could be surer, ahead of time, what effect size might actually matter and therefore is worth detecting. Some easily detected large effects are trivial and some nuanced or small effects may be enormously consequential over time or when aggregated across whole populations or the world.

One thing psychologists could do better
When conveying our insights to non-experts, we could try not to talk like psychologists. Psychology has a great deal to offer both to the questions explored in other disciplines and to people’s wellbeing and ability to survive and flourish. But we are not very good at looking outwards to engage with ideas beyond psychology and we too easily slip into jargon and concepts that are obscure and inaccessible to others. People are people, not just ‘participants’, and ‘stimuli’ are things people experience, see, or have done to them in the context of other things, not neutral events or information. Some psychologists are brilliant plain language public communicators but undergraduate training often replaces clear and vivid communication with APA7-ese. We should at least aim to be competent in both dialects!

One thing you couldn’t do without
It would probably have to be a guitar, which I miss after as little as a day’s deprivation. I’m not sure that my family or friends agree with my estimation of its value though, at least, not every day.

One moment that changed the course of my career
There are a couple but perhaps the critical moment was after my undergraduate degree. Having applied unsuccessfully for funding to pursue a Master’s degree in Social Psychology, I was anticipating taking up a place to do primary school teacher training in Manchester. Over the summer I was working as a site hand, building stages, fencing and running errands during preparations for Cambridge Folk Festival. On a blazing hot day at the end of July the director Ken Woollard called me over to receive a phone call in the HQ caravan. It was from Roger Holmes at the LSE offering me the chance of an ESRC studentship, but on the condition that I gave an immediate answer, yes or no (ESRC’s deadline being imminent) and could use the HQ fax machine to receive and send the signed form. To whoever dropped out, giving me that chance, thank you.

One film
My favourite film is The Third Man – everything about it is brilliant and the theme tune inspired me to learn that and a wide range of other pieces on the guitar.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Decide whether your question is worth asking and, if it is, explore and persist until you find a good method to get at it, and have unearthed some informative answers.

One alternative career path
According to my daughters, my options could have been children’s author, problem solver, handyman, or (possibly) musician. Almost certainly not wallpapering, scheduling or navigating.

One lesson learnt
Whatever our strengths, we all make mistakes, it is a good idea to work with people who make different ones from our own!

One thing about the BPS
An organisation typically has particular individuals, not always their leaders, whose work and commitment are fundamental to its success. Over my many years as a BPS member the most constant person and a great pleasure to work with, has been Lisa Morrison Coulthard [who recently moved on from the Society], whose understanding of the complexity of the BPS itself, and the professional, academic, basic, applied, teaching and research landscapes occupied by its members across the whole of psychology has been crucial and exceptional. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank her. The Psychologist has also been a consistent and excellent monthly companion under outstanding editorship over the years.

One challenging thing about my job
From individual behaviour to global problems, human relationships constantly raise new questions for social psychology so there is never a dull day, and there are always fascinating new questions to tackle and people to work with. The biggest challenge is how to use our insights and evidence to make a difference to policy and practice. This is not just a problem of producing evidence, but of ensuring it reaches people that can use it to positive effect.

One album
Can I pick a few? My favourites are probably those by Tom Lehrer whose satirical songs and dynamic piano accompaniments first captured my attention when I was an eight-year-old; a rare one by Arlo Guthrie performing Alice’s Restaurant, which I first heard as a twelve-year-old; and Folk Blues and Beyond by Davey Graham, one of the pioneers of British acoustic guitar music and who, when he was performing in Cambridge, generously give me a few lessons in Ken Woollard’s sitting room.