‘They were all obsesssed with a single question’

David Edmonds has put together a forthcoming episode of Archive on 4, on post-war psychology and its Jewish roots. Jon Sutton asked him about it.

The social psychologist Steve Reicher, a contributor to your upcoming episode of Archive on 4, on post-war psychology and its Jewish roots, describes you as ‘a real friend of psychology’. As a journalist, what draws you to our discipline?

Well, I have a portfolio existence. I am a journalist for some of the week – at the BBC. But I spend a day a week at Oxford, attached to the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. My academic background is in philosophy.

But over the past few years I’ve become fascinated by psychology. I’m not quite sure why! My area of philosophical expertise is ethics… so obviously a central question is ‘How should one behave?’… but I’ve become equally interested in the ‘why’… why do people think the way they do, what influences them? This has led me into psychology and neuroscience.

What first got you interested in making a programme about social psychology’s Jewish roots?
The origin of this particular programme lies in a 30 second contribution from Steve in a programme I made on the Replication Crisis. He said, and I paraphrase, ‘one of the problems these days is that academics lack passion. In the old days they really cared about getting it right.’ And he mentioned the Holocaust and some of the early influential figures. I pitched a programme to Radio 4 who immediately commissioned it. The archive slot is the only one hour programme on the network.

Is there anything distinctive about the approach of these Jewish figures?
Well, it would be silly to claim that all the important founding figures in experimental social psychology were Jewish. Gordon Allport, Muzafer Sherif and others were not! But a vastly disproportionate number were, and for an obvious reason. They were all obsessed by a single question. How could the Holocaust have occurred? Hence the focus on conformity, obedience, discrimination etc. Lewin, Moscovici, Asch, Tajfel, Milgram – the five I focus on – all lost relatives. Only Milgram was not a refugee, but his family had relatives back in the Old Country. Milgram’s obedience experiments, of course, coincided with the Eichmann trial.

The programme I’m presenting (The Science of Evil) weaves the lives of the social psychologists with their ideas. It includes some great anecdotes, such as Asch’s memory of a seder in Poland, when his uncle convinced him that the Prophet Elijah had drunk from the cup of wine left for him. 

Who is your particular favourite figure you feature, and why?
I’ve got rather obsessed with my five main characters – and like one’s children, I hesitate to name a favourite. In experimental terms, I am most taken with Tajfel’s Minimal Group Paradigm experiments and Asch’s conformity experiments.

What advice would you have for psychologists contributing to programmes such as yours?
Tricky to offer this in a vacuum… but I’ve noticed over the years that the most impressive academics are those who are least nervous about qualifying everything they say! A programme is not an academic paper. A message can be straightforward without being inaccurate.

From a journalistic / broadcasting perspective, where do you think psychology is at?
I think psychologists remain in huge demand. There are some programmes… e.g. The Why Factor, which almost invariably feature a psychologist. The replication crisis has made me a bit cautious about citing the latest sexy study – but my colleagues less so!

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