…and while we’re on The Subject

… of diversity, following last week’s blog about multicultural Camberwell, let’s detour to another type of diversity: diversity in psychology. By that I don’t mean the woeful under-representation of BME academic staff, or the under-performance of some student groups, although both of those are scandals that need addressing. And I am not referring to the psychological study of diverse populations (although a quick plug for Lindsey Cameron and my forthcoming SI “Growing Up With Diversity” – coming in 2017!) No, I am going to talk this week about British psychology’s strange intolerance for divergence, the unusual and the truly innovative. The growing lack of diversity in terms of the discipline of psychology itself. Be in no doubt, British psychology has a real problem with diversity.

Diverse brains

In British psychology a one-size-fits all approach to methodology, topics and curricula is stifling the discipline and stifling its development. Serge Moscovici (whose work was celebrated in a symposium in Paris last week) once said something along the lines that when a discipline becomes obsessed with a specific method or approach over and above the topics or problems it is trying to solve, that discipline is moribund. How true. British psychology has been heading that way for some time and only latterly have organisations like BPS begun to develop a more muscular approach to defend the discipline’s identity. In its desperate panic to project itself as a “proper” science, British psychology, the RAE, REF, and certain funding councils have pushed sub-disciplines like educational, biological and social psychology to the margins.

Exhortations by the recent REF panel, that all forms of psychological research would be valued, were honest, but almost entirely ignored by departments. Perhaps we ought not blame them. The damage started in RAE2001 when, trying to cling on to higher-banded funding, what were deemed to be more “sciencey” areas of the discipline were disproportionately valued over others. And it was compounded in the disastrous RAE2008 (disastrous for psychology, that is) where the psychology panel indulgently sought to assert its intellectual credentials by awarding a lower number of top ratings to outputs than almost any other discipline. By REF2014, even though the panel included highly esteemed, open-minded and qualitative researchers, and even though panel feedback was that outputs from areas like social and developmental psychology tended to perform better than areas like cognitive neuroscience, the damage had been done. Departments submitted social, organisational and forensic psychologists to social policy or health panels, developmental psychologists to the education panel, and clinical psychologists to medicine or allied health panels. Some really daft departments submitted only half their staff and lost a bomb of money. There, in sharp relief, is demonstration of the providence of Moscovici’s prophecy.

Rumour has it that no occupational psychologist was submitted to the REF2014 panel 4. Not one. Think about it. That means that in a nation with a GDP of £2.85 trillion, the 5th largest economy in the world (in 2015 that is), no single psychologist who works with the structures or operations of industry, the public sector or any company of any kind was viewed to have produced research of adequate quality to be included in the psychology panel. Of course, many do great work and were submitted elsewhere. But psychology, the discipline and its research image, didn’t claim a single blade of that “turf” in REF2014. That’s not so much a case of British psychology shooting itself in the foot, as a case of placing one leg in the gun barrel of a Challenger tank and pulling the trigger.

Shoot footA narrow view of the discipline pervades universities. One hears of students being banned from conducting qualitative projects, academics prevented from submitting grant applications (not just stupid, a special kind of stupid), social and clinical psychologists moved to teaching-only contracts, and anything that strays away from a narrow, experimental design getting disparaged and slowly crushed. The disrespect from colleagues in different sub-disciplines is both baffling and appalling. How did we come to this? No discipline, no department, can survive like this. This is the academic equivalent of Trump: a post-truth, no respect, “no experts but me” universe!

But now the good news. Psychology isn’t dead. It’s one of the most popular undergraduate degrees in the UK and, more importantly, psychologists in the US, Europe, and pretty much the entire rest of the world haven’t followed the self-harming, Brexit-style withdrawal from heterogeneity that has happened in the UK. US psychology is thriving and, like it is in Europe, it is a welcoming and broad church. I’m working with US developmentalists in mainstream experimental and “marginal”, qualitative, advocacy science projects. And our work is respected by colleagues from all areas of the discipline and beyond, it’s being used to inform policy, and it is funded.

And things are changing in the UK too. The future is not bleak. At IoPPN our size and stature means we have psychiatrists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, policy researchers, social scientists all working together to solve problems: no barring of qualitative research or alternative and marginal perspectives – we do what we need to answer the big questions. And research funders are showing a more enlightened approach to meaningful innovation and inter-disciplinarity. We need REF2020 (or 2021… my money’s on either 2022 or not at all) to catch up with that change. Arguably REF2014 had caught up – it was many psychology departments, those in the discipline themselves, who didn’t have the courage or vision to pursue what the science should be. And for those lacking in imagination here’s my suggestion: there should be a place for us all – majorities, minorities, normative and non-normative, neuroscientists, social, cognitive, developmental, biological and critical psychologists, clinicians, qualitative researchers, statisticians. I became an academic because I like ideas: not just my own ideas, but respecting, understanding, sometimes disagreeing with and sometimes being persuaded by those that are different from my own. We work better together and more productively when we embrace and learn from others. That is the point and value of diversity.

Camberwell Beauty

The Camberwell Beauty butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) got its name in 1749 when two were spotted near to Cold Harbour Lane in Camberwell. Its rather beautiful, but rare. In 1749 affluent Londoners were flocking to Camberwell for its clean air and wide open spaces. That has changed somewhat and I’d wager that the present urban environment in Camberwell isn’t so conducive to lepidoptera (look it up). Still, the world changes and, if it didn’t, it would be a very dull place.

Camberwell 1749 Camberwell Beauty

Eighteenth Century Camberwell (looks like fun!); The Camberwell Beauty butterfly

Today, there are at least two Britains, probably many, many more. (There are at least two Americas too; but let’s not talk any more about that this week!) And since social scientists love to categorise, and in fact we all do, let’s start with just two – a simple, binary distinction. First, we have the chocolate box ideal – rolling chalky hills, warm beer, Red Admirals in an English country garden, Horlicks, brambling, jam-making, hearty country folk, dog fighting in rural barns… You get the picture, but if not, here’s the Lego-free Daily Mail to help you out (yeah, like Dacre cares about Lego – prosecute the bastard!) For many it is a Britain in need of protection and preservation.

That Britain offers its royal subjects a warm and cosy feeling, and travel agents who market it around the world probably do so because they believe tourists (foreigners, aliens) think all British people live in Downtown Abbey. Is that a good premise for marketing? It’s a view that in many ways depends on the absence of a Theory of Mind, and even chimpanzees can do that. Do you really think Italians believe they live a country where everyone lives in an amphitheatre and eats either spaghetti or pizza? No, it is a caricature. But it probably works for some tourists – those on bus tours following a flag around Trafalgar Square. They’d be better off going to Disneyland. And, for the Brits, it’s a convenient means of internal control for a society to feast, for a while, on its own fat.

Second there is a very different, modern, urban, gritty, and diverse Britain. I say modern, but diversity of sorts has always existed in cities. There has always been immigration, there has always been change. In fact, I believe that while there is an instinctive human wariness of the unfamiliar (outsiders, change) this is balanced by an instinctive curiosity, altruism and openness.

With openness comes opportunity. That’s what attracts immigrants to London: not just the Syrians, the Afghans and Somalis who are fleeing awful conditions (and who contribute so much to our economy and society). It attracts the Russian and Chinese billionaires, the artists and the scientists. I don’t think many of these aspire to become serving staff in Downtown Abbey. And it is equally marketable and arguably, more successfully so, than the non-existent chocolate box ideal.

Since moving to the IoPPN I’d go so far as to say I love modern Camberwell. Of course there are downsides. But the richness of the tapestry inspires. I live in Buckinghamshire, in many ways the opposite, and the countryside is great too. I am lucky to have two worlds. But that countryside is nothing like the chocolate box ideal. That ideal is imagined and to see it as anything more damages just as much as it may appeal as a tourist attraction. We need to remember that. That past is a different country, and so is the future. Clinging on to the non-existent idyll is like sex with your ex: you can forego the hard work in setting up a relationship and kid yourself that the ideal once existed, but in the morning you remember why they became your ex in the first place. And the more you cling on, the more you invest, the further you self-harm and miss the opportunities for real change and growth. You ransom the future to keep the fantasy alive.

AC Boxing Club

Ironically, the Camberwell Beauty butterfly is not a British native. It is an immigrant from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where it breeds, and commutes (migrates) during the summer. A mural of the butterfly adorns the Lynn AC Boxing Club building (formerly a public library and baths) on Wells Way. It is part of the past and part of the future; it is very much a Camberwell Beauty. Oh, and in America it is known as the “Mourning Cloak” butterfly. But as I said, let’s not talk about that this week…

“I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”: Narcissism in Academia

FormbyPoor old George Formby. A difficult life, in the end, punctuated with a glimpse of what it might have been to be a National Treasure as the ukulele-stranging buffoon in 1930s and 40s films. His shtick was that he was no leader at all; he was a hapless everyman who accidentally won the girl. The chorus from one of his most famous songs – When I’m Cleaning Windows – caws, “I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”. You didn’t though, George, did you? You fell off it. The song pushed the boundaries of decency too far for the BBC at the time (there were risqué lyrics about ladies’ nighties) and they banned it! Things went downhill after that.

Now, George Formby sang about what he saw when looking through windows, but (metaphorically) in his career he spent too much time focusing on the reflected image, an inflated sense of his own talent. After a series of post war cinematic failures and unrealistic wage demands, he ended up an embittered, end-of-the-pier act in Cleethorpes. I’ve always felt window cleaners are an “at risk group” for narcissism – staring at your face reflected in a flat sheet of glass all day could certainly trigger unhealthy self-obsession. But are there other at-risk professions? Hairdressers? I don’t know, but I reckon we ought to include academics in any list. A long focus on your own ideas, reading and re-reading your own work, lecturing (performing?) to large groups of students writing down everything you say. And many academics have developed an “I am right, the world is wrong” coping mechanism to maintain self-esteem in light of negative reviewer feedback on papers and grant submissions.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we are in the midst of an epidemic of narcissism. Sure, the internet and social media are a potential part of this (more below). And who, honestly, can say there is not at least one borderline narcissist in their department or university?

Narcissists come in two flavours. There are vulnerable narcissists, who seek constant affirmation for themselves, swinging between feelings of inferiority and superiority. They cannot understand, and become emotionally sensitive, when the world does not treat them like royalty. However, there is very definitely no such problem with inferiority for grandiose narcissists. The world is collapsing around them but they don’t know, they don’t care. For the grandiose narcissist, the world will always be just tickety-boo so long as they’re in it (and others, who are to blame for its woes, are out)!Narcissus&Echo

There are a few ways to spot a narcissist: they often need a small clutch of admirers (and they want them physically close by), literally love the sound of their own voice and are preoccupied with power in interaction. Decisions are impulsive and at best inconsistent; dissenters subject to an auto-da-fé. And narcissists really cannot handle rejection or being passed over for a promotion.

One advantage of the rise of social media is that narcissists may be easier to spot. Psychcentral advises how to spot a narcissist on Facebook but the rules probably apply equally well to other social media. Narcissists have a high turnover of friends because anyone critical or failing to support the narcissism is quickly unfriended. Their posts are often grand or even pompous, commenting on some high moral or political matter that is way beyond their sphere of influence, but horribly repetitive and limited to a rather narrow set of issues. These posts are often reactionary and lack detail or a nuanced understanding. And they will twist others’ posts to present them as support for their position.

I have my own theory/approach to diagnosis online, and a little test. Try it yourself. Look at someone’s social media posts on politics, a major national issue or major news story. Do they talk about themselves, how they’re single-handedly leading the charge? Are they doing it a lot? Are they espousing values, ideas or behaviours that seem completely at odds with how they operate on a day-to-day Ievel in the workplace? If so, you’ve got yourself a narcissist!

It’s bad news if a narcissist becomes your boss. Not all are on the Kim Jong Un scale of things, but I’ve heard tales of some who come close in academic life! Whether it’s a PhD supervisor, PI, Head of Department or Dean (I’ve had myself tested, I’m in the clear, by the way) three things will happen. First, everything starts to fall apart – finances go awry and targets are missed, NSS scores down, grant income flat-lining – because narcissists are fixated on themselves, not the job at hand. Then, second, others make their moves: people start to leave, some completely disengage, and others (the toxic ones) will do their best to enable the narcissism… but that can’t last because no one can feed an insatiable beast forever. And third, in the end, the narcissism implodes. This always happens, although the quality of the fireworks show varies. But, by then, the damage has already been done and you find yourself weeping, as the jangled echoes of a ukulele float out to sea from the end of the pier in Cleethorpes.

The Parable of the Chocolate Chip Cookie

RuthWakefieldIt’s 1937 (or 1938 according to some sources), and Ruth Graves Wakefield was milling around the kitchen in the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Mrs Wakefield ran a popular restaurant serving home-cooked fare, and was a dietician and a food lecturer, noted for her desserts. It was a blustery autumn evening, and Ruth was distracted and running out of time. We can’t be certain, but maybe she was recovering from a particularly vigourous Charleston the night before, or trying to calm down after a frustrating argument with her husband Kenneth about the shopping, or maybe the rise of Nazism or something like that? That is, after all, how people spent their evenings when they couldn’t just crash out on the sofa with a Charlie Bigham ready meal and a couple of episodes of the Great British Bake Off to catch up on.

In preparation for the next day’s menu, Ruth was whipping up a batch of her “Chocolate Butter Drop Do” (sic) cookies. We do not know what the feckless Kenneth was up to at the time. Perhaps he is for ever destined to be remembered as a misunderstood Renaissance man? Perhaps he was reading Kierkegaard or embroidering a cushion. Perhaps he too was nursing a stiff back as a result of the previous night’s Charleston. Or maybe he was sitting by the fire having a fag with the boys and working his way through a large box of Nestlé chocolate that had appeared on the sideboard, and a bottle of slugger McGee’s homebrew to help ease them through a conversation about the moral decline of society, the younger generation, and his wife’s god-awful Butterdrop cookies. Maybe some of the usual locker room stuff too, you know…

In fact, it may well have been that box of chocolate that triggered the argument. Earlier in the day a dashing young man by the name of Andrew Nestlé had called on the house offering Ruth a free sample of his company’s latest product. Maybe the beguiling Andrew stayed a little longer than was strictly necessary to pass on a box of freebies. Maybe Kenneth’s shackles were raised by the young man’s exotic surname complete with an accent on the final letter. Such pretensions probably didn’t go down too well in 1930s rural Massachusetts and still, today, if Donald Trump gets together a list of people to fling back over the wall, anyone with a surname that deviates from standard Anglo-Saxon scripts is likely to find themself on one list or another.

Ruth was starting to panic. Kenneth had returned from his shopping expedition with little more than the standard dough ingredients and assorted salty snacks for the booze session he had planned that evening. But her customers would be eagerly anticipating the chocolate cookies and she had spent the last two hours searching in vain for cocoa powder. She warily sidled into the living room where slugger appeared no longer to be wearing any pants and Kenneth was doing his hilarious Franklin D Roosevelt impression. She remembered the gift she had received earlier in the day from the delightful Andrew. While the contents of the box were significantly depleted there was still enough chocolate left to give her the chance to pull things back round with the cookies. She took them back to the kitchen, broke them into little pieces, and added them to the dough thinking the chocolate would melt into the mixture.

At this stage Ruth herself was already half a bottle of gin down and, trusting her redoubtable skills as a baker thought, “to heck with this, I’ll just make them anyway”. What emerged from the oven became the world’s first batch of chocolate chip cookies. Today 7 billion chocolate chip cookies are eaten in the US alone every year. These days, and even then if she’d had the nous, this sort of invention would have been patented, branded, and Peter Jones would have made a Dragon’s Den offer while pontificating about his unrivaled access to supermarket buyers across the known universe. However, and I like her for this, Mrs Wakefield decided instead to sell the recipe to the Nestlé family in return for a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. Or maybe Kenneth had input into the terms of the payoff?


The moral of this story? Well, there are several. First, a dysfunctional home life can be a productive environment for business. Second, always open the door to strange French sounding people bringing you chocolate. (No, don’t do this, especially with Halloween coming up… and especially if they’re dressed as a clown… terrifying!) Third, necessity can be the mother of invention and serendipity can sometimes be the child of informed experimentation. And the higher education point in all of this? Well, one of my first blogs was critical of new ideas about introducing registered reports into grant writing and publishing science. Of course good science needs a plan. But good science needs good scientists more than that. If we close our world off to invention, creativity and, yes, serendipity we can impoverish the field. Open science means open minds and opportunity for all.

Academic Job Adverts, Deconstructed

In celebration of the return of The Apprentice to the BBC last week, I thought I’d give my take on many of the academic job adverts we see. Such adverts give an opportunity for unfettered spin, and sometimes downright misrepresentation. Below, from a recent trawl of psychology job adverts – none from King’s, I hasten to add – I’ve tried my best to translate “what they say” into “what they mean”. Enjoy…


What it says:  “Applications are invited for the post of Lecturer”

And what it means: The Dean made us take an extra 50 students through clearing and we urgently need someone to take the strain while we work out how we are going to fit them all into the slightly soiled portacabins they craned in from a TKMaxx in Peterborough. We’re framing this as an invitation as a courtesy but, to be frank, if you’ve got any nous you’ll realise we’re not asking you to come to a party.

“This is a temporary post for a researcher with a track record of high quality publications and the potential for substantial grant income.” – Listen, Cinderella, even if this was a party, it has a strict ‘carriages at midnight’ clause. It’s not like anyone planned for 50 more students, is it? We don’t actually plan anything any more. Who knows where we’ll be in 2 years? You won’t even be around long enough for probation… get the hint? And if you’re wondering what “track record” means; we’re hoping if you’ve battled through adversity in your post doc and developed sufficient resilience to cope with that, you might just handle the marking and personal tutee load we’ve got lined up for you…

“You will join a department that is a global leader in the field, 7th in the UK Research Excellent Framework (REF2014).” – Ah… statistics…. We’re also the 3rd best in Wessex, and the 2nd best university beginning with the letter ‘T’ in England, but we don’t shout about that so much, do we? If you manage to stay here long enough you’ll realise that these stats work for us like soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And while we’re on the topic, of course it’s entirely coincidental that this contract ends just before the expected census date for the next REF. Please don’t ask about that in interview.

“The department has the latest, state of the art equipment” – Well art is a very subjective thing, isn’t it? Some people like Botticelli, some like Pollock. We’re more at the arts and crafts end of things here… more “Kirsty Allsopp’s Handmade Fair” than Turner Prize. No one really wants a pickled shark in formaldehyde or Tracey Emin’s dirty bed in their place of work, do they?

“Shared access to an fMRI scanner” – shared access, like when those neighbour disputes turn nasty because someone can only get to their house by driving through someone else’s front garden and they build a wall across it. Like, that kind of shared.

“A driving simulator” – a 24 inch monitor and the discarded Mariocart steering wheel from a Nintendo Wii… It’s a few years old now but its main claim to fame is that it was used in a study that got them to reduce the speed limit in a housing estate in Portsmouth. Its sentimental value really, and we’ve got nothing else to put in the room, so…

“An observation lab” – a room.

“Our beautiful, rural campus” – you’re going to need to get a car, and did we mention we charge staff for parking? That landfill site next to the Engineering building will be a lovely park, decorated with interesting plastic tubes to release the methane – a bit like Telly Tubby Land – in about 20 years’ time.

“Our exciting, city centre campus” – it’s certainly “exciting” … there’s a security guard on reception for a reason!

“Our award winning new building” – Open plan office…

open plan

“Successful applicants should possess the skills needed to teach across a range of areas. They should be enthusiastic about contributing to teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.” – Here’s the money shot. You are going to walk in to a stack load of teaching, marking, personal tutees, and all the other stuff the rest of us here would rather not do. If you can shoulder that with the veneer of enthusiasm and generally not upset the apple cart too much we’d appreciate it. Of course, we are hoping you do a good job. If you don’t, you can be sure, you’ll be taking the rap for that.

Sexy Learning… and Student Satisfaction

Hands up, I admit it, I was wrong. After I wrote some time ago that a sexy or eye-catching title is often not a good idea I am going to eat those words (or at least some of them). A few days ago I was sent on an analysis of web traffic to my blog and it turns out that the one with the highest number of reads was “Sexy Science and Friends with Benefits“. It’s nice to get concrete proof, of course, that I have readers. But that one? Not the one about the media and psychology, Brexit, or even my stream-of-consciousness rant on leadership? What is lingering in the back of my mind is the possibility that it wasn’t the words or even the title as much as the picture of Ashley and Pudsy that drew people in. Ah well, we are never too old to learn. Time again this week, I feel, to give the public what they want.

Cameron Diaz Bad Teacher 2If you’ve read this far then it is time to refer you again to the take-home message of my previous blog on sexy titles which was that, while such a title might work as a hook to garner interest, if the subsequent text fails to deliver on its promise the reader can end up disappointed. In the interests of consistency and accuracy I’m going upfront with the disclaimer: the sex bit in this title is pretty much (not entirely) a shameless attempt to beat my previous high-score on web hits. The rest of this blog is about students’ learning and its relationship with satisfaction and lecturer likeability.

And if you’ve read this far (and thank you for that) I am going to reward you now with the current take-home message which is that, of course, there is no such relationship. Yet someone saw fit to explore whether students learn more from lecturers they like. And that got Twitter “likes” (what irony!) from a predictable array of swivel-eyed reactionaries who seem to take the view that you define what you are (a scientist) by repeatedly saying what you are not (an educator). That of course is about as rational as believing that you enhance your credentials as an Englishman by banging on about not being Scottish. For more on this see lecture 101 on 5-year-olds’ understanding of intergroup dynamics, or try to imagine a dinner-party conversation between Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.

I digress… Of course there is no consistent relationship between learning and how much students like their teachers. As if life was that simple? For a start we all know people are more likely to be fooled by an attractive person than an unattractive one, often against their better instincts. In such cases we must hope the scales drop from our eyes. There is also the “cool teacher” effect which was brilliantly captured in a series of sketches from Lee and Herring on Fist of Fun: last day of term, Richard Herring bores his class of disenchanted adolescents with the prospect of a game of hangman, whereas Stuart Lee locks his classroom door and kicks proceedings off with, “In the filing cabinet there’s a crate of lager for the boys and Babycham for the girls… bottom drawer, Suzanna”


It’s also plainly true that you cannot like someone very much but still benefit from your interaction with them. I’m not expecting to become bosom buddies with the bloke from CarGiant who recently sold me a second-hand Ford Galaxy, but he still gave me a car that works. And I’m satisfied with it.

Students aren’t stupid. They want to learn. Like the rest of us they also want and deserve to be respected. And, like the rest of us, they can pick up when they’re not respected and inevitably don’t find that very satisfying. There are still some in academia who take the view that students should be grateful just to be there and should shut up, get on with it, and not expect to enjoy themselves. But learning has never been and can never be a solipsistic endeavour. Students aren’t rating their learning anyway, they’re rating their teaching!

It’s a fair point to say that TEF metrics based purely on student satisfaction ratings are misguided. But it’s also fair to say that student satisfaction is only one element in the proposals. If you want to assess learning outcomes and compare them objectively across the HE system, you would need to transform the current system of external examiners and head towards some sort of homogenous curriculum. What follows from that is diminished institutional autonomy and I don’t think we want that, do we?

I’m feeling bad now about this blog’s title. Maybe I’m leaving you dissatisfied? In my defence, the initial idea was to talk about how lecturer likeability (which I was going to imply is akin to sexiness) was not linked to student satisfaction. I concede I haven’t yet made the link between sexiness and likeability. And of course there is no consistent link there either. That I was going to suggest there is reflects my own malfunctioning cognition. I’ll work on that, and for next week I’ll work on finding a title that might beat my high-score without exploiting lower common denominators. Please come back!

An Ordinary Blog

At some stage in the future I want to write something on: (a) social media and narcissism (I’ve been posting like a mad thing and want to see if this is a sign of personality decline); (b) deconstructing academic job adverts (which will be hilarious… but since I have a few of ours out now I’d better delay that for a while); (c) the “other”, fictional Patrick Leman (again, I’ll resist any descent into narcissism as best I can); and (d) I’ve something brilliant lurking on gender stereotyping in different areas of psychology (but that requires some analysis of statistics, and as ever I’m short of time to do that this week). So time, energy and a deficit of creative juices does not permit any of these insightful and rib-tickling pieces this week. But it’s good for me to write, and they will come in the future. Stay tuned. And, incidentally, any ideas for future blogs will be very gratefully received…

In fact, it has been such a spectacular week at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) that it is hard not to write about these. Plus this week sees the arrival of a new cohort of students and the return of others – a new academic year – and I’d also like to share some reflections on that.


Let’s begin with a review of a magnificent week at King’s and specifically the IoPPN. It’s not every day you get to meet Jeremy Hunt, particularly if you’re a junior doctor and he takes the back route through the long corridor next to the fire exit door to avoid the chance of any unintended encounters. But I’m not a doctor, at least not the type currently finds he is allergic to, and it is slowly dawning on me I’m not that junior any more. While I, and colleagues, successfully engineered our way out of a dreaded photo op, we did manage to exchange words and see him off the premises without him taking back the £66 million he promised to fund our Maudsley/IoPPN Biomedical Research Centre. Ours was the country’s first mental health BRC and by far the largest award in the area this funding round. At the same time, Guy’s and St Thomas’s Trusts were also awarded a similar amount making a total of £130million to King’s, the second largest amount in the country and more than Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial.

The BRC was not the only bit of great news. We also heard that a colleague has been named as the ESRC Mental Health Leadership Fellow. This is an important award, to be announced in a couple of weeks, to spearhead the Council’s work in mental health – an area that has been widely trailed as it funding priority for the government. That also the Institute has had significant success with the Wellcome Trust recently makes it clear that the IoPPN is Europe’s leading centre for research and education in psychology, psychiatry and mental health. (Of course I do have at my disposal a stack of statistics… And I am not shy about using them when circumstances recommend it. But I’m not going to do that here. Let’s just enjoy the moment?)

Shitij2Shitij1Shitij10Shitij 11

This week we’ve also marked the departure of Prof Shitij Kapur from the Institute with a party, speeches, and it truly brilliant Bollywood style tribute video. I have worked and have many friends in departments in many institutions. i wish them all well. Each has its strengths, each its own identity, and I have been lucky in my career to have worked in all of them. Some are doing great, others… Anyway, I can say with honesty nowhere has the warmth, collegiality, and respect among students and staff alike that I find at IoPPN. All of that was evident in the video as was a talent for direction, humour, and dancing! A link to the video isn’t available yet but we very much hope it will be soon. As I have said before leadership is a moral task. And, in a similar vein, it is also a human task. Shitij, as all the speakers noted, is an exceptional leader and a very kind human being. The emotion felt at his leaving party was of the very best type. He will be missed.

With the future comes a renewed BRC, a renewed cafe diner (and it’s looking good!) and a new group of students. This week I will be meeting new and returning students and I have to say I always look forward to this time of year. There is something great about new starts and the sense of opportunity and anticipation that comes with them. I feel it, now and when I was a school child and student myself, every year. I feel it before my own children return to school and that’s not just levels of stress ratcheting up in the Leman household. If there wasn’t a sense of anticipation it wouldn’t be a new start. And this year the wind is in our sails more than ever thanks partly to our huge successes that build our self-confidence as a global leader. So I make no apologies for an ordinary blog this week. Normal business will resume, don’t worry, next week. But for now to all of us: well done and good luck.

Introducing the Leman

This week I have to thank my father for passing on a link that offers opportunities for self-promotion that are simply too good to ignore. The UK government may be grappling with the difficulties presented by Brexit, but at least one thing they won’t have to worry about is whether or not to change the currency. So the Pound will certainly remain and, as long as we continue to do business using small bits of paper and different sized coins, our reigning monarch will continue to glare at me every time I pop into Boots for a bottle of Hedrin or an emergency Oyster Bay at 10.59pm from the offie on Mayflower Way.

But friends, there is an alternative. And it comes to us courtesy of the canny Swiss. You may remember, I’ve already declared an affinity with the Swiss – who, in 2012, were officially the sixth best sporting nation in the world (REF/GPA). If it was at all possible, I’ve started to warm to them even more. You see, while the official money of Switzerland remains the Swiss Franc, and while the Euro is also accepted and widely used in the country, a new currency will be launched there on 18 September this year. I’m not talking about some glitzy online thing, nor about any wacky barter arrangement. No, this is just your regular banknote and coin malarkey. But, superbly, the currency is to be called the Leman.


The new Bank of Leman, conveniently situated on the family lake…?

The currency is available in denominations of 1, 5, 10 and 20 Lemans and it will trade 1 to 1 with the Swiss franc (which is pretty much $1, €0.90… or £0.77, at least at the time of writing). The Leman is being launched to make a serious point as part of a cross-border festival of concrete alternatives to climate change. The idea is to introduce a new form of money to help promote local businesses and to encourage more local exchange of products and services. It’s a form of mutual credit that will reduce the costs, particularly for those living close to the borders with the Eurozone, of financial and trade transactions. It is similar, but not the same, as ideas floated both for Venezuela and Greece when both countries experienced extreme financial and economic challenges. Of course the context for the Leman is markedly different. Switzerland is not in any kind of economic crisis and the motivations behind the currency’s introduction of far more positive. As the website EvaGeneva.com points out, “the Leman is a WIN WIN WIN!”


Back in Blighty the Bank of England is seeking to up its game by introducing a new plastic £5 pound note and, next year, and a new £1 coin. The new notes are more durable, more hygienic, and more difficult to roll up and use for other purposes. The £1 coin is changing shape to a 12 sided affair which will make counterfeiting more difficult. It resembles the old threepenny bit which will delight leave voters and Daily Mail readers who hanker after the good old days when you could leave your door open without fear of theft, a pint (not a litre) of milk cost eleventy bob and six, Russian linesmen didn’t have the benefit of goal-line technology, and 200 million families watched Stuart Hall sniggering at a man from Tenby dressed up as a giant parrott on It’s a Knockout on a Saturday night.

One of the arguments in opposition to adopting the euro back in the 1990s was that giving up the pound was tantamount to losing a fundamental pillar of our national identity. Never mind that we have moved from systems of currency multiple times in our British history – so far as I’m aware we have now gotten over the loss of Danegeld and no one outside horseracing talks about guineas any more – or that we coped perfectly well with decimalisation in the 1970s and that plenty of other countries gave up their currencies when joining the euro and retain their national identities. The pernicious nostalgia that led UK to Brexit holds us back in many ways and a static view of our currency system is just one example of that. (Another, not so much holding us back but sweeping us backwards in a time machine, is the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools.)

Me, I’m hoping for a call from Geneva about becoming Governor of the new bank, or maybe a photo shoot for the new notes? In this capacity I’d like to reassure the Swiss that they won’t feel any less Swiss with the Leman. The world moves. National identity, like a currency, is never static. Like personal identity, it is influenced by our own actions but also by the actions of those around us. These days, everything connects, and money is just a tool for us to use, not the defining feature of who we are. Although I am a little bit delighted it’s called the Leman!


Nick Clegg’s memoirs are being published and, it turns out, he thinks that Cameron and Osbourne are a little bit shitty. He regrets backing the plans for £9k tuition fees and sitting on the front bench at PMQs squirming but unable to contribute, and he started smoking and stopped exercising in response to all the stress. However, he doesn’t see what all the fuss was about when Miriam accused Samantha of serving roast chicken with Hellman’s mayonnaise. Ghastly! I’m team Miriam on mayonnaise-gate…

Hellmans (1)3140

Nick, I’m afraid, comes across as rather naïve in all of this. Really, was there not the slightest suggestion that Cameron and Osbourne were rather shifty characters who came from and focused on propagating a world of division, wealth and privilege? When one of them said, apparently, that we shouldn’t build more social housing because we’d simply be creating more Labour voters, was Nick genuinely shocked? Really, Nick?

He may protest that he did good by softening the blow but Nick, in the end, was enabler-in-chief of Tory policies. Like a lot of political memoirs I suspect I’ll find myself grinding teeth in frustration at the feebleness of it all. Hindsight is a great thing, but I suspect in life many people find themselves in positions where they fundamentally disagree with someone’s values, beliefs and methods. I’ve been there in my past.  It is hard sometimes, of course it is, but in such instances you have to hold some principles and a morsel of human decency, stand up and press the case.

I’ve been around long enough to see all kinds of leaders, both in politics and in everyday life and work. I’ve experienced terrible ones. But I ought also to say, with no creepiness at all because (as I’ve said before) I doubt many people read this blog, I have been lucky to see from many colleagues truly exceptional leadership since coming to King’s.  I hope I learn, and I feel I have made and hope I will make a decent fist of leadership myself.

In the end, we get the leaders we deserve. If you don’t stand up, you fundamentally share responsibility for the bad things. It goes without saying that you cannot win every argument or right every wrong. I don’t know if Nick did – I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt that he probably tried – but he was out-gamed. To me at least he seems like a decent enough, but naïve man. Maybe he fought behind the scenes and lost. In which case, he should have come out to the front of the stage. If you lack moral fibre and the strength to stand up you are part of the problem because you let the bad guys dominate.

And really bad leaders don’t listen. They are rarely good at any job apart from promoting narrow self-interest. In academia and in politics, sometimes, whole careers are built on that. Such people think they already know everything already anyway, and so they have nothing to learn because they can never be wrong. Often they bully. And invariably they’re disastrous at their jobs because, when self-interest is the only focus, others are to blame as the lines on performance charts head south.


We want and need political leaders who have values and principles and communicate them, but are flexible enough to listen and develop or change their thinking when counter-arguments are persuasive or a situation compels it. We need leaders who stand up because, while competence is essential, fundamentally, leadership is a moral task. In that respect, good leaders never forget the human consequences of their actions, and never see a spread-sheet rather than a person. They don’t exploit people. Good leadership is not a balance between having principles and listening: you should always do both but recognise your personal biases and limitations and never stop making the argument. Those who try constantly to please or fail to stand up may be pleasant enough but just end up enabling the bad guys. They pursue a different kind of self-interest and you can never really be sure where they stand. Personally, I prefer my friends to be vertebrates.

So what about the future? I’m not sure what Nick’s planning to do now. A position at Hellman’s is probably a non-starter, but maybe Heinz will come calling? Not many universities will be rushing to give the fall-guy for £9k fees an Honorary position. Strictly is beckoning…

Brave Face

I don’t like pictures of myself but, increasingly, I need to have them. I’m not totally averse to a selfie (for Twitter and Facebook friends only) but I’ll almost always include a friend or group to soften the blow. And I certainly view these pictures solely as sources of information; they are definitely not disseminated for any aesthetic purpose. I’d happily remove myself from almost all of those images if it wasn’t (a) a memo to self that I was actually there and (b) a little narcissistic to think anyone would care what I look like… or think I look like… or care what I think they think I look like. Lots of people don’t have a problem with their own photos – the Kardashians, Joey Essex… they’re good looking, so there’s probably good reason for that. But even some pretty ordinary -looking people love to propagate their image across the web, and I know that some attractive people have the same problems I (and lots of others) have. So the “hate my own photo” thing is almost certainly, largely a psychological issue.

Last week, I had a set of photos taken for the Institute’s webpages, email banners and other publicity-type things. Actually, extensive therapy and research for this blog mean that I am for once OK with this set of photos. Jodie the photographer was great – that helped. And I embraced doing the full gamut of emotion expressions for “serious face”, “sad face”, “brave face”, and “good news face”. I’m stopping short of posting these here but as part of my ongoing personal therapy, here’s the first public output from that.


Why do so many people hate photographs of themselves? Inevitably, there’s been some research. First there’s the mirror image or mere-exposure hypothesis: basically, we’re used to seeing ourselves in the mirror but not as others see us as we appear in photos. So we’re accustomed to the mirror image of how we appear to the world, and when we see a photograph – the mirror image of what we are familiar with – that unsettles us and we rate ourselves lower for attractiveness as a result. Apparently mere exposure effects of appearance have even been observed in other species. How one earth did they test that? Next time I look at my cats – who are beautiful – I’ll feel a little sadder knowing that they may be suffering from esteem issues. (I suspect self-ratings of attractiveness were not a dependent variable in the animal studies).

Selfies are different. They are a more recent phenomenon and arguably say something interesting about esteem issues in the world we live in today. Recent research suggests that selfie-takers may have a self-favoring bias. Do not adjust your sets. Actually it’s a proper study and there were no differences in narcissism (NRI) ratings between the selfie-takers and control (non-selfie-takers) groups. Both groups took a selfie and had an experimenter take a picture of them. Those two images were then rated by others online. For both groups, these independent raters felt that the selfie pictures were less attractive and likeable than the experimenter pictures. However,  the selfie-taker group rated their own images as more attractive(and likeabile) than the non-selfie-taker group, compared with the independent raters. In other words, the selfie-takers were furthest away from reality in judging their own attractiveness (and likeability) in a positive way.

You know what – there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a little way off from reality if it gives you a little aspiration and a boost to your self-esteem. But prolonged disconnection with reality, as I’ve intimated before, causes problems.

kardashians selfie