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One to One... with Stephen Murgatroyd

Professor of Management and Applied Psychology at Athabasca University in Canada, and Executive Director, Centre for Innovative Management

13 June 2013

One achievement of my own
Counselling and Helping – a book written while teaching on a First Nations reserve in Saskatchewan during a sabbatical year in Canada – was my attempt to make psychology accessible and clear for a great many who counsel as part of their work. It came about as a result of my work with others in founding the Counselling Psychology Section, which later became a Division of the Society. I was its first secretary. My BPS Fellowship recognised the work I undertook to help ‘birth’ this section.

One moment that changed your career
When the Open University offered a ‘deal’ to anyone over 35. I took it and moved to Canada, leaving Britain as a Senior Counsellor and counselling psychologist and landing as the Dean of The Faculty of Administrative Studies and Professor of Management and Applied Psychology. Quite the flight!

One inspiration
Professor Archie Cochrane, with whom I worked straight out of my undergraduate degree – a world leading epidemiologist and a hero of the Welsh miners for helping to secure compensation for black lung (pneumoconiosis). He encouraged the research team to be rigorous and to think in terms of systems.  His book Effectiveness and Efficiency – Random Reflections on Health Services (1971) is still regarded as a classic argument in favour of randomised control trials. The Cochrane Collaboration is named after him.

One book all psychologists should read
Paul Johnson’s book The Intellectuals (1998) in which he looks
at the difference between what the great thinkers – Marx, Rousseau, Ibsen, Russell and many more – said and what they actually did. Insightful, inspiring, an exemplar of good historical research and profound.

One cultural recommendation
Crime thrillers. When I read Joe Nesbo or Henning Mankell I am reading a psychologist at work – they happen to be crime novelists (and very good ones too). What is their understanding of the psychology of the criminal mind and the police mind and what insights can this provide which support the develop of more comprehensive theories of psychological wellness and ‘illness’?

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
‘Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts completely’. Some of the
most powerful presentations I have ever been present at are conversations and talks from the heart.

One challenge you think psychology faces
Getting past our preoccupation with data to focus on understanding and theory.

In my 1970s–1990s work on the theory of psychological reversals the focus was always on deepening our understanding of structural phenomenology and motivational systems – data helped test ideas, but it was the ideas that mattered. We must move back to a more holistic understanding of the person.

One thing that makes you laugh
Thing you overhear in public places. Alan Bennett tells this great story of something he overheard on a bus in Leeds. An elderly woman, talking to a friend, said ‘and the doctor said that they would never be any use to me again as feet..’. He had to get off the bus at this point. He said he had spent a chunk of his life trying to work out the whole conversation!

One thing that would change about psychology
The lack of attention to the philosophy of science in undergraduate teaching. We need much more critical thinking about the nature and practice of science and about the notion of scientific ‘truth’ and scepticism.

One alternative career path you may have chosen
When I was 14 I told my careers master I wanted to be a writer. He told me not to be silly, and think about a career that may actually put food and beer on the table. I have written over 40 books (I am now also a publisher). But a career as a journalist/novelist was a serious thought. I admire several of these and had the chance to spend time with one – Tim Sebastian (BBC’s Hardtalk, The Doha Debates) recently in Abu Dhabi. He said his novels were essentially written to pay for his kids’ education. I know what he means.

One regret
That I didn’t keep a diary of all of the funny things that happen in the course of an academic and professional career. So much happens at conferences (Sir Freddie Ayer coming into my bedroom late at night to use the toilet, Mike Eysenck’s smart comment about his father and Australia at a conference in Sydney, my one night stand-up comedy in a club in Adelaide…), during the course of work and in interaction with others… many great experiences of the psychology of humour are lost!