A rollercoaster ride

Ian Florance talks to Claudia Hammond about how she has put her background in academic psychology to good use in her broadcasting career

I interviewed Claudia Hammond in a London café on the day before the first episode of her new BBC Radio 4 series was broadcast. State of Mind tells the story of mental health care in the UK from the 1950s to the present. Many readers will know her regular programme All in the Mind, perhaps the most important source of psychological ideas in the UK media.

Early on in the interview the café fuse box blew. Struggling to scribble notes in the gloom increased the anxiety of interviewing someone quoted on the BBC Radio 4 website as saying: ‘The great thing about this job is getting to interview some of the most brilliant researchers in the world...’ and who commented: ‘It’s a really luxury to be able to decide what I want to ask them.’

So, how did Claudia become one of the most listened to and read UK psychologists after a period as a greyhound tipster? And why does she tend to be seated next to new-age enthusiasts at weddings?

I asked her what came first – psychology or the media. ‘I was at a children’s book festival and, after I had queued up to get Roald Dahl’s autograph, he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I’m told I said “I want to work in radio”. That was the first my parents knew about it. It was probably the first time I realised.’

It seems radio work was the constant. Claudia worked local stations in parallel to and between school and university. Her interest in psychology developed out of that. ‘Claudia’s Sunday Requests on Hospital Radio Bedford was not an award-winning production’, she says (though Claudia is still listed on their website). ‘I started it when I was 14. I went round the wards asking for requests and I found myself going in earlier and staying longer. Patients told me their stories and details of their illnesses and treatments. This was what got me interested in psychology, maybe what even led to me doing a postgraduate degree in health psychology.’ Not that this educational path was a foregone conclusion. ‘Before going to Sussex to do a degree in applied psychology I worked at Three Counties Radio as a newsroom assistant. Watching news stories come in and going in and out of the studios during live programmes was incredibly exciting. Occasionally I’d get on air too: the first time was giving blood on the breakfast programme. So I can say I’ve given blood for the BBC! I thought about staying on but was convinced I should get a degree. My friends thought I’d do media studies, but I wanted to learn about something new. So I did a degree in applied psychology at Sussex.’

Claudia’s book Emotional Rollercoaster displays her fascination with research findings. This started during her first degree. ‘I liked the experimental aspect of the work – setting up a hypothesis then testing it. I also found I liked the range of psychology – the number of different areas it studies and affects, the different ways of doing it. I knew I didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist, although I did think about going into research. But at the time I was also working at Radio Sussex so I was torn between psychology and radio.’

Claudia undertook an MSc in health psychology at Surrey University, researching doctor–patient communication in a breast cancer unit. Her first job on national radio – as a journalist on Radio Five Live – marked a real change. ‘I’d done the greyhound racing tips on local radio, but now I was dealing with sports stories as well as breaking news. I’m hardly an expert on sport. This, along with watching a piece on horse insemination involving recording people doing extraordinary things with drainpipes, are two of my odder media experiences.’

Claudia stressed that she’s always been and remains freelance rather than a staff member. ‘In a sense I was trying to keep parallel careers going, as a reporter on the one hand and as a psychology lecturer on the other.’ But whatever strange tasks she undertook as a journalist, she was always looking to develop items on psychology and wider health issues. ‘I began to start reporting on Radio 4 series such as Woman’s Hour and All in the Mind.’

Claudia was then able to bring the two together, presenting a wide range of programmes that reflect her earlier fascination with psychology’s breadth: it covers memory, group psychology, positive psychology, conformity and sports psychology, among many other subjects. There’s also a strand that looks at wider health and biological science issues: fingerprints, the experience of miscarriage. ‘I have a weekly programme Health Check on the BBC World Service. This has led to some extraordinary experiences and gives me a chance to get a more global view of health provision. Visiting the biggest brothel in the world was quite extraordinary.’ (You can read her fascinating Guardian article on this at tinyurl.com/da49oq).

Claudia also has a regular column in Psychologies, originally a French magazine but now available in a number of European editions. She describes it as a ‘women’s glossy monthly magazine that’s different from any other, because there’s no fashion’. Her first book, on the science of emotions, was published in 2005 to excellent reviews.

She chairs conferences and lectures too. ‘I started at the OU and now lecture on two courses – Social Psychology Issues in the UK and Health Psychology for Boston University’s UK base. I love doing this. Students challenge you and expose you to different views and I like having to keep up to date for those lectures.’

Claudia must also surely be the only psychologist to appear alongside bands, comedians, novelists and poets at the Latitude Festival in 2008.

In the gathering gloom of the London café it was sometimes difficult to keep up with the sheer range of Claudia’s activities. What is the common thread running through them?

‘Sometimes if I go to a wedding I’m put next to someone who is “interested in psychology”. Quite often, this person turns out to want to talk about chakras, read my aura, compare crystals or some other new-age topic. People are fascinated with psychology but they don’t always understand what academic psychology covers. They link it to fringe beliefs and activities. There can be a misunderstanding among people who set out to study psychology. Sometimes they think it will help them work through their problems.’

In an interview included in her book, Claudia expanded on this. ‘It’s not a self-help subject… for the most part psychology today is about the study of large numbers of people; it’s not about introspection.’

So Claudia says she is trying to ‘give people a better understanding of the role psychology plays. Helping people articulate and get across a seemingly technical piece of good research is central to my approach. I also like bringing different specialists together – it’s amazing how often people who are hugely expert in one area of psychology know next to nothing about related work in a slightly different field. I really enjoy it when two people involved in a discussion exchange cards on the way to the lift and decide they might do some work together. One suggested I set up a matchmaking service for academics!’

You’ve met some very well-known psychologists. Do they intimidate you? ‘I interviewed Philip Zimbardo in his house and he cooked pizza for us. It’s a privilege to meet and listen to such people. But, the advantage is that I’ve got a role, an excuse for being there as an interviewer for the BBC - and I’ve done my homework. So I’m not frightened. I like to be in control, so that I don’t get in the way and you hear the ideas from the horse’s mouth. Reading journal articles is one thing, but hearing someone actually talk about their research can really bring it to life.

‘I can’t emphasise too much how my experience as a reporter and producer in my early media career has helped me. Understanding how the media works as well as knowing your subject is crucial. But it’s more than that. The experience of working in a local radio newsroom and at 5Live taught me about balance and fairness in discussions, something that’s crucial even in non-news programme like All in the Mind. My personal opinions are irrelevant when it comes to a programme like that – it’s all about letting everyone have a fair say and critically questioning their research and viewpoints.’This led us on to Claudia’s advice for psychologists seeking too communicate their ideas. Here are her key points.

I     Be choosy: don’t accept everything.
I     Popular programmes are fine – ‘I sometimes go on Richard & Judy to talk about psychological research – but if I think a show is going to dumb it down, I say no. And sometimes they’re looking for is a qualified therapist, and that’s not me.’
I     Ask plenty of questions beforehand on the phone (not when you arrive at the studio), so that you can think about what you’re going to say.
I     Don’t agree to talk about subjects you know nothing about. Have some research in mind that backs up what you’re saying, but be realistic about how detailed you can be – this isn’t the place for a critique of research methods and stats.
I     If you choose the programme well, the interviewer and interviewee are in it together. The interviewer wants to make the interviewee look good because its makes a better programme.
I     Psychology is something worth talking about. ‘It’s a pity when good researchers are nervous about getting their research out there where the public can hear about it. There’s such an appetite for psychology amongst the public that it would be great to see some really good TV programmes made on the subject.’

In near pitch blackness I asked Claudia what her plans were for future programmes, series and books. I was aware that this might be asking her to give too much away about submissions to the BBC or her publishers and she thought long and hard about it. The next day I received an e-mail which is worth quoting:

‘What I hope might happen in  the future is that just as the field of economics is suddenly catching on to the decades of psychological research on decision-making, that other fields might start to do the same and to realise that there’s all this research out there which could be put into practice. Expert panels and commissions wouldn’t dream of not including an economist. I’d like to see a day when they all have a psychologist too.’

 

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