How long have you been a SPSSI member?
It’s been so long that I can no longer remember how long, but what I do remember is being recruited as a student (perhaps by a gift subscription) by then president Faye Crosby, so it must be nearly 30 years. Aside from her enthusiasm and passion for social issues I was really impressed by her interest in graduate students’ development and her commitment to seek out and support young social scientists who cared deeply both about their science and their contribution to improving society.
Please describe your current research focus/efforts.
My research focuses on group processes (such as decision making and influence) and intergroup relations (such as prejudice and discrimination) as well as the connection between the two. I’m collaborating with several different groups of people on different projects. Mike Hogg has worked with me for years on social identity theory and its ramifications, as well as co-editing the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, which we launched to embrace the best of both European and North American traditions of research in these areas. With José Marques and others we are developing subjective group dynamics theory, researching how and why groups respond to deviant and non-conformist group members—a topic with interesting ramifications for law, politics, organizations and social change. I’ve been building a developmental model of these processes with Adam Rutland and Melanie Killen. More generally I’ve been researching aspects of prejudice, including quite a lot of work with the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (including a national survey of prejudice, conducted with Diane Houston). Out of that grew a more specific interest in ageism and age-based stereotype threat. For the last eight years or so I’ve worked with the UK’s largest charity for older people, Age UK. Luisa Lima and I set up the Eurage research group which developed a module on age attitudes for the European Social Survey, and we are currently writing up much of that research with Sibila Marques, Hannah Swift, and Melanie Vauclair.
What are some of the social issues that are important in your country/region of the world?
In the UK I think the most pressing social issues are how to respond to inequality, diversity, and collective responsibility. Our current government deploys policies that are highly contradictory on each of these fronts. I think that psychology as a whole reinforces strongly individualistic (indeed intra-individual) levels of explanation, and these are used politically to accompany or justify exclusionary social policies. These often draw on the assumption that people are essentially autonomous agents (if rather error prone) whose fate is in their own hands. An effect of the Europe-wide banking crises is that some governments are driving even larger wedges between those individuals or countries that have money and power and those that do not, treating those most in need as if they should suffer ‘austerity’ almost as if it were a moral cure. The social and psychological impacts of these strategies will be important and long-lasting. At least one contribution of social psychology should be to ensure that people do not forget that their own well-being is enhanced by improving the condition of society as a whole.
How do you bring SPSSI’s principles and mission to your work/country?
We tend to underestimate how powerful the tools of our trade can be, and how unsystematic, unscientific and value-led many policies can be. I try to employ good psychological science to persuade individuals and groups of policymakers that socially progressive options are also rational and optimal. Often this might simply involve helping them become aware of the perspective that we can offer, or that evidence does not always square with their assumptions. For many policy strategists it is quite a surprise that it is possible to test a causal assumption empirically, using archival evidence, field research, or experimental research.
What do you feel is the best way to advance the psychological study of social issues?
Many ways aside from scientific advances in our theory and methods. For me, it starts with caring about a problem or issue and engaging others (outside of psychology) in the question of ‘why’ that problem exists. This often opens the way for a larger conversation and eventually research and action. I think it is also important to learn how to engage with public communications—TV, radio, and (not that I am any kind of expert) social media. Sometimes a very simple finding, something that we might regard as unexceptional, perhaps insufficient to justify an academic paper, can be a striking finding that grabs public attention and starts to change the way an issue is framed. My guess is that people are able to process ‘main effects’ but our beloved 2-, 3-, or 4-way interactions are not exactly what they want to mull over at breakfast time. Stereotype threat is a good example—the basic phenomenon is very important. Focusing on the many moderators and mediators risks clouding the fundamental point that stereotypes are not just images or perceptions—they can affect performance and thus life chances.
What do you like to do when you are not working to advance the psychological study of social issues?
I enjoy days out with my family; reading stories to our 10-year-old twin daughters; debating with our 21-year-old son; playing guitar or fiddle in a jazz/blues/folk line up; starting a pressure group; reading or watching satirical humor; learning to misspell in what Microsoft Office calls “US English” (surely an oxymoron?); enjoying my students’ successes; repairing things.
What is your favorite psychology book?
Probably Sherif’s The Psychology of Social Norms. I have to thank Rupert Brown for introducing me to Sherif’s ideas when I was his graduate student and I would recommend Sherif’s work to anyone who thinks our salvation is in technical detail and perfection—his clarity and vision are what sets him apart.
What is your favorite non-psychology book?
Too many to choose from, and many brilliant children’s books that I have enjoyed over the years. I guess the best of all is Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. It is a true masterpiece. Another favorite is the NFL Handbook 1966. I acquired it after living in Chicago for a year when I was 8. On returning to England I cut out the center—mostly pictures of footballers—and secreted a tooth, my school bus pass, and a photo of my mum and dad inside it. I don’t think I ever read it though and, as a result, I still have no understanding of American Football—a game that seems to involve lots of mystifying pauses, gaps and debates, with occasional small but important steps forwards. A bit like psychology I suppose.