Rebel with a Cause 
by H.J. Eysenck.
W.H. Allen, 310 pp., £14.95, March 1990, 1 85227 162 0
Show More
Show More

In the introduction to this autobiography Hans Eysenck approvingly quotes Oscar Wilde’s assertion that ‘modesty is the worst kind of vanity.’ Accordingly, Eysenck unapologetically laces his book with facts and figures to demonstrate that he is, as his publisher’s publicity has it, ‘Britain’s most-read and best-known psychologist’. As part of his evidence, he lists his 71 books published through 1989, and presents a graph showing that he has also produced some eight hundred articles and chapters. This astonishing output, from a part-time writer who also founded and for years administered the Psychological Department of the University of London’s Postgraduate Medical Federation, is surely unmatched by any contemporary British psychologist.

Moreover, Eysenck proves that his voluminous works have been widely read and noted, by professional and popular audiences alike. A table of citations received in the 1985 Social Sciences Citation Index (a listing of all the times individual scientists’ works are cited in the major professional literature) has Eysenck towering far above all other British psychologists, with more than three times the citations of the second place finisher. And he informs the reader that his lighter ‘entertainments’ – books written for lay audiences and so designated in apparent imitation of Graham Greene – have been enormously popular: titles such as Uses and Abuses of Psychology, Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, and Know your own IQ have sold literally millions of copies.

Wilheim Wundt, the most prolific psychological writer of the last century, often frustrated his contemporaries by the diversity of his writings. Thus William James lamented that when Wundt’s critics ‘make mincemeat of some one of his views ... he is meanwhile writing a book on an entirely different subject. Cut him up like a worm, and each fragment crawls.’ This complaint certainly cannot be made of Eysenck, who for the most part has confronted his critics forthrightly, and whose major work has fallen within a few general and at least loosely-related areas. In his most original work he has developed a statistically-derived ‘dimensional’ approach to personality analysis, in which the primary differences among people are measured by their positions on three bipolar dimensions labelled ‘Extraversion’ (the tendency to be outwardly sociable, assertive, sensation-seeking and venturesome, versus their opposites), ‘Psychoticism’ (aggressiveness, personal coldness, impersonality, egocentricity and tough-mindedness, versus their opposites), and ‘Neuroticism’ (proneness to anxiety, guilt, depression and moodiness, versus their opposites). In pursuing this work, Eysenck has been highly critical of the ‘psychodynamic’ or psychoanalytic approaches to personality, and early in his career he challenged the psychoanalytic community with a study apparently showing that psychoanalytically-based psychotherapies produced cures at a rate slightly worse than that at which potential patients improved with no treatment at all. (The debate as to what this means – whether the criteria for improvement were the same in treated versus untreated cases, or whether cases were truly comparable – continues unabated today.) Although never a therapist himself, Eysenck went on successfully to promote a non-psychoanalytic ‘behaviour therapy’ as the preferred form of treatment offered by clinical psychologists in Britain. He has also studied intelligence, relying heavily on factor-analytic statistical techniques similar to those employed in his personality theory. In recent years he has probably been best-known for his outspoken advocacy of the genetic explanation of individual differences in both personality and intelligence.

Consistent with both his hereditarian outlook and his disavowal of modesty, he attributes his own success primarily to genes that endowed him with a powerful memory, a superior intellect, and a stable personality that enables him to work hard and effectively. He also concedes a small role to luck, which deterred him from pursuing his boyhood goal of a career in the physical sciences. After mistakenly sitting the wrong set of university entrance exams, he was informed that the only remotely scientific field open to him was psychology. Furious at the time, he now writes that ‘in retrospect all may have been for the best ... Competition in the hard sciences is much fiercer than in psychology’ and ‘it turned out to be quite easy to be a big fish in a small pond.’ In this ‘excessively easy’ new field Eysenck adopted a strategy ‘perhaps not to be recommended to others. I got a dozen or so textbooks out of the library, quickly read through them, and thanks to my retentive memory, I could reproduce practically all I had read. After a few months I had learned so much ... that other students were asking me to coach them’.

As his career proceeded, Eysenck found writing and public speaking to be just as easy. He wrote his best-selling Uses and Abuses of Psychology in a fortnight, simply dictating the text to a secretary and then making ‘an absolute minimum of revisions, correcting the punctuation, and altering a noun or verb where that had been repeated twice in the same sentence’. As a public speaker, ‘I was quite popular’ among the arrangers of TV programmes ‘for several reasons. I never had a shred of nervousness; the whole thing was a game to me ... I never lost my cool, but exuded sweet reasonableness. And above all I always knew what I was talking about.’

An extraordinary competitiveness pervades this autobiography, as it proceeds from an account of Eysenck’s boyhood in post-World War One Germany, through his flight to England out of repugnance at Hitler, and sub-sequent rapid rise as a psychologist. His earliest conscious memory is of winning the judge’s admiration in a seaside sandcastle competition, and the second is of his humiliating an overbearing music teacher at school by biting his hand. Other childhood reminiscences involve winning a talent contest against considerably older children, defiance of a teacher’s assignment to dissect a live frog in a biology class, and several successful battles with bullies and gangs of thugs. He early resolved never to seek out a fight or force one on anyone weaker, ‘but also that I would never shun one, and if forced into one would do my darndest to win it.’ He adopted several useful tactics to this end, ranging from the psychological (‘You have got to shame [a hostile] group into giving up the idea of group attack,’ then ‘you can challenge one of them, whom you think you can beat’) to the purely physical (‘a really effective right hook to dissuade them from further argument’).

Competitive sports and games preoccupied young Eysenck, who was ‘lucky in being born with the ability to hit, kick, throw, catch, bowl or field a ball – any ball, regardless of size or shape’. Thus at 16 he won a tennis tournament from an older opponent just about to join Germany’s Davis Cup team, who infuriated and super-motivated Eysenck by wearing a swastika on his uniform. A little later, ‘three days after putting on skis for the first time I won a race.’ He and a friend regularly played in bridge tournaments against elderly women who used the Culbertson bidding system: ‘We devised a system of anti-Culbertson, making our bids in such a way as to confuse the opposition completely. This paid off, and we nearly always won.’ Eysenck’s competitive sensibility seems even to have influenced his tastes in Classical music: ‘I prefer Puccini to Wagner, Mozart to Bach, Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote to anything by Brahms, except his violin concerto, Beethoven to any of the moderns, Vivaldi to Schoenberg.’ Described this way, his preferences sound like the early-round results of a double-elimination tournament; one wonders what the results would be in later rounds, or would have been if the draw had been different.

As a graduate student and young psychologist Eysenck naturally saw himself in competition with his elders, and he describes several ‘rules of debate’ he adopted to help him win public academic arguments. These included keeping his public statements short so the audience wouldn’t forget his points, concentrating only on a few important and selected points, and forcing his opponents to deal with those points. He tells how as a fledgling psychologist these helped him to vanquish the philosopher C.E.M. Joad, who had criticised one of Eysenck’s first papers to a psychological conference: ‘Sensing that he was innumerate, I asked him to state how on his premises he would explain the fact that the matrices of [statistical] intercorrelations I had found had a low rank. When I sat down, Joad didn’t answer but walked out, with a rather red face ... The audience applauded wildly as he left.’

Eysenck relates that as a young man he also locked horns with Britain’s two most senior and powerful psychology professors, Frederick Bartlett of Cambridge and Cyril Burt of University College London. Bartlett, as chair of a symposium at which Eysenck and some young colleagues were to present papers, peremptorily announced that each speaker’s time would be cut from twenty to ten minutes, to allow for more discussion. At first Bartlett dismissed Eysenck’s protests ‘with dictatorial insouciance, until I was forced to tell him that the meeting could go ahead without a chairman, but not without speakers, and that we would speak for twenty minutes each, no more and no less. Apparently, no one had ever talked to him like that (after all, he was the master of psychology in England), but we did speak for twenty minutes each, and he did remain in the Chair.’

Burt, as Eysenck’s teacher and thesis supervisor, posed a more protracted and complicated challenge, but once again Eysenck was up to it: Burt’s ‘statistical erudition was much greater than mine, and equally he had read far more sources in statistics and psychometrics than I had ... My stand was the history and philosophy of science, and scientific methodology; these were aspects on which he was weak, and his memory for experimental details in particular was almost non-existent ... As my memory was still almost photographic in retaining such details, he ... soon gave up arguing with me.’

After Eysenck himself became a teacher, he held regular ‘At Home’ sessions where his students and colleagues gathered for the discussion of research and professional issues. He reprints a description of these by one of the participants, showing that his competitiveness was not restricted to his elders:

There was something gladiatorial about these events. Hans was not much taken with the idea of entering into a real dialogue ... The matter of sober, analytical debate bothered Hans very little ... The goal was to win, and his words waged wars ... His comments were not always endearing and led to many a spicy confrontation.

Spicy and confrontational comments abound in the chapters devoted to Eysenck’s actual work, characteristically entitled ‘The Battle for Behaviour Therapy’, ‘The Battle of Cigarettes’, ‘Intelligence and Personality’, ‘The Fight for a New Paradigm’ and ‘The Battle for the Stars’. He describes psychoanalysis as having ‘no scientific pretensions of any kind’, and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams as ‘nonsensical’ but easy to read, so ‘it is fairly clear what is meant.’ A rival personality theory known as situationism, which attributes the behaviour of individuals more to the demand characteristics of the particular situations in which they find themselves than to stable and invariable personality dimensions, is both ‘astonishing’ and ‘nonsensical’. Critics of his tobacco industry-funded research on smoking and cancer – interpreted by Eysenck as suggesting that cigarette smoking may not be causally related to lung cancer, but instead interacts with a cancer-predisposed personality type – he labels ‘the cancer mafia’ with a ‘virulent press campaign’ and ‘propaganda machine’. Opponents of his view that individual differences in intelligence are at least 70 per cent determined by heredity are sarcastically called ‘wholesale environmentalists’ and ‘the anti-racist industry’.

To all this one can only reply that there are of course scientifically-minded scholars who take psychoanalytic theory seriously, and who find The Interpretation of Dreams neither nonsensical nor transparently simple to understand – indeed those who have seriously studied the famous theoretical Chapter Seven of that book may wonder if Eysenck has ever read it; that most of those who interpret the demonstrated relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer as pointing to a causal rather than a circumstantial link, and who accordingly try to reduce the popularity of smoking, do so out of motives that can scarcely be described as criminal or ‘virulent’; and that the hard evidence bearing on the complex nature-nurture and IQ controversies is certainly sufficiently ambiguous to allow for interpretations that differ greatly from Eysenck’s without being part of a wholesale ‘industry’.

Eysenck might do well to remember that the long-term success of scientific ideas depends on more than the ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ of public debates between individual partisans. Ideas must prove their usefulness quietly, over the long haul, in many different settings, including some to which debating criteria are simply inappropriate. He might also like to consider the fact that some of the world’s most successful scientists have been notoriously ineffective or shy about fighting for their views in public. For example, the 19th-century physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone – inventor of the telegraph, the stereoscope and the concertina, among other devices – could not bring himself to speak out even at informal scientific gatherings where he knew all the participants personally. Just once did he accept an invitation to address the Royal Institution, and then he got only as far as the open door to the lecture theatre before his nerve failed and he bolted. This gave rise to the tradition at the Royal Institution of the director always standing behind the lecturer, to discourage any further last-second defections. Charles Darwin always shrank from presenting his evolutionary ideas in public forums, and could be driven to severe bouts of sleeplessness and nausea after even minor disagreements in conversation with friends. Of course Wheatstone and Darwin were exceptional in their reticence, and vigorous debate can certainly play a positive if incomplete role in the testing and dissemination of scientific ideas: but whether Eysenck’s vigorously defended causes survive will depend on some other factors besides his patent skill at polemics.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990

I would not have read two sentences about John McEnroe – or any other tennis-player – had not the article on ‘Mad John’ followed one about Eysenck (LRB, 28 June) and I suspect editorial mischief. It has always been obvious to me that those who spend whole lives playing ball games are cases of arrested development, but what to say about the eminent psychologist now revealed? Does McEnroe recall his own exceptional ability at sandcastles too? Would he, too, perceive an elderly man as a rival, and take pleasure in vanquishing him? Perhaps so, and we may assume that his audience would ‘applaud wildly’ too. ‘McEnroe is, above all, a complicated man,’ we are told, and so is Eysenck, we may be sure. They are alike in being just that little bit endearing – at a convenient distance.

David Shillam
London W5

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences