Scientist or showman?
The jurys still out on what kind of contribution Hans Jurgen Eysenck, who died last week, made to psychology, writes Joan Freeman
No one could have accused Hans Eysenck, who has died aged 81, of being short of courage. All his life he had been, if not caught up in confrontation, then the instigator of it. His courage was real because he was, he once told me, an extreme introvert, off the end of his own scale, the Eysenck Personality Inventory.
How then, I asked, do you address large audiences and answer their searching questions at the end?
Ah, he replied, I prepare everything in meticulous detail, and leave carefully organised gaps in what I am saying. Since the questions always refer to what Ive missed out, my answers are already prepared. No risk at all.
He envied extroverts, who he said needed less stimulation to reach satisfaction. At the finish of an hours address to a large audience of the British Psychological Society on sex and personality, we heard his deep (unplanned) sigh, Ah, happy extrovert.
Eysenck started life in First World War Berlin destined for the stage. At eight, he had a small role in a film. Both his parents were starring actors, who split up, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother. Had he accepted a place at Berlin University in 1934 to study his first choice of physics, he would have been forced to join the SS.
As his mother had remarried a Jew, he realised he must leave the fatherland to escape Nazism. At the same time he rebelled against his parents wishes, starting with two years in France and living the rest of his long life in London.
He received his first-class degree from University College, London, and was awarded a University of London doctorate in 1940. Eysenck became professor of psychology in 1955, and founded the psychological department at the Institute of Psychiatry, Maudsley Hospital (London). He ran his department rigorously, along his own lines. It became famous and well respected, largely on his merits and the publicity he engendered.
His production of published work and ideas was prodigious. Several of his 50 books such as Uses and Abuses of Psychology and Know Your Own IQ some co-authored and some edited sold in millions.
Eysenck wrote clearly and free of jargon, opening out scientific psychology and the mysteries of testing to everyone. Of all psychologists, it was his name that everyone knew. It was his books they bought. He was a bestseller, the peoples psychologist, which did not endear him to his fellow academics.
There was little respite in Eysencks lifetime of fights with the establishment. But his constant berating of Freud and psychoanalysis, referring to him as a liar with his hot and wet unconscious, seemed to come from a place other than objective scientific criticism.
In a contentious experiment, he compared people who had had psychotherapy with equally distressed people who had not. He found that those who did not receive the treatment got better at the same speed as those who had. But then, in his view, happiness is largely genetically determined, rather then depending on what happens in the outside world. Where it is needed, human warmth and solace could equally well be provided by religion.
Eysenck had his fingers in many psychological pies. His interests ranged from parapsychology, which he tried to demolish, to sport he was a lifelong tennis player, a boxer in his youth and an avid Manchester United football fan. He also claimed to have a passion for poetry and a near-photographic memory.
Eysenck often appeared to sweep aside evidence that might taint his arguments. In his last intrepid attempt to scale the Everest of psychology in his book Genius: The Natural History Of Creativity, he gives just a dismissive sentence each to contemporary theorists and researchers with whom he disagrees. All geniuses, he wrote, are men and gender differences are of course genetic. However, in spite of constant accusations of manipulating figures to produce his desired results, no one ever proved that he did. Such accusations, though, had the effect of diminishing the credibility of his work.
This happened, for instance, with his research that claimed the relationship between cancer and smoking was due to personality, rather than carcinogens in the cigarettes. The idea was that people who smoked had more emotional problems to start with and so would be more likely to succumb to cancer anyway. He came under heavy criticism when it was discovered that he was receiving millions from a secret United States tobacco fund.
Although he claimed that he was not sure where the money had come from We get a lot of research money whatever its source, he said, it was irrelevant to the results. However, he never managed to explain whether the experimental mice who got cancer when they smoked had cancer- inducing personalities.
Originally, Eysenck aligned himself with Arthur Jensens American work, which claimed that as the IQ of blacks measured about 15 points lower than that of whites on tests, it must be due to genes. However, he modified this, saying that the differences might not be genetic and could be changed.
For describing the original findings he was called a Nazi racist and assaulted by student revolutionaries at the London School of Economics, who broke his glasses. This was followed by bomb threats and gross misrepresentation. Although he promoted the idea of a unitary intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, he was also working on electronic measures of brainpower concerned with speed of reaction. But these have not been found to be reliable.
Eysencks name is popularly associated with intelligence, but his contribution to the discipline was far greater in the application of experimental and psychometric methods to personality, a very hazy area when he began.
Much had been written, but most psychologists considered it an almost impossible human area to define and measure scientifically. But Eysenck not only subjected it to experimental discipline himself, but also edited a successful academic journal to promote new studies. He devised interesting and useful concepts such as Tough-and-Tender-minded to explain political attitudes, the Tough being to the right and the Tender to the left.
Once, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Eysenck replied, as Mr Valiant-for-truth. He nearly made it, certainly becoming one of the most referenced psychologists in the world.