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Children, young people and families

One on one - with Jay Belsky

Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck University of London

02 October 2009

One inspiration
Professor Urie Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University; among so much else, he showed me how to find what is of value in others’ work, rather than concentrate on its limitations.

One common denominator underlying your work
Fascination with how developmental experiences shape – or fail to shape – who we are.

One moment that changed the course of your career
When I spotted a teammate on the Georgetown University soccer team with a bunch of four-year-olds in tow, leading me to ask him, ‘Where did you get them?’ His reply led to the eventual resolution of my identity crisis, as volunteering at the university daycare centre was my first step in becoming a developmental psychologist.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Enabling so many to appreciate that children are not just miniature adults, but individuals who should be understood on their own terms.

One challenge you think psychology faces
The tendency to regard only experimental work, and possibly only neuroscientific research, as science.

One alternative career
I spent my entire childhood wanting to go to the US Military Academy at West Point but, after securing an appointment there, including a congressional nomination, decided instead to study international relations at Georgetown University.

One lesson from Sure Start
Demand that anyone speaking about ‘evidenced-based’ anything distinguish scientific evidence from so much else that masquerades as such (e.g. anecdote, qualitative study, general impressions).

One thing that you would change about psychologists
That they be less critical of each other and more open-minded, actively engaging, even if only experimentally, ideas with which they might (initially?) disagree.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Follow your nose! Never lose sight of what interests – or better yet, fascinates – you.

One cultural recommendation
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel; masterly interdisciplinary scholarship, even though he is undoubtedly wrong in contending that humans have not changed genetically since the dawn of agriculture.

One hero from psychology
Sir Michael Rutter, based on the depth and scope of his scholarship, including the crystal clarity of his thinking.

One regret
Never having mastered a second language.

One proud moment
Remaining calm and focused when a hippo dumped me out of my canoe into the crocodile-infested Zambeze River in Zimbabwe – and surviving to tell the tale! 

One problem that psychology should deal with
The continuing distrust by so many of all things evolutionary and thus the obsessive interest in the ‘how’ of psychological/behavioural phenomena, with insufficient concern for the ‘why’ of them.

One idea that grabs you at the moment
That individuals vary in developmental plasticity, with some being more susceptible to environmental effects, both good and bad, than others.

One hope for the future
That it not be a self-serving guild. If it makes good scientific sense for ‘psychology’ to wither and something else to assume or assimilate it, profession politics should not stand in the way.