Look at me

Raymond Fancher

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

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.

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