Eysenck – a competitive streak

Philip Corr provides a timely reminder of the huge influence Hans Eysenck had on British psychology for many years (‘The centenary of a maverick’, March 2016). Like many others I first came across him through reading his popular psychology books. Without doubt he more than any other psychologist helped raise the profile of scientific psychology in the UK. For that psychology owes him a great debt. It is shocking that he was never made a Fellow of the BPS.

From 1970 to 1975 I worked in the Psychology Department at the Institute of Psychiatry. Eysenck was the head of department. He would have remained an elusive figure to someone in my position had I not been a keen tennis player. Eysenck loved to play tennis, was an excellent player and would seek out youngsters like myself to play against. Once I got over my shyness at being in the changing room with him, and once I realised that he was not one for small talk, I could relax.

Though not one for small talk, he was willing to share his thoughts about psychology even with one as junior as I was. He told me once that he was having difficulty with writing a book on reminiscence, it was taking longer than normal, and it troubled him because it got in the way of his tennis! On another occasion he asked me what explanation I might have for recent empirical findings that astrological signs accurately predicted certain personality types. I struggled to come out with a few ideas all of which he had already thought of.

He was a formidable opponent both on the court and in academic debate. I once played him at squash; I was a novice, and I won only one rally and that was from a mishit on his part. I turned and saw him practising the correct stroke!

In my last game of tennis with him, I managed to win. At the net I told him I had applied for a lectureship elsewhere and asked if he would give me a reference. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Plays good tennis in a strong wind.’ A rare joke that also revealed his fundamental competitiveness. There was no strong wind.

John Marzillier
Oxford

Editor’s note: To mark the centenary of Eysenck’s birth, there is a special edition in our new app, which can be downloaded via http://tinyurl.com/psychmagapp

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber