Hans Jürgen Eysenck was born in 1916 in Berlin and is the best-known name in post-war British psychology.
Educated in France and at London University (BA 1938, PhD 1940, DSc 1964), he began his career in the field of clinical psychology which led to psychometric researches into the variations of human personality and intelligence.
Throughout his career he was an outspoken critic of loose thinking, in particular claims made without adequate empirical evidence. He published over seventy-five books and was fiercely critical of psychoanalysis in its various forms. He often held controversial views, notably in his study of racial differences in intelligence in Race, Intelligence and Education (1971).
From 1955 to 1983 he was professor of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at London University. In 1988 he received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award.
I interviewed him in 1991, six years before his death in 1997.
When you look back on your childhood, do you remember facts and events or do you remember feelings and impressions?
Mostly facts. I don’t go much by feelings and impressions. My childhood was reasonably happy and there was nothing in it that would cause me to worry. My main memories are of two things. One is being talent spotted as a good tennis player and winning an open tournament. Unfortunately any future in the sport was cut short when Hitler came to power and I had to leave Germany. The other memory is of the struggle against Hitler and his ideas. I was about the only non-Jewish boy in the class who was anti-Hitler; the rest, and this was true practically all over Germany, were very nationalistic. I would have had a very tough time of it if I hadn’t been big and strong and also good at sports, since it’s difficult to beat up somebody who plays for your school. I was lucky in a way, but a year after Hitler had come to power it became hopeless. I had applied to go to university in Berlin but I was told that entry was conditional on my joining the SS, which of course was out of the question. I decided to leave and went to France with my mother and her second husband, a Jewish film producer, who naturally couldn’t stay in Germany. I studied in Dijon for a while, but I preferred England where I had spent some time at school.
Why were you anti-Hitler at such an early stage? Most people saw him as a saviour to begin with.
When I heard Hitler speak, I thought it was evil incarnate. I simply can’t understand how anybody could have failed to see that. When I read his book I became firmly convinced of it; it was so obvious, and I still don’t know how people managed to avoid seeing it. The other treason was that I was very left wing, as many people are, without knowing very much about it. I read a lot of Marx, but I wasn’t convinced of the communists’ notions, although they were the main opponents of Hitler of course. I was friendly with a number of communists but I think what really put me off was the tram drivers’ strike in 1930 when they joined with the Nazis to oppose the Weimar Republic. I told my friends that the Weimar Republic was their greatest protection against the Nazis, but they wouldn’t listen and preferred to carry out Stalin’s instructions, even though – as I pointed out – Stalin was in Moscow and didn’t know a damned thing about what was going on in Germany. Of course they all ended up in a concentration camp; they were brave bright people, but they were blinded by this curious notion that Stalin was infallible.
You were abandoned by both parents and brought up mainly by your grandmother. Would you say that the absence of parental love and attention had a measurable effect on your adult life?
I don’t think it had any effect at all. It certainly didn’t worry me at the time. I occasionally met my parents, at Christmas for example, but I can’t say I missed them very much. I was always very self-sufficient and had a busy life, playing tennis, football, rowing, and I was also reading a lot, both literature and science. My life was full.
Did you have a special feeling for your grandmother?
Yes, I loved her very much. She was an exceptionally good woman, in the best sense of the word, but she had a terrible life. Her husband died when she was young, she was a very promising actress and singer and then she broke her leg which was badly set and she became a cripple. Finally she ended up in a concentration camp. I don’t really like to think about it. We tried to bring her over to England but just as we were about to succeed, the war broke out and of course everything fell to pieces.
You are quoted as saying: ‘The fact that my mother did not love me is not important, because such a thing cannot be measured. It is very difficult to see how a mother affects her child. If it cannot be tested, it does not exist.’ Some would see that as a defence mechanism against the absence of love in your early years. Do you deny there is an element of that in it?
I’d be very surprised if there was. There has been a lot of study recently along genetic lines of personality development, and what has been found is not only that genetic factors are by far the most important but also that environmental factors exclude the family. There is no evidence that the family has any effect environmentally on the personality development. I don’t believe in all this defence mechanism kind of thing. As you know, I’m not very fond of Freudian theory.
Yes, we’ll come to that. You left Germany to escape the rise of Nationalist Socialism. Was that a difficult decision to make – did you feel you had any real choice?
I had no real choice but to leave Germany, because I am incapable of lying or pretending. I simply had to say what I felt about Nazism and it was touch and go even as I left whether I would be allowed to leave or whether I would be sent to a concentration camp.
It can’t have been very easy living in England after the war broke out. How did you manage to avoid internment, for example?
They came for me twice, but I managed to talk them out of it each time. It was obviously a stupid policy and the police realized this and were quite ashamed. So they were quite happy when I asked to be allowed to finish my PhD before internment. They departed in a very civilized fashion.
Were you ever made aware personally of much anti-German feeling at that time?
I never encountered any kind of hostility whatsoever. I think most people realized that Germans over here were refugees, and therefore they were welcome.
Do you still have feelings of being an outsider in any sense, or are you totally assimilated?
I don’t think you ever become totally assimilated, particularly in a country like England…in America perhaps, but in England you are always a bloody foreigner. Again it doesn’t worry me since I don’t really go much for nationalism. I feel a good European.
I read somewhere that you were not in favour of the reunification of Germany.
I wouldn’t put it quite like that. I think reunification was inevitable, but it does pose very great problems for West Germans, and I don’t think they have even begun to realize how big these problems are and will be, and that for the next twenty years they will suffer financially and in every other way. There’s also a fear that Germany will become predominant in Europe and will revert to its old bad ways. People reject that notion but I don’t see how you can. They were beaten in the First World War after which there was the Weimar Republic – at first a very democratic regime – but then twenty years later we had another war. I feel we should not simply take it for granted that because Germany at the moment is democratic, it will always remain so. There is a very nasty rise of neo-Nazism in Germany already; it is very powerful, much more so than most people realize, and it is a worry.
In The Psychology of Politics, published in 1954, you predict that left-wing fascism would rise in Britain and parallel the right-wing fascism of Hitler’s Germany. This has not really happened in any great measure. Why not, do you think – or is it still waiting to happen?
It did happen to a considerable extent with the militant tendencies which assumed power in the Labour Party. That was an index of how very strong left-wing fascism became in this country. I never predicted that it would succeed; all I was pointing out at the time on the basis of my research was that there are very marked resemblances between the left-wing militants, communists and so on, and the right-wing militants. It wasn’t at all appreciated at the time, particularly since Uncle Joe was still our friend, and it caused a lot of argument and hostility, notably at the London School of Economics and other left-wing institutions. But I think it was a reasonable prediction, and it was justified.
For you psychology is a science based on experiment and deduction, and science works on the assumption that every event has a determining cause. Do you really think that the nature of man can be properly determined by excluding all unscientific methods of investigation?
There are no methods of investigation other than scientific ones; if you rely on intuition and analogy and other mental activities you cannot arrive at any relatively certain conclusions. The only way to do that is by scientific methods, so what we cannot prove by science we cannot prove at all. That is not to say that other things may not exist. You cannot prove the existence of God, I cannot disprove it, so if you want to believe in God, that’s fine, but it is outside the field of science completely.
Do you believe in God?
No, I don’t. We have shown by studies of twins that there is a strong genetic element in religious belief; you are predisposed to believe or not to believe. I happen to be predisposed not to believe. In a sense I’m quite sorry. My grandmother, for instance, was a very devout Catholic and it helped her a great deal in her troubles. So obviously religious belief can be very helpful, but it’s rather like beer. I was born hating beer, even the smell of it. I know I’m missing something because lots of other people have fun drinking beer, but I can’t help it. And so it is with religion. In addition of course there are rational arguments against the existence of God to be taken into account. The arguments are perhaps too well known to go into here, but to have a baby born with Aids is not in my view the act of a merciful omnipotent God.
If I follow you correctly you would say that to understand people we must look at the world of statistics and experiment, not at the world of philosophers, poets and novelists, nor even into our own hearts. Does it not worry you that your approach would seem to exclude vast numbers of thinking people?
No, it doesn’t worry me. There are two ways of gaining knowledge. For example, when we look at a table we tend to see a solid object with a colour and so on, but in physics the table is largely emptiness, with just a few atoms and electrons and protons. Of course common knowledge is also knowledge of a kind. Newton taught us the law of gravity, but when I’m playing tennis and I hit a ball straight at the opponent’s backhand and he replies with a lob, I don’t even have to look at it to know that this is going out by a foot. I don’t have to pay attention to Newton’s law to make this very accurate prediction, so we have a great deal of knowledge which is factual, and the same applies in psychology, otherwise we couldn’t live alongside one another. We know who’s hostile, who’s friendly, which people will react to certain things – and so on, all this is common knowledge, not scientific knowledge, and in many cases it is still superior to anything we can do scientifically. But it has two disadvantages: first, it cannot be communicated, that is to say a person is good or bad at judging other people and he can’t teach others; secondly, it may be wrong and often is wrong. This is illustrated by the contradictions embodied in sayings such as ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and ‘out of sight, out of mind’- both are true in a sense. In my field, however, we already do very much better than commonsense psychology. For instance, in the treatment of neurotic disorders, we do a lot better than Shakespeare or Proust if they had been faced with these problems. Poets, dramatists, artists and so on articulate common psychology; they mostly do it extremely well, and we can learn a lot from it, but it is not scientific knowledge. It is therefore not of particular interest to me as a scientist. As a man of course, it is – I love Shakespeare, I love reading good poetry, but professionally I have to put these things on a scientific footing. I’m not for a moment pretending that we’ve gone very far in this, but most of our problems as human beings are psychological. We know quite enough about botany, agriculture and physics to make sure of a very good living for everybody who is on the earth at the moment, but what stands in our way is our lack of knowledge of psychology. Why are there warring fractions in Yugoslavia? Why is the Russian communist experiment failing? Why do we have strikes? These are all very real problems which we are incapable of solving because we lack scientific knowledge of them. I hope in 200 years time perhaps psychology will be an adequate science to deal with these difficulties. It will take a long time but it is necessary because common sense is not helping us very much.
But there are certain people who for some reason or other seem to be able to do the right thing without there being any scientific basis for it.
Yes. I won’t deny it for a moment. In fact that is one of the things one can investigate – why some people are better than others, what kinds of personalities they have, and so on. These are all scientific questions.
Your own autobiography is studded with quotations from philosophers and literature. Is there not a contradiction there?
No, because what they say can often be perfectly correct even though it isn’t arrived at by a scientific process. We may now know that they were right. The real necessity for science, since philosophers are always contradicting each other, is to quote the ones who were right and not the ones who were wrong.
The most common worry which your critics express about your theories is that they are somewhat cold and dehumanizing. This seems to be given some weight by your own instance that you are a very unemotional man. Is there not a substantial element of subjectivity in your science?
I don’t see any subjectivity at all. In any case, if you want to find out the facts you have to be unemotional about it. Supposing you are faced with a very young child who keeps banging his head against a wall – it is a very serious problem which may eventually kill him. The question is, who does he do it, what can I do about it? It is just as cold and unemotional a problem as what happens in a black hole. The answer itself is a very simple one: you can cure practically every young head-banger by a method of what is called ‘time out’. Whenever he starts banging his head the mother is told to pick him up, put him in another room, shut the door, and leave him there for ten minutes. In that way he learns that when he bangs his head something slightly annoying happens to him, and he therefore stop-s banging his head. But people who feel emotional about the problem say that the mother should rush to him because he is missing her companionship or love, pick him up, kiss him and so on. What that does in effect is to reward him for banging his head, so he goes on doing it even more. I naturally feel very sympathetic towards the child, but that doesn’t help him in the slightest. What does help him is a scientific approach to the problem he presents.
But do you believe that any great virtue attaches to being unemotional?
I don’t think it’s either a virtue or a weakness. Artists tend to be very emotional and it is part of their nature. If they weren’t emotional they wouldn’t be artists, so it is a virtue for them, but not for scientists.
If I can press you a little further on the matter of being unemotional – you describe how your responses were once tested by electrodes, heart rate, breathing pattern, ect., and your reaction was so muted that it was at first thought that the equipment was faulty. Doesn’t this in itself set you apart from most other people, and doesn’t that in turn have serious consequences for your theories?
I don’t see why it should, because a theory is tested by its consequences. In other words, if my theory about the head-banger is wrong, then it shouldn’t work. The fact that it does work proves that it is the right theory, and the same goes for any of the other theories. They are tested quite independently of the personality or the prejudice or anything else pertaining to the scientist who puts forward the theory. It is an objective thing: either it works or it doesn’t. When I put forward a theory for the treatment of neurosis, the question is a very simple one: does it work or doesn’t it work? In fact it does work, it works better than any other theory, so up to that point it is correct. Of course, like all scientific theories, it won’t be a hundred per cent correct, it will be improved and changed as time goes on, but it is independent of the personality or anything else that the scientist presents. I don’t deny that I’m unemotional; on a continuum from very emotional to unemotional, I’m at one extreme.
You belong very much to the behaviourist school of psychology, that is to say that people behave as they do largely because of genetics and conditioning. You have even claimed that feelings of happiness are genetically determined. It is difficult for the layman to see how this can be so since events which promote or remove happiness are not generally known in advance.
The point is that we very much overestimate the importance of factors which supposedly bring happiness. There are some people who have everything, millionaires like Getty, and yet they are perfectly unhappy; the converse is also true. Events are very much less important than a person’s individual reactions to them. I know people with very little who are profoundly happy; it is an innate gift. Similarly some people react with emotion to events which fail to move others. Nobody is saying that genetics is a hundred per cent responsible for our actions; what we are saying is that the genetic factor contributes about sixty per cent to personality differences, and seventy per cent to intellectual differences. This obviously leaves a wide margin for environmental factors to determine character.
Since you have always been an experimental psychologist and to my knowledge have never actually treated patients, isn’t there a danger that your theories are too academic, too ivory-towered, too removed from the ordinariness of real life?
If they were, they wouldn’t work. The point is that they do work, they’re pretty universally used now over the whole world in the treatment of neurotic disorders and they’re very much more successful than any others. Before I retired, I had a very large department, about fifty clinical psychologists using these methods. I never had to do the treatment myself – it would have been far too time-consuming a business, it’s impossible to combine the two. But if I take the very simple example of compulsive hand washing, a very serious problem which can destroy a person’s life – he spends all his time washing his hands, he can’t have a sex life, he can’t work, he has no family life, he has nothing. Psychoanalysis has been tried, leucotomy, electric-shock treatment, everything, but nothing worked. We put forward a very simple theory of how it works and how it could be cured. It has been tried out independently by three different large organizations, and we now have a success rate of about ninety to ninety-five per cent. So, I don’t have to do it myself, other people can do it much better. I’m not very gifted as a therapist, but the crucial point of the theory is that it works.
But since most of us don’t go through life being rigorously scientific, most of us behave quite irrationally, at least some of the time; how do you take that into account in your study of people’s behaviour?
I don’t see the problem. We do find that most people behave irrationally much of the time, but so what? The theory doesn’t say that they should behave rationally, the theory says that emotions are very powerful, it studies the way emotions are conditioned to external stimuli and so on. It is exactly what we would predict.
You have often argued that those who commit crimes, for example, do so not because they are deprived or frustrated or socially disadvantaged but largely because of genetics and conditioning. Some of your critics would say that you have never really confronted the hopelessness of some people’s lives, the sheer scale of suffering or deprivation, which is why you can dismiss it as perhaps irrelevant. What do you say to that?
I wouldn’t dismiss it for a moment. It is obviously a very sad feature in the lives of many people. The question, however, is quite a different one; does it cause criminal behaviour? I grew up in Germany when we had an unemployment rate of thirty per cent, in some places much more. There was no welfare state and some people were actually starving; but there was very little crime. There is far more crime nowadays, and most of the criminals are not undernourished or deprived. If the theory were right, then there should be a perfect correlation between crime and income, but there is no correlation at all, if anything there is a negative correlation. People who make that kind of assumption simply don’t know the facts.
But surely somebody who is starving and who sees a loaf of bread is more likely to steal it than somebody who is not hungry?
That is not the nature of crime as we know it. My wife is a magistrate and she has never had a case before her of anybody walking into a shop and stealing bread. This is not an illustration of actual crime as it happens. The usual kind of crime is of a youngster, often middle class, stealing a car and driving off; stealing bread just doesn’t occur any more. Much of the crime is committed by middle-class youngsters, as well as by working-class youngsters, in which deprivation may be a factor, but certainly not a major factor. The most deprived seldom commit any crimes at all.
As a scientist, how would you go about reducing crime and delinquency figures?
There are two ways. The first one is proper punishment. As you probably know, between a third and a half of all crimes against property are committed by people on bail. It’s absolutely beyond comprehension how a justice system ensures that people will continue to commit crime by putting them on bail. The second one probably much the most important one, is that it has been shown that you can reduce the criminality recidivism by over fifty per cent by suitable psychological treatment, in the form of behaviour therapy. Typically all the studies have been done in America, since the Home Office doesn’t care about this and doesn’t encourage research in this area. What we need is a more psychological approach to the problem. There’s also the question of the original punishment. Essentially what we do at the moment is exactly the wrong thing. When a youngster commits a crime, what happens? He gets a caution, which tells him in effect that if he does it again he will really be punished, sent to prison perhaps. When he commits another crime, he gets another caution, and again he is told that the next time he really will be punished. So by the time he gets any kind of real punishment he’s already firmly convinced rationally, as well as through conditioning, that crime pays, that nothing really serious happens. What we should do is exactly the opposite. The first time somebody commits a crime he should be clobbered, so that he really learns that the consequences of criminal activity are very serious. That would be the correct psychological approach; but instead what we do is to persuade people that the consequences of crime are very benign.
On the other hand, many psychologists argue that punishment has never been a deterrent to crime.
It just isn’t true. You won’t find anybody who has made a serious study of the literature saying that. A lot of psychologists say that because they haven’t looked at the evidence. After all, many people, even in psychology, tend to talk in terms of their prejudices, and only a small minority have actually studied the literature, and among those you will not find anybody saying that punishment doesn’t pay.
If environmental factors count for so little, doesn’t this have serious consequences for the way in which we behave towards each other, our whole moral structure indeed? I mean, what is the point in behaving well towards our children, for example, when this is going to have no effect –since everything is genetically set in advance.
I never said everything is genetically determined, only sixty per cent which still leaves a very wide margin. Obviously anything that happens to us determines in some way how we shall react later on. Genetics points you in one direction, but events in life can point you in another. What I’ve always said is, man is a bio-social animal, determined by logical factors and also by social factors, and we’ve got to take both into account in what we are doing. I can take somebody who is predisposed to react anti-socially and by a suitable system of punishment alter his behaviour.
You said of your son by your first marriage that you didn’t think that he suffered unduly through growing up without a father. Isn’t that another defence against something which might otherwise be difficult for you to face up to?
I don’t see why I should need a defence. He has grown up very successfully, he is a very good scientist, he has a happy personal life, married with several children. I don’t see any evidence of any kind of deprivation, or any kind of bad effect this may have had on him.
Although you hold Freud in very low esteem, and indeed very few people nowadays accord his work the status of scientific theory, we are left with a huge legacy from Freud, in the sense that it is still the natural idiom in which most people discuss their psyche and their relationships. Do you think this does any great harm? And will it eventually change?
Freud has always been particularly successful with what I might call the literati, writers and the media, and not as successful with scientists who can actually test his theories. In previous centuries literary allusions were based on Greek and Roman mythology, and everybody knew this and understood it. Now Freudian terms have taken their place, and we talk of defence mechanisms, libido and the Oedipus complex. Writers joyfully make use of all this directly or indirectly, and they like it very much. Maybe it will change when we have some other mythology to take its place, but what is important to recognize is that Freud is mythology, not science.
Freudian theories have permeated not only our way of thinking but our institutions, such as schools and prisons. Psychotherapy has had an immense impact on Western culture. If it is so completely without basis, why do you think it has so far survived?
For the same reason as Marx. It is a theory which is superficially attractive because it is intelligible to most people without any scientific knowledge. It is presented in language which is quite attractive, and although it is propaganda rather than fact, most people don’t realize that, and they become convinced. We’re all interested and concerned with other people, our own motivation, their motivation and so on, and Freud enables us to talk about this in a way that appears to be scientific. It’s easy to pick up because Freud is no more difficult to read than Proust or Stendhal or any other novelist. If you compare it with the theories of Pavlov, for example, which I think are scientifically correct, you actually have to read a thousand articles and a hundred books if you want ever even to come near to understanding what it is all about. Naturally the man in the street can’t do that, so instead he reads Freud, or more usually a book describing Freud in elementary terms, and then he thinks he knows about psychology. Just as most of the communists I knew in Germany had never even read Das Kapital; they had read only a second-hand account of Marxist theory and thought they knew it all.
However much Freud is discredited it seems likely that people will continue to discuss their libido or their unconscious. Since these are theoretical notions whose manifestations are not really observable, does that lead you to discount them completely?
What I think about Freud essentially is that what is new in Freud isn’t true, and what isn’t true isn’t new. There are a number of things in Freudian writings which obviously are perfectly correct, but these don’t come to us via Freud. For instance we talk about Freudian symbolism, that some shapes remind you of the penis, and others of the vagina. But of course this was really quite explicit in Roman literature two thousand years ago. The trouble is, when people don’t know that the ancient Romans already had the same ideas they say, oh how wonderful, this is obviously correct. Similarly with the unconscious. The unconscious has been postulated and talked about and discussed by at least two hundred philosophers and medical people over the last two thousand years. So I think many of what we call Freudian notions are not original at all. People call them Freudian, that’s all.
Do you accord any importance to the Freudian account of psycho-sexual development – I mean, would you allow that our subsequent sexual development has its origins in the young girl’s affection for her father, and the boy’s for his mother?
I don’t think for a minute there’s anything in this. The Freudian notion of sexual development has been studied extensively by well-trained psychologists who have followed the actual behaviour and development of very young children, both their own and other people’s, and although they started out with a belief that Freud was probably right, they discovered nothing of the kind that Freud describes in all this. Children simply don’t develop in this fashion; it just isn’t true.
Is homosexuality decided genetically in your view?
In many cases, as is demonstrated by studies of twins, there is a genetic component, but there can also be an environmental component. Sailors in Nelson’s navy, for instance, had no outlet for their sexuality other than with other men, so for most of them it would have been an environmental factor. Similarly, if you are a prisoner for twenty years, then obviously the circumstances are such that you are almost forced into homosexuality regardless of your genetic predisposition.
Do you think sexual problems can be treated, and if so how?
There’s no doubt they can be treated, but how is a different question. It depends on what kind of problem it is. Impotence, for example, has proved very resistant to most forms of treatment, and the rate of improvement is not very high. Premature ejaculation has proved to be fairly easy to treat and cure, so it does depend very much on the kind of disorder, the reasons for it, the type of person and so on. But certainly in due course I believe we’ll even learn to deal with impotence.
How important do you rate sex in our lives?
Obviously sex is extremely important; it is linked with our personality and everything else, and it is certainly a very interesting topic of study. I have written several books on it because it is such a fascinating area. I was particularly interested in the genetic contributions which are very strong, and also the relationship to personality. For instance, we postulated and found that extroverted people have sex earlier than introverts, have sex more frequently, and with more different people, in more different positions and so on. This was predictable and found to be actually so. We also found that a happy sex life is almost impossible if you have a strong degree of neuroticism. Neurotic people seldom have happy sex lives and their marriages often break up. It is a very serious business.
You have sometimes said that you have no empathy with irrational fears. Why not?
Empathy means that you have some experience of the problem. Feelings of depression, anxiety and so on are just alien to me, so I find it difficult to empathize. I can objectively know that people do have anxieties and phobias, and I can account for them in terms of their developmental history and conditioning, and I can treat them with behaviour therapy, but I have no empathetic feeling for them. Just as I have no empathetic feeling for homosexuality or for many more esoteric sexual satisfaction from being beaten, for instance, but many people do. Many people get sexual satisfaction from having a woman urinating over them; this is so absolutely alien to me I can’t understand it, though I have to acknowledge that it exists.
Your most controversial book is probably Race, Intelligence and Education published over twenty years ago. Do you still stand by everything you wrote then?
The book has been much maligned, usually by people who have never read it. Essentially what happened was that Jensen in the United States wrote an article in which he suggested that the difference in IQ between blacks and whites in the States was about fifteen points and had been so ever since the First World War. He went to say that this might not be due to deprivation and environmental factors, but might in part be due to genetic factors. That produced a great controversy, and I thought that as the topic was an important one and most people seemed to take sides without knowing anything about it, it would be useful to present the facts in book form. I think I did this successfully, because the book has never been criticized by experts in the field as being factually incorrect. What people didn’t like was even to acknowledge the possibility that genetic factors might be involved. If you look at recent publications you find that the majority of experts agree a hundred per cent with everything I said. It was not a maverick voicing an opinion, it was a distillation of what are agreed among experts to be the facts and an attempt to explicate these for the general public. This I take to be a very important task, because there obviously is an enormous problem as we can see from the riots in Los Angeles now and those we have had here from time to time. We are not likely to solve such problems on the basis of ignorance.
You have said that your book and others you have written were designed to prevent the truth being concealed by the prejudices of liberal intelligentsia. Are you wholly against what might nowadays be called ‘politically correct’ ideas?
I think the politically correct ideas have gone well beyond what is admissible in a democratic society. For instance I have always opposed any kind of racial or sexual discrimination, I think it is a crime against the Holy Ghost, but what you get now in the guise of political correctness is discrimination against majority groups. But discrimination is discrimination always and affirmative action, so-called, is to my way of thinking a racist policy. Political correctness disregards facts and imposes certain attitudes on people which are essentially anti-democratic.
Where do you stand politically?
That’s very difficult to say because I have always kept away from party politics. It seemed to me quite obvious that different parties were right on different issues. If you belong to one party you are forced to put all these things together in a kind of average, whereas I prefer to judge each issue on its own merits, so I have voted in due course for all three parties. I have voted for Attlee’s Labour Party, I voted for Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives, and in between for the Liberals as they were then. I don’t think any of the parties has the universal truth at its disposal. This is mixed up with a general feeling I have always had of favouring the underdog. In the sixties, for example, the trade unions were far too powerful and consequently I began to lean in the direction of control which meant going over to the Conservative Party. In the nineteenth century capitalism was much too powerful and the working classes were suppressed in ways that were completely unacceptable, so naturally I would then have been in favour of building up the trade unions. In other words, what you need in society is a balance between opposing forces, both of which have something positive to say for themselves. In a capitalist society you must have a certain degree of freedom for the capitalist to run his particular organization; on the other hand, he must not be so powerful that he can suppress the people who are working for him.
In 1973 you were physically attacked at the LSE and prevented from lecturing. Was that in some way do you think symbolic of the times? Do you think the same thing would happen today if you had just published your book on race and intelligence?
The answer to the first question is yes. In fact, as I was always being attacked the first thought that came to my mind was that I had predicted the uprising of the fascist left and that was what I was experiencing. It was just the first occasion where a speaker was attacked at a university for political reasons, and of course it spread and even now you have people being spattered with eggs and tomatoes, which is a tragedy for the cause of free speech. It’s exactly what happened in Germany to Jewish or Marxist lecturers who dared speak their minds and were attacked by Nazi yobs and suffered exactly the same kind of fate. It is very difficult to say if the same would happen now. I think people are getting a bit more realistic, so perhaps not.
What effect did the physical attack have on you at a personal level? Did it change the way you thought about anything?
No, it didn’t really make any difference to my thinking. I took it as proof that I was right about the fascist left. It had much more serious consequences for my family. Even my children were attacked by their teacher at school on the basis of what they thought I might have said, which is of course completely unacceptable in a democratic society. In fact, we changed our name by deed poll for a while in order to protect the children, but then it blew over and we reverted to the old name.
In your research into the importance of personality in determining our susceptibility to various diseases, you say that personality can to a large extent be changed by therapy. Why can’t delinquents be changed by therapy in a similar way?
They can. The evidence is that you get a fifty-three per cent improvement in the recidivism rate by a suitable type of behaviour therapy. The reason why it isn’t done in this country, God only knows. It’s a kind of conservatism, I suppose; the Home Office is no hive of innovation.
You are the most widely read psychologist in the country, in Europe perhaps. Do you ever see that as an awesome responsibility?
Yes and no. My attitude has always been that a scientist owes society just one duty and that is to tell the truth as he sees it, that he shouldn’t pretend for any reason whatsoever that he has nothing to say, or keep quiet on sensitive issues. When I wrote this book on race, I had a lot of letters from geneticists and social psychologists who said they agreed with everything but asked not to be quoted. I think that is the wrong kind of attitude. People accused Germans when Hitler came to power of lacking civil courage; well, that is also a lack of civil courage which I think is very serious. If there are problems, it is important that we should investigate them experimentally and that we should publish the results; the debate should then take place on the basis of these results. Affirmative action has not improved the position of the blacks; if anything it has made matters worse in the United States where there is a much larger proportion of them in what they call the underclass. As a policy it has failed, therefore the theory on which it was based is probably the wrong theory. But there was no serious discussion at all, it was simply imposed without empirical evidence. To take a very simple example, we have found recently that even in well-nourished white American children living in the countryside rather than in the inner cities, about half of them have a deficit of micro nutrients, vitamins and minerals. We found that we could increase their IQ by eleven points by giving them vitamin and mineral supplements. Can you imagine how much you might improve the IQ of inner-city children who are really deprived? But nobody pays any attention to this – they are so honed in on other notions of environmental influences. We could easily raise the IQ level of most inner-city children by an enormous amount, thereby making them more successful scholastically, in their life experience, careers, and so on. But we don’t do it, we don’t even discuss it, we prefer to ignore the facts.
You have always claimed that you are seeking the truth, however unpalatable, but in that pursuit you have been accused of indifference to people’s feelings and sensibilities. Is that something that worries you at all?
It doesn’t, because I don’t believe it’s true. You might also say that Galileo and Darwin were indifferent to the sensibilities of religious people. If the truth is unpalatable, that’s too bad, but you can’t neglect it for that reason. You have to know what the facts are; you can’t solve problems on the basis of imagination.
Some people think that you enjoy conflict, that you deliberately invite controversy. Is there any truth in that?
Nobody would seek the kind of confrontation I had at the London School of Economics and on other occasions. Obviously it would be much nicer if everybody accepted my ideas immediately, gave me the Order of Merit and made me Lord Eysenck of Brixton. In the scientific field it’s true that I quite enjoy criticism, because you learn a lot from critics who pick out the weak points in your position. You can then either change your position, or strengthen it. That is the life blood of science. But the pointless political sort of controversy – no I hate it, and I’d rather be without it.
You once said, ‘Perhaps my constant rebellion and my desire for recognition have something to do with the past, but I do not wish to explore it further. There is no sound method for doing so.’ Are you at all afraid of what you might find if you were to ‘explore further’?
It isn’t that, it’s really something quite complicated. If a psychologist writes an autobiography, he is expected to be an expert on motivation, and therefore he is expected to know about his own. But the study of motivation is a disaster area as far a psychology is concerned because we simply have no methods for investigating it. How would I find out why I did a certain thing? There is no way scientifically to find it out. Of course I could give a sort of intuitive answer, but it would be a pretence; it would simply reveal what kind of person I am, whether I preferred to pretend always to have good motivations for what I do, or whether I’m honest enough to admit bad interpretations, or a mixture of the two. But it wouldn’t reveal the real truth about why I did something. It’s not that I’m afraid of finding out, it’s that I don’t know any ways of finding out. That is the simple and honest truth.
You have said that you have a very thick skin, and that your wife and family have suffered much more than you from criticism and hostility. Is susceptibility to that also genetically determined, do you think?
I’m almost certain of it. Right from the beginning, when I was a schoolboy, criticism just flowed off my back. When I thought Hitler was wrong, I said so, and whatever anybody else said simply didn’t matter to me. I couldn’t pretend otherwise simply because other people disapproved of me. Similarly, when I first brought out my article in which I showed that there was no evidence that Freudian psychotherapy was any good, there was a lot of criticism, but I just had to grin and bear it. Nowadays it is widely recognized as being correct.
In your book on marriage, you say that sixty-four per cent of factors which make for marital happiness can be measured. Even if that is so, it still leaves thirty-six per cent. Do you really believe that marriage is a proper area for scientific enquiry?
Why not? Every human activity can be looked at scientifically, and marriage is no exception. We find for instance that in happy marriages, there is a good deal of agreement on things like political attitudes, social attitudes, and when people marry others of roughly the same intelligence, that makes for a good prognosis. These are facts. It may not help us in choosing a good marriage partner, but the facts are interesting to know, and to my mind at least they may be important.
Do you think that ultimately science will be able to prove everything, or that we will be able to understand everything through scientific research?
It’s a good question, but one that doesn’t have an answer. I’m not a prophet. I would like to think the answer is yes, but I’m very doubtful. There is an obvious limit to what science will find out in physics; maybe it did all start with the Big Bang, but how can we ever know what happened before the Big Bang? I don’t think we’ll ever know all the answers, but we know a lot of the answers, and that’s the important thing.
Life, like marriage, can never be an exact science. By claiming that if things cannot be tested and measured they do not really exist, aren’t you approaching life as it were purely scientific enquiry?
I’m not saying they don’t exist. What I believe is that everything that exists, exists in some quantity and can therefore be measured. There are a lot of things we can’t measure at the moment, but that doesn’t mean we will never be able to measure them. Certainly at the moment there’s a great deal of life that we cant say anything sensible about, but it is important for society to study those areas where it can.
Would you allow that science, philosophy and religion are different paths towards the truth, and that they all have their contribution to make?
No, I wouldn’t say so. If you talk about truth you can only deal with science, in the sense that truth must be recognizable. ‘I know that my Redeemer livith’ – this may be a valid statement, but I cannot accept it as truth because there is no way of proving it. If somebody else says there is no God, no Redeemer, he may also be right. How can I ever tell which of them is correct in his assumptions? How can I discern who is speaking the truth? The only truth that is acceptable is one that is transmitted by science because it depends on fact and proof. I’m not saying that religion isn’t important, that art isn’t important…that’s quite a different matter…but truth is entirely related to science.
But would you accept that philosophy and religion all have a contribution to make?
I wouldn’t dream of denying it. Science is only one part of life and other aspects like religion and art may be more valuable than science for many people; but they are not a search for truth in this sense. We have to remember there are great individual differences between people. For me truth and facts are absolutely vital. I would always prefer to know the truth, however painful.
What do you think is the greatest harm that can be done by your profession?
I don’t think my profession as such can do any harm. Scientific knowledge of atomic fission and fusion can be made to create energy or create bombs: it’s up to the politicians. The scientist does not do harm because he has no power whatsoever; the harm is done by people misusing science, which of course is always possible.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Probably that I helped to steer people away from a purely environmentalistic notion to recognition that man is a bio-social animal, that biology does play a very important part, that heredity is crucial. When I started in psychology this was fairly universally rejected; now it is recognized and absolutely established.
If you were to live your life again, would you do anything differently?
The trouble with a question like that is that you can’t normally do what you want to do in life; what you do is determined by circumstances. O wanted to be a physicist or astronomer, but the facts of life made it impossible for me, and I was sidetracked into psychology. If I had had a choice I would have preferred to be in the hard sciences. In psychology I wanted to work in the field of learning and conditioning, but the only job I could get was in the clinical field, so I was sidetracked again. Of course, the competition in physics and astronomy is much greater than in psychology; you are dealing with a grade of intelligence that is very much higher, whereas in psychology I found it quite easy to get to the top. In the hard sciences I might easily have been second rate.