Amplifying a relationship with psychology

Ian Florance talks to social psychologist Professor Robin Goodwin.

Having studied social psychology, Robin Goodwin worked at Keele, Bristol and Brunel Universities. He is now Head of Psychology at the University of Warwick.

Robin is driven by the question of what impact large-scale societal and environmental transitions and threats have on everyday psychological processes. He has a particular interest in the ways in which individual differences combine with group and cultural variations in informing responses to these changes and threats. He takes a strongly interdisciplinary approach to this topic, working with colleagues from across the social and natural sciences.

In his answers to my e-mailed questions, Robin gives vivid examples of the sort of work he does and the challenges it poses.

Social psychologists sometimes seem to feel out of place in psychology departments. Do you find this and, if so, why do you think that is?
In the last decade or so the general perception has certainly been that social psychology has been marginalised in favour of other areas of psychology; most notably in recent years, neuropsychology. There have certainly been larger finances available for projects which involve techniques such as fMRI, which do cost rather more to conduct. Of course, money talks in academic departments as much as anywhere else! Furthermore, the citation impact rates in the natural sciences are usually higher than in social sciences, and this has further increased the feeling that social psychologists are contributing less to a department’s overall standing.

However I should add that the increasing recognition of the significance of the societal impact of academic research (beyond academia) can help redress this balance, as much social psychological thinking has strong application value. At Warwick, for example, I am building networks of colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines to address issues of global significance. In addition, in a marketplace where students have increased power, social psychology is recognised as an attractive subject for many students and if taught well can help enhance student satisfaction with a course.

How did you first get interested in psychology?
I am afraid I was a bit of a ‘psychology nerd’ at an early age… I read the collected works of Freud when I was around 16, followed by Jung and Adler soon after. Adler made me realise that I was really interested in social psychology, so I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Kent – at that time one of the few places you could study social psychology as a degree in itself – and was fortunate enough to get an ESRC scholarship to carry on my PhD there.

Tell me a bit about your training. What did you like and dislike about it? Did you always know what you were going to do and what areas you would specialise in? What influenced you?
My training was for a traditional British PhD – a very long thesis (> 100,000 words) in three volumes, with lots of studies (seven). Looking back I could have probably done with a bit more intense statistics training, although I did become something of an expert in my sub-sub-subfield.

You’ve worked internationally a lot as a visiting professor. Are there differences between how psychology is regarded, taught and organised around the world?
There are obvious differences. For example, a theory I sometimes use – social representations theory – is widely used and taught in South America and continental Europe but rarely covered in North America or the UK. Psychoanalysis too is much more heavily covered in some continents than others. In some countries, Japan is an example, arrangements are perhaps a little more formal than in others. However in terms of working arrangements in universities I suspect that much of the difference is within as well as between countries. There were, for example, many variations between the University of Tokyo, where I spent two months, and the smaller Yamaguchi University, where I recently spent a similar time.

What are the differences between psychology now and when you started? Have students attitudes and expectations changed?
I think students are not so different, but their expectations have changed a great deal with the introduction of higher fees. This does mean that they really expect value for money! Throughout the university system lecturers are more attentive now to their teaching style and interactions with their students; which, to be honest, is probably a good thing. In addition, we recognise that our role now extends to providing ‘aftercare’ to our students once they complete our course, helping them make a successful transition into rewarding graduate jobs.

You specialise in working on large-scale transitions in society. Can you give a flavour of some of these projects?
I obtained my PhD in 1989, the time when the old Soviet Union began to collapse. I met a Russian psychologist at a conference who inspired me to study the impact of changes in Central and Eastern Europe on people’s everyday relationships – their friendships, sexual risk taking, marriages, trust in one another, and so on. I conducted several studies on these topics in a number of countries in this region. I also became interested in the interpersonal relations of migrant populations when the changes they go through are more selective – first in a study of Chinese migrants in different European countries and more recently in a three-wave longitudinal analysis of Poles in the UK. Much of my most recent work has been on the interpersonal impacts and mental health implications of large-scale threats in a society, both natural and human made; terrorist attacks, pandemics, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, hurricanes. I currently have projects working with data from more than 20,000 refugees from the Great East Japan earthquake, Typhoon Haiyan and a longitudinal study of the relationship implications of the recent political tensions in Egypt.

Presumably this sort of work is quite emotionally and professionally taxing? What support mechanisms do you need in terms of personal support and CPD to address these?
The work can certainly be challenging: I was in Japan on sabbatical at Tokyo University during the Great East Japan earthquake, living by chance in a ‘radiation hotspot’ outside of Tokyo following the Fukushima accidents. That was certainly interesting, and a little emotionally taxing although, of course, I cannot complain as I was fine (unlike the 20,000 killed by the tsunami). Indeed, I recently returned to Fukushima for a meeting held by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). To be honest it is usually my students and colleagues who have been more on the ‘front line’ collecting data than myself – for example, a Japanese student of mine spent time living in Fukushima collecting data from those affected, other students collecting data for us have been living in an area hit by a typhoon, etc.

What are your future aims and objectives?
I am currently developing a theoretical model which looks in more detail at the interpersonal implications of large-scale social changes and threats – this is a theory of ‘relationship amplification’ which, simply put, aims to spell out the mechanisms by which intimate relationships get closer, but more distant ones can rapidly decline during major stressors. Much of my work also has a strong health emphasis: I am currently extending my work on culture and pandemics and other infectious disease threats, looking at the ways in which culture moderates our responses to contagious disease in particular. I am also working more on psychological responses to another major contemporary threat  – climate change. In all this work I aim to bring a strong ‘applied’ angle, showing how interventions can be made to help alleviate a threat or the suffering following a major stressor.

Where do you see your areas of psychology in 10 years’ time? Where do you think it can contribute to society?
Social psychology broadly has had a challenging time in the last decade or so, as I suggested above. However, with the increased focus on applied/translational research I feel social psychologists can really come into their own, as they can contribute directly to many major issues facing our society today, and can also work well with others in both different areas of psychology and other related fields (e.g. medicine) to show how our social behaviour (our norms, values, etc.) interact with the environment and key aspects of biology (e.g. the characteristics of a particular pathogen). This should then open up the opportunities for substantial funding opportunities. In the area of post-disaster psychology and psychiatry, major international bodies (such as IAEA) are increasingly recognising the contribution of social scientists in helping deal with large population threats, so again I think there is a lot we can contribute. I am therefore optimistic about our contribution!

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