I met Michal Kosinski when searching for someone to speak at a conference on the future of European psychological testing. The brief was to find someone who would challenge received opinions – and Michal certainly did that, as well as hinting at a CV that seems amazingly varied and busy for someone who says he’s at the start of his career.
The interview was carried out over Skype, which is appropriate given Michal’s involvement in the relationship of psychology and social networking.
I asked him first about growing up in Poland.
‘I needed something to help me in my business second-life’
‘As kids we were vaguely aware of the 1989 change in Polish society, but it had a huge influence on our generation. Poland was a relatively poor country. We knew what the Western world had to offer – I listened to the Beatles and saw that people wore jeans, had nice houses and cars – but had little access to it. My parents were relatively well-off computer scientists. But the new reality after ’89 favoured entrepreneurs, while trained professionals had a harder time. For city dwellers, at least, it created an intensely competitive rat race, the like of which I’ve not seen anywhere else – not even in the USA. Whatever view you have of Polish people, according to OECD rankings they are in the top three hardest workers in the world. Many people work 12–14 hours a day and have three jobs.’
Michal said that given all of this, Polish parents imprinted on their children that you didn’t waste time. ‘Most of my peers worked really hard at school, had extra tuition, learned two or three foreign languages and rarely finished their homework before 10pm.’
I asked Michal whether he went to university straight away or started a job. ‘I don’t know anyone from my high school who didn’t go to university. If your parents were educated, it was unimaginable not to go. I started a maths and economics course. Maths is a lot of fun and basic arithmetic skills are really useful in everyday life but, at university level, it becomes a virtual subject.
In the long term it becomes highly applicable – in high-level finance for instance – but it takes years to get to that level. I’m very practical – I want what I do to have a practical relevance.
I needed something that would help me in my business second-life. That’s why I moved to psychology after a few months.’
Michal describes reading a number of psychology books, including Robert Cialdini’s works on influencing others, as a turning point. ‘In society, psychologists are often seen as very impractical figures and psychology as an ivory tower subject. My experience was exactly the opposite. Go to five minutes of a psychology lecture, read the first few pages of a psychology text and you’ll learn something that is applicable whatever you do – as a business person, a politician, a parent, a sports competitor.’
‘I wanted to change the world’
‘I can’t really remember when I had my first computer but, by my second year at high school, I could find my way round one very easily. Remember that, in those days, computers weren’t black boxes designed for everyone. You had to find out how they worked to make them work. In Poland, computers were expensive and people would put home-made versions together from different components. I started constructing computers for other people and getting paid for it. I could put five together in a week after school. I quickly figured out that if I employed school friends we could put together a lot more. We pretty soon got into computer repair. By the time I left high school I had a company providing an income higher than my parents.’
During the summer between school and university Michal discovered internet cafés. ‘You could play online computer games in them, something domestic bandwidth didn’t allow at that time.
I figured that if I started an internet café I could combine business with pleasure. In the first week I discovered that running the place was much more interesting than playing the games.’ Michal’s café chain focused on games-playing teens: ‘Adults came in for 10 minutes to check mail; teens would pay for eight hours games playing.’
The psychology he was learning underpinned all this activity. ‘On my course I specialised in business negotiations and online consumer behaviour. I researched online auctions, doing experiments on eBay to see if there was a ‘sweet spot’ of price and timing that would optimise purchases. This all fed into building online stores for clients, then optimising their effectiveness.’
I’m surprised that I‘m not now reading about Michal’s growing Polish technology empire instead of interviewing him as he completes a PhD while acting as Operations Director at the Psychometrics Centre, Cambridge University. ‘Given everything I was doing it took seven years to finish my five-year master’s course. And at that point I felt
I hit a glass wall. At this time most of my friends were just starting their careers in the corporate world, hating their jobs but longing for benefits. I understood that a good salary and working hard are not the only things in life. I guess that moment tends to come later in their lives for most people – you can’t allow yourself to think like that when you are paying back mortgage, raising kids, and so on. It might sound pompous, but I wanted to change the world, and it is not so easy to get to changing the world when you are running an IT company in Poland and you are not Mark Zuckerberg, so I decided to drop everything and restart on a different level. I applied for a PhD to Cambridge and Oxford. My current boss, Professor John Rust, director of the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre took me on.’
‘A wonderful combination of business and academic’
It’s been a huge change for him. ‘I was used to constant feeling of responsibility and urgency, working 12 hours a day and spending three hours on the phone, picking up a textbook in between business meetings. Cambridge offered a slower, less adrenaline-oriented life style. At the beginning I wasn’t sure if I could live without the challenges of my entrepreneurial life. It turned out, however, that the Centre offers a wonderful combination of business and academic atmosphere. We are involved in a number of commercial and scientific projects – we develop tests used in recruitment, education, health monitoring, as well as collaborating with governments and companies, like Microsoft, in many projects. There’s a full teaching programme and more than a dozen students and interns undertake research and help out with our projects. You get time to think and discuss your ideas with your students and other researchers, but your thinking is constantly reality-checked when you present them to commercial customers or policy makers.’
‘People tend to think of academia and academic careers in very specific way. You study for years being told what to do, become a junior lecturer, work your way up and after a very long time, with good luck and the death of senior academics, you may become a professor. It’s very much not like that here at the Centre. John Rust may not be the youngest professor in the department, but he’s definitely the most open-minded one.
He encourages fresh ideas and supports the researchers and students in whatever crazy projects they are willing to do.
For instance, while many established academics have very limited understanding of things like Facebook or Twitter, we are actively researching them thanks to the experience and enthusiasm of young researchers and students.’
The dangers of ignorance of modern psychology
During his presentation at the conference I mentioned, Michal introduced one of the Centre’s projects, myPersonality.org, an online application that allows its users to take real personality and IQ tests and receive feedback in a variety of non-conventional environments. It gives a flavour of how Michal’s work is questioning some traditional thinking. So far, more than six million people have participated, and most of them gave their consent to use their scores and detailed profiles in academic research. This project is not only valuable for the participants, who can learn more about different aspects of their personality, but also provides unprecedented amounts of research data. And all of this with virtually no financial investment. I asked Michal if he thinks the internet is transforming psychology.
‘The internet and services like e-mail, Twitter, Wikipedia, and Wikileaks, empower individuals, even in the least democratic countries, by providing them with virtually unlimited access to each other and to information about other people. In more affluent societies, products, services, and ideas compete on a global scale, while consumers can easily switch between them, voting with a mouse click. You need psychology both to understand and to cater for this volatile and empowered population. Arab regimes are experiencing the dangers of ignorance in modern psychology as we speak.’
‘Also, as we increasingly interact with software and machines, such as games, search engines, iPads and, soon, personal robots, there’s a strong need to plant in them a deeper understanding of users’ needs, moods, desires, and so on. Psychology is the solution, and we now have a lot of collaborations going on with computer scientists and big software and hardware developing companies.’
And what does the future hold? For the first time in the interview there’s a long pause. ‘I’m not really sure. If I’m honest, I’m really happy to be where I am. I want to make it last as long as possible.’
The importance of, and the relative lack of, links between UK companies and universities has long been documented. Michal is an example who sees the two sectors feeding into each other. Psychology has impacted his own business activities, and commerce has proved a fertile subject for psychological research. His fascination with technology has led him to view an area with a very long tradition – psychometrics – in a completely new light, and he believes that the same could apply in wider psychological areas. But as this section of The Psychologist is concerned with careers it’s fascinating to hear his views that psychological knowledge is essential for a wide range of jobs, not to mention other aspects of life.
- For more information on Michal and his work at the Psychometric Centre see www.psychometrics.cam.ac.uk
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