'Psychology keeps you asking questions’

Melanie Dawn Douglass studied evolutionary psychology and animal behaviour as an undergraduate before pursuing forensic psychology. She now lectures at York St John University. She talked to Ian Florance about studying in Canada and Scotland, the links between evolutionary and forensic psychology, and life as a researcher/lecturer.

Melanie Douglass did her undergraduate degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Had she always wanted to become a psychologist? ‘I filled out a questionnaire in high school as part of a school project on careers. The results suggested I should become a doctor or a teacher which I wasn’t keen on – ironic, since I teach now! The third was psychiatrist. That sounded interesting, so I did a project on that and psychology became my fallback answer when people asked what I intended to do.’

‘My degree course involved electives, but I couldn’t envisage pursuing any of them further. I did wonder if psychology was what I really wanted to do but I love animals and learning about animal behaviour, and doing a lab course in the third year hooked me. That’s when I started to consider becoming a researcher.’

What fascinates you about psychology as a subject? ‘There’s never a fully satisfying answer to the questions it asks… so it keeps you asking questions. It’s impossible to get bored with it.’ Melanie’s interest in evolutionary and forensic psychology mimics the approach that that McMaster course took. ‘It was very science-based so we hardly discussed qualitative approaches. As in many UK Russell Group universities, the course concentrated on quantitative methods which suits the evolutionary approach. Evolutionary explanations of animal behaviour made sense to me. So did the positive side of evolutionary psychology. But in my spare time I was interested in the negative side – psychological thrillers, detective dramas, true crime novels. I was influenced by professors at McMaster like Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, who were well-known for work in both evolutionary and forensic psychology – topics such as risk-taking and interpersonal violence. I ended up pursuing my Master’s in forensic psychology at Toronto, investigating the factors that predict the severity of violent reoffending. Returning to Scotland, my PhD at Glasgow Caledonian was about why people confess. It makes sense at a cognitive level; I know the predictors. But I still struggle to understand it at a human level.’

Melanie’s present research interests continue this link. In a university biography she reports that her passion is ‘the evolutionary and biological basis of human behaviour, particularly in intimate interpersonal settings’. These include partner jealousy and associated behaviours such as stalking; sexual victimisation perceptions of domestic abuse and sexual violence, including bystander behaviour. ‘The All About Respect project investigates the role of the bystander and what factors explain when they will step in – personality, gender, alcohol intake, for instance.’ Melanie supervises research in similar areas.

She has strong views about the misrepresentation of evolutionary and biological approaches to psychology. ‘They get a bad rap. One of evolutionary psychology’s essential qualities is that it’s interested in explaining why a particular behaviour occurs. It’s based on the belief that we can understand not just how something happens but why. So, when evolutionary research suggests, for instance, that some men are predisposed to rape, it’s accused of normalising that behaviour or saying it’s OK. It isn’t. The researcher is trying to understand why this is the case – it’s only then that you can do something to intervene.’

‘Many people seem to believe that if you’re using the word “genetic” in relation to behaviours you have a complete explanation, and that behaviour is predetermined. This, of course, is not true and reflects a confusion between evolutionary theory and things like Social Darwinism. Evolutionary psychology as a discipline is also often accused of being misogynistic when many of its pioneers were women. In essence we’re constantly correcting people who are talking for us and getting it wrong.’

Melanie’s love of animals bulks large in our conversation. It plainly influences her thinking. ‘Although I have a particular approach to psychology now, I’ve studied quite a wide range of approaches and applications, allowing me to draw from a much broader base. I think greater knowledge and understanding of non-human animals would be beneficial for many psychologists. It’s difficult to draw accurate conclusions when you solely study humans: for a start, you can’t put them in controlled conditions and we live too long! You can develop hypotheses if you look at humans but you need to triangulate with animals. However, there’s a prejudice against animal studies and misconceptions about what that often involves.’

I wondered if her work combining evolutionary and forensic psychology had affected her own attitudes. Melanie paused, then said, ‘I was at a BPS conference and was asked to do one of those implicit bias tasks where you have to say the first word you see in a jumble of letters. Other people saw KINDNESS. I (and the other forensic researchers) saw KNIFE. I don’t really think about it, but it has an influence: I do tend to notice negative meanings and sexual innuendo more readily.’

You suggest that there’s a real need to clear up misapprehensions about evolutionary psychology. ‘Yes, and I do try to communicate in a number of ways. Social media is one avenue. But I do it cautiously to prevent more misunderstandings.’ At the time of writing, Melanie is Chair of the Society’s North East of England branch. Does this offer opportunities for getting ideas across? ‘I think it’s generally accepted that there are too many silos in the Society. People become experts in niches; the best attended conferences tend to be for divisions. I believe I’m a better researcher for having a broader background in psychology. I think the American Psychological Association’s attitude is healthier: it seems to take a more “one psychological” approach. I believe in being the change you want to see; so I try to improve the Society from within. It’s too easy to stand outside and criticise.’

As we discussed at the beginning of our conversation, Melanie didn’t originally want to be a teacher or researcher. She’s now both. ‘They balance each other out. Researching can be lonely and – waiting for responses, for instance – tedious. Teaching is more social, and I see teaching as more like mentoring. I enjoy it, which is odd because I really don’t enjoy public speaking.’

We discussed the pandemic effect. ‘I sympathise with how hard things are for students but lecturers’ jobs have changed – they’re isolated too and have many additional demands on their time that weren’t there before, including, for many, juggling work with care. They also need more help.’

Towards the end of our discussion I asked Melanie about the practical applications of her work. ‘I think research must have practical applications. Just to give one example, with colleagues I evaluated the Northumbria Police Serious Organised Crime Divert Programme, designed to prevent vulnerable young people becoming involved in organised crime. I may not be actively involved in delivering interventions, nor do I want to do that, but I hope my research can inform them.

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