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One on one - with Michael Eysenck

Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London. Includes online bonus questions.

03 May 2008

One person who inspired you
The person who most inspired me was Jonckheere, who was always known as ‘Jonck’.
I first met him when I was an undergraduate student at University College London, and he was the first academic psychologist who seemed convinced that I had a future in psychology. Since he was in addition an extremely warm and friendly person and one of the cleverest British psychologists I have ever met, it is no surprise that I found him so inspirational.

One hero/heroine from psychology past or present
My choice of Sir Francis Galton may be misinterpreted. What makes him my hero is not his sometimes unfortunate views on heredity but rather his incredible creative ability to open up major new areas within psychology. Here are a few examples: realising the importance of twin studies; realising the importance
of correlational measures; designing the first (admittedly inadequate) intelligence test; designing perhaps the first psychological questionnaire (on imagery); and developing the method of free association. More generally, he provided
a major impetus to psychology to take Darwin and individual differences seriously and was a great polymath.

One alternative career path you might have chosen
When I was at school, the career that most appealed to me was to become a barrister. This was odd given that I knew very little about what being a barrister involved and had never met one! The expense involved plus my total lack of influential contacts meant that I decided it was too risky to embark on such a career. However, the language skills essential for a barrister are also needed in book writing (I have written nearly 40 books). Intriguingly, with no pressure on my part, my elder daughter Fleur has become a successful barrister.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Einstein said that the crucial thing in research is to ask the right question. That sounds obvious, but most researchers do not spend enough time making sure they are asking the right question before embarking on their research. What many do is simply to follow the zeitgeist. When I look back at my research career, I only wish I had taken my own advice!

One thing you would change about psychologists
Most researchers in psychology want to address major issues while adopting a fully scientific approach. However, in my opinion, the great dynamic conflict in psychology is that it is remarkably difficult to achieve both goals simultaneously. What I would change about psychologists is to encourage more of them to focus on the big picture even if some scientific respectability has to be jettisoned. The world is far too full of beautifully designed and controlled experiments telling us precisely nothing about issues of any consequence.

One hope for the future of psychology
My main hope for the future of psychology is that it will stop underselling itself. Most non-psychologists regard psychology as an interesting but somewhat trivial subject. In fact, clinical psychologists could enhance the psychological well-being of millions of people, and health psychologists focusing on lifestyle changes could transform preventive medicine. If only politicians and the public realised that psychology could produce huge improvements in mental and physical health (and enormous economic benefits) if given the opportunity and resources!



One regret
When I started my PhD on human memory, I was fascinated by one of Nick Mackintosh’s findings – it was along the lines that animals trained to respond to a white square rather than a black circle took a very long time to learn to respond to the SAME stimulus when it was paired with a white circle. This dramatic phenomenon resembled Tulving’s later emphasis on encoding specificity and the enormous importance of context for learning and memory. However, I managed to miss the bus and chose to study the von Restorff effect.

One moment that changed my career
The von Restorff effect is that a distinctive stimulus (e.g. one printed in red) is easier to remember than non-distinctive stimuli. One day in about 1974, Max Coltheart gave a talk in which he discussed words not pronounced in conformity with rules of pronunciation (e.g. comb with its silent b). When such words are processed phonemically they should be poorly remembered according to levels of processing theory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). However, since their processing is distinctive, then by analogy with the von Restorff effect they should be well remembered. That insight both justified my PhD research and led to a long series of experiments on levels of processing.