‘You have to find a way of bringing psychological concepts to life’
So, how did you end up being a psychologist?
My career has been part serendipity, part design. I got a psychology degree rather by accident because I started off studying physics. I wasn’t really enjoying it, and psychology looked more fun, so I swapped into psychology in my second year at university. I wasn't a good student, to put it mildly, so didn't carry on past undergraduate.
Some years later, pursuing a fairly dissolute life and having failed to make the Olympics show jumping team, I ended up unemployed and on the terrace at Nottingham Forest Football Club, when someone standing nearby said that the local Further Education college needed a part-time psychology teacher. I thought I could do that, so I applied, got an interview and I happened to be the only person who turned up for an interview. Being the sole interviewee has helped on a number of occasions in my life. In fact, those are the jobs I have got – even for the Head of Department of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, I was the only person left standing after two others had turned the job down.
So your advice to aspiring psychologists is get rid of the opposition?
Make sure nobody else turns out, that's your only hope. Anyway, I started teaching psychology at the Further Education college and realised I really enjoyed it. Teaching was something I could do. I never thought I would, but I really enjoyed it. When you have to explain something to people, it's a whole different ball game from simply understanding it yourself. With teaching, I got a chance to stand up in front of people, burble away about things that interested me, vaguely amuse people with my lame attempts at humour, and I largely got very good feedback for it [Phil was awarded the British Psychological Society’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology Education in 2013 and consistently received glowing feedback from the students he taught]. And education is a largely very positive place to work. I mean, you, Belinda, are going into prisons and largely they're very miserable places. They are places of the human spirit being crushed and only a few people getting out of it, whereas in education the majority of people are moving on. And you see people progress and change even more in a further education college than you do teaching at university. Most people at the Further Education college were school rejectors or had been rejected by school and there was such a diverse group of people, it was brilliant.
But back to the serendipity, I started to get involved with the Association for the Teaching of Psychology (ATP) as, initially, I hoped it would help me find out how to teach psychology better. I was the only psychology teacher who attended the Association meetings so when the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Exam Board wanted to create a GCSE in psychology, they looked for someone on the committee that would be cheap. Consequently they picked the person from the ATP that would have the least travel expenses and that was me. I presumed they invited me because they’d heard of me or something, but no… it was just that I was cheap. When I got there, no one else on the committee really wanted to write the GCSE curriculum, so I wrote it with a friend of mine, Nicky Hayes. We wrote most of the syllabus over a weekend and it was great fun as we had a blank sheet to write from. The syllabus went well and attracted a lot of students and so I was invited to write an A-level syllabus, again from scratch. You don’t get offers like this very often. So I think my contribution to psychology is really around that: I had an effect on the national curriculums.
And what did you do with that blank sheet? What did you put in the GCSE and A-level, and why?
I wanted it to be fun so that people enjoyed it when they studied it or taught it. Teachers told us their students sometimes laughed when they saw the exam paper, and why not. We had things in the exam which you couldn't prepare rote answers for as the questions were so off the wall. But they mostly worked. We also focused on diversity for all manner of reasons but crucially because the GCSE and A-level courses attracted and still attract a very diverse cohort of students.
Yes, you have always been a strong advocate for EDI [Equality, Diversity and Inclusion]. I remember we were co-editing a book years ago and you completely rewrote one of the chapters because you were concerned about the (unchallenged) racism that had been inherent in some of the research in the chapter.
Yes, it bothered me. And it bothers me a lot now that I didn't push harder on it. Psychology has a history of promoting and tolerating racist ideas and I think we are being very slow to confront that. Looking back, I think I could have pushed it further. I regret that.
I wanted to ask you about your favourite key study in psychology, but I think I can guess which it is.
Yes, it’s the doll study on racial identity by Clark and Clark (1940). I think this was the most influential study in social psychology and is still under-rated. The results were used in numerous court cases across the States culminating in the Supreme Court hearing in 1954 where the principles of segregation were ruled unconstitutional. It arguably fired the starting gun for the Civil Rights Movement. There is no study in psychology with greater impact. And this is the only study I ever thought of trying to replicate. We got a plan to update it and run it in Nottingham schools but there was no way that the education authority were going to allow something like that to be run in local schools. That was probably a good thing actually, because we had not put nearly enough thought into it.
So, returning to your timeline, you are working in Further Education, writing the OCR A-level Psychology curriculum and exams, and it is here you started what has become a prolific publishing career in psychology textbooks.
Yes, while working in Further Education, Nicky (Hayes) and I got a book contract. Again we started to write an unusual book; instead of having chapter 1 all about cognitive psychology, chapter 2 about biological psychology, we took a particular concept such as self-efficacy, and tried to say how this concept was used in applied areas, such as occupational, clinical and educational psychology. Looking back, it was a really good piece of work, not perfect by any means, but quite novel in the way we approached the book content.
And the books we have been editing together (Sage Essential Psychology and Sage Essential Research Methods)… well, given your input, none of them were going to be straightforward. They were always going to be coming from a slightly skewed angle. And I mean that as a compliment.
Yeah, I think you have to find a hook for people, don't you? Every academic can get lost in their own detail and we have all been to research talks and seen the way people just get so excited about their small effect sizes and the imperceptible differences on their graph. Really, you have to find a way of bringing psychological concepts to life. When I write or teach, I'll take an everyday thing and try and look at the psychology in it. I used to do a revision talk on walking my dog, and how you could see all of psychology in this everyday event. For older readers, this was the equivalent of Deck of Cards.
This is one of your trademarks, which we love you for, shaking people out of a rut and doing things differently.
I think with psychology you can make people think differently. I mean, Psychology hasn't created anything. Physics split the Atom, Chemistry catalogued periodic table, Biology has evolution, Genetics the human genome. What has psychology got? We haven't even got a by-product of it, like the non-stick frying pan… I made that comment to this magazine’s editor at a conference one, and it sparked a bit of a search. Despite that, I think psychology is a wonderful thing because it makes people think differently.
And making people think differently, challenging the status quo is a theme in your life whether it's structures, racism, authority, or convention. I’m thinking now of the infamous cupcakes incident which we cannot possibly leave out. Please tell us how you got into trouble about some cupcakes.
Yes, well by now I had been appointed as a lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University and I had to write course descriptor documents for the central university standards committee describing the psychology modules we were running at Level 4 and 5. I knew nobody read them so I included, as one of the Level 4 Psychology learning outcomes, making cupcakes with one arm tied behind your back. And as I needed to create course descriptors for Level 5 students at the same time, and because the learning outcomes needed to show progression between level 4 and 5, I included the advanced learning outcome of making cupcakes with both arms tied behind your back. But I genuinely put it in for a laugh, not to upset people. I thought we would have a giggle, but I missed the meeting that validated the course and it got validated without anyone noticing. Three years later my documents were used at a training meeting as examples of best practice, and I got found out. But it showed how people don't read these documents.
You have got to do stuff like that in life though. It’s waking the world up out of its lethargy. Trying to puncture pomposity I suppose? But I'm taking the high moral ground here, as partly I did it out of boredom. I really can't bear documents like that and it's just waiting there to be done.
That leads on nicely to an initiative that you have been a champion of – the Ig Nobels.
Yeah, we’ve brought the conference to NTU a few times and I've tried one or two of them. I tried the one about swearing and pain in a student conference. I asked for a volunteer to place their hand in freezing cold water to test the hypothesis that swearing relieves pain. But I had two kids in the audience volunteer at the same time so I let them both do the experiment, not thinking it through at all. They competed against each other as to how long they could keep their hands in the ice cold water. Instead of taking their hands out after 30 seconds, they were still there three minutes later, and I started to fear tissue damage. We couldn't get them to shout out swear words because they just kept their hands in the water indefinitely and were clearly prepared to die to beat the other person. So yeah, that didn’t work so well. But the Ig Nobels are brilliant – their motto is ‘Science that makes you laugh and then makes you think’.
Is that not you, summed up?
That would be a brilliant epitaph. Well, I think people learn when they're happy, I don't see why you shouldn't laugh when you go into an exam room.
So, moving to a horribly conventional question: looking back over your career, with the last four years as Head of Department in NTU Psychology, what is your legacy?
I think it's always a danger when you're Head of Department that you think you've had a greater effect than you have. I’m just one of a number of people at NTU trying to help other people do stuff in a nice way, a compassionate way, with an occasionally quirky sense of humour. I hope that I've helped people or contributed to them moving on. Actually someone phoned me up this weekend, an ex-student I hadn’t spoken to for 20 years. She left a message on my answerphone. I think she’d been moved by Covid and just said thank you very much. It was very touching. It makes me reflect on the responsibility of being a teacher. And that's the delight of it – educating people gives people opportunities. You help people – to think differently, to think for themselves so that people have more control of their lives and a greater awareness of what is possible. Psychology is a moral science of action rather than a kind of natural science of things. What we do in the end is how psychology will be judged. How it changes society, how it makes our lives happier and better, and how it makes people challenge assumptions, think differently and yes, try to have fun while doing so.
And where next for you?
I’d love to be an advocate for Psychology, nationally and internationally. So, if the BPS are looking for a new president…
As long as no one else goes for the role?
Exactly. If not, Plan B is to catch up on the back catalogue of Homes Under the Hammer.
- All the best to Phil from us… find more in our archive.
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