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Playing with FireReview - Playing with Fire
The controversial career of Hans J. Eysenck
by Roderick D. Buchanan
Oxford University Press, 2010
Review by Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH
Dec 27th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 52)

Hans Eysenck was an amazing man, and this biography does justice to him.  Amazing in many ways, good and bad -- and the biography does justice to it all.  No good biography can be mere hagiography, and this is made clear when the reader sees the disclaimer prominently placed where epigraphs usually go just after the title page:  "The views expressed in this book are not shared by me. Sybil Eysenck, June 2008". 

I doubt that the wife of any public figure would ever share the views of an honest biographer. And Roderick Buchanan -- an Australian historian and philosopher of science - is clearly a conscientious, honest, biographer.

Eysenck was a polymath, a major figure in modern psychology and psychiatry.  A psychologist raised in Germany, he emigrated to England in the 1930s, where he became the head of the psychology program at the Maudsley Hospital in London, the premier academic psychiatry center in England. From that perch, Eysenck influenced contemporary psychology immensely.  He was a leading figure in behavior therapy, and a major antagonist to the psychoanalytic establishment. If that wasn't enough, he was a prime founder of the field of personality research, and certainly the main innovator in looking at the biology of personality.  Eysenck's three-trait scale of personality (neuroticism, extraversion, and psychoticism) has been a cornerstone of personality research in psychology for half a century (now rephrased as NEO, with "openness to experience" replacing psychoticism.  His work on the psychology of politics was highly original, applying statistical methods to assessing personality traits as they influence political attitudes.  He was a leader in the new statistics of factor analysis, as applied to psychology research.  And, in his last decades, he was a key proponent of using twin studies and psychiatric genetic methods to study personality and human behavior. 

In that latter activity, I got to know some of his students, such as the British psychiatric geneticist Lindon Eaves, and through those students, I got a feel for the excitement and originality that Eysenck brought to his work.  When visiting London as a medical student in 1989, I arranged to have coffee with Eysenck in the cafeteria of the Maudsley Hospital.  I tried to get out of it what I could, as a well-read but green young student; I would have wished to have the chance to speak to him a decade later after my psychiatric training. In any case, I recall some discussion of the relevance of statistical research to psychiatry.  When I questioned Eysenck about qualitative methods, such as a case report, he said that even then one could count: he raised his index finger, with a smile.

Roderick Buchanan has carefully researched and interviewed and archived Eysenck; the collection of all this primary source material is a major contribution for future generations. There is much to be read and understood here about all of Eysenck's ideas in relation to the many topics he studied and wrote about, as described above.  But perhaps one overarching theme that comes through in the book, which may have disturbed his wife and those who only wish to paint a clean image, is how Eysenck's interpersonal style influenced his career, for good or ill.

What comes across is that Eysenck could be difficult; he was always very opinionated and controversial, indeed craved controversy. While this made for rapid attention, much of that attention over time became increasingly negative.  With a reputation thus tarnished a bit as too controversial, colleagues paid less and less attention to his scientific work, even as, in later years, he continued to produce original and high quality work, such as his research on psychiatric genetics.

In other words, controversy served Eysenck well for the first half of his career, but it seemed to hurt him in that latter half. Such that, by the end of his life, his influence was waning rapidly, unlike other major figures in psychology and psychiatry -- like Freud or Jung or Kraepelin -- whose influence only grew decades after they themselves were no longer living.  All of these figures were difficult in their own way, but the question is whether there is something specific about how Eysenck was -- in his personality, to be ironic about it -- that hurt more than helped.

Academics is a touchy world; it is very easy to make people unhappy in the world of academia, and very hard to be on good terms with all. But the case of Eysenck may highlight the importance of trying to have as many friends as possible. Former British foreign minister Tony Blair makes that point in relation to politics in his memoir: he comments on how easy it was for people to become one's enemies, even without one doing anything or noticing it; all the more reason, he concluded, never to purposefully make an enemy out of anyone.

Sir Michael Rutter comments that Eysenck spurred his "distrust of academic evangelists." But could Eysenck have done the highly original work in so many aspects of psychology and psychiatry -- going against the Establishment over and over again -- without evangelizing, and without creating plenty of enemies?  Is there any way he could have done the great scientific work, which, at least in some of his activities, he undeniably did, without creating all those enemies?

How can one be important and creative and original, and not be seen as difficult and one-sided and too controversial? That is the question of Eysenck's career, and it is one which Buchanan brings out in all its facets, preparing the ground for each of us to think of an answer.

 

 

 

© 2011 Nassir Ghaemi

 

Nassir Ghaemi, MD MPH, Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology; Director, Mood Disorders Program, Tufts Medical Center


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