Whatever happened to Hans Eysenck?

Psychologist Hans Eysenck was once one of the most cited and controversial scientists on the planet and a major force in the development of psychology but he now barely merits a mention. Whatever happened to Hans Eysenck?

To start off, it’s probably worth noting that Eysenck did a lot to ensure his legacy would be difficult to maintain. He specifically discouraged an ‘Eysenck school’ of psychology and encouraged people to question all his ideas – an important and humble move considering that history favours the arrogant.

But he also argued for a lot of rubbish and that is what he’s become most remembered for.

He did a lot of work on IQ but took a hard line of its significance. Rather than thinking of it as simply a broad-based psychological test that is useful as a clinical measure of outcome, he persistently championed it as a measure of ‘intelligence’ – a fuzzy social idea that implies someone’s value.

Without any insight into the cultural specificity of these tests Eysenck argued for racial differences in IQ as likely based in genetics, and signed the notorious ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ statement which reads like your drunk grandpa trying to justify why there are no black Nobel science winners.

Eysenck was apparently not racist himself, but believing that science was ‘value free’ he was also incredibly politically naive and took money from clearly racist organisations or published in their journals, thinking that the data would speak for itself.

He also doubted that smoking caused lung cancer and took money from tobacco giant Philip Morris to try and show that the link was mediated by personality, and at one point started espousing that there was some statistical basis behind astrology.

Some of his other main interests have not been rejected, but have just become less popular – not least the psychology of personality and personality tests.

This area is still important but has become a minority sport in contemporary psychology, whereas previously it was central to a field that was still battling fairytale Freudian theories as a way of understanding personal tendencies.

But perhaps his most important contributions to psychology are now so widely accepted that no-one really thinks about their origin.

When he was asked to create the UK’s first training course for clinical psychology he created a scientifically informed approach to understanding which treatments work but extended this philosophy to focus on a hypothesis-testing approach to work with individuals. This is now a core aspect of practice across the world.

His belief that psychologists should consistently look to make links between thoughts, experience, behaviour and biology is something that has been widely taken up by researchers, even if clinical psychologists remain a little neurophobic as a profession.

Because Eysenck loved an academic dust-up, he is most remembered for the IQ debate, on which he took a rigid position which history has, justifiably, not looked kindly on. But as someone who influenced the practice of psychology, his legacy remains important, if largely unappreciated.

16 thoughts on “Whatever happened to Hans Eysenck?”

  1. I recall the astrology debate well. I was at a meeting in London when Eysenck presented this somewhat incomplete theory and I asked if, since the findings were all shifted along a similar axis, could not personality be linked to the time of conception and not birth. Eysenck gave me one of his withering looks and said no it could not because we didn’t know the time of conception!
    I came across him later when I began clinical training at the Institute of Psychiatry. He had retired by then but continued to haunt the IoP’s tennis courts and corridors for quite some while.

  2. One of Eysenck’s other controversial activities – or it would have been controversial if anyone had noticed – was to temporarily be the nominal head of Celia Green’s Institute for Psychophysical Research.

  3. Regarding Astrology. I think people know of the associated personality traits with each sign.
    For example
    Taurus as stubborn.
    Aries as moody.
    Pisces as oversensitive.
    The person who believes in Astrology looks for these traits in the people to confirm astrology works, when those traits are potentially in anyone.

    The same thing works for psychiatry. A psychiatrist locks their subject up in a prison-hospital. When the subject (naturally) gets angry for losing their freedom (while not being a criminal), the subject is named “psychotic” for this emotional outburst to psychiatric “help”. Then gets drugged to be made calm (see ? antipsychotics work!) and the psychotic label-designation is for the rest of the subjects life because it is written on a piece of paper in the subjects medical file. That is science.

  4. Whilst his position on astrology and the link between smoking and lung cancer are outright bizarre in hindsight his position on IQ seems to have fared much better than portrayed here (and certainly better than those he publicly sparred with who denied any evidence for its heritability amongst other things). Granted no compelling evidence has emerged to support his claim that racial/ethnic differences in IQ have a genetic basis, but likewise no clear environmental causes have been identified which adequately explain the observed gaps. Research into the question has hit a block and whilst the explosiveness of the issue may cause us to judge him as politically naive (definitely a fair characterisation from the sounds of things) for taking a strong position where there was little evidence I don’t think it’s comparable to his wonderings in the supernatural.

    Race aside, his position on IQ seems to now be absolutely mainstream, his position on test bias across populations (that it is minimal if anything), on heritability, and on the robustness of the general factor are all widely accepted and supported by a great deal of evidence.

    You’re right that his public position on IQ has likely furthered his fall into relative obscurity but it’s a point I think he was scientifically largely in the right on.

      1. Anyone seen this interview with him before? Or familiar with the group? Bits of it sound extraordinary, and I wasn’t sure if it was real:

        “Unfortunately one of the conditions of my funding from the Soviet Union for saying nice things about Pavlov and the stupid research on conditioning by their scientists doing behavioural research on people with different nervous systems was also that I should condemn homosexuals. Every favourable reference to Soviet research was rewarded by a suitcase of used notes from the embassy, but there was always a spiteful reminder about the Burt photos and a warning that I should come down harshly on deviants of all kinds.”


        (Have had trouble posting, so this could be a re-post).

  5. The view that IQ tests measure intelligence and that there might be a genetic component to black-white IQ differences are still mainstream (though not necessarily majority) views in psychology. And there is nothing notorious about the “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” statement. It really reflects a balanced view held by the experts at the time. Those cannot be the reasons why Eysenck has been eclipsed.

    Science may not be totally value-free. But scientific questions (like the sources of IQ differences between different ethnic groups) cannot be answered on the basis of value-based ideological positions either.

  6. I have to agree with commenter PsychPsych; Eysenck’s “position on IQ seems to have fared much better than portrayed here”. It is Eysenck who got it right, and MindHacks who here gets it wrong. “Like your drunk grandpa”, “the notorious … statement” — that’s very much the loaded language of the polemicist, of the anti-scientist, and not of the rational thinker. Of course I understand where you’re coming from; you don’t like the idea that IQ tests are a valid proxy for intelligence — “a fuzzy social idea” as you so cavalierly dismiss it. But the (long overdue) media acknowledgment of the most recent work by Plomin / BGI etc. is just the tip of the iceberg; it’s becoming increasingly obvious that that position of the much-maligned hereditarians is by and large the correct position, leaving belligerently PC environmentalists like yourself looking increasingly desperate. Basically you’ve bet on the wrong horse, and it makes you look foolish.

  7. In your critique of Eysenck, you mentioned “battling fairytale Freudian theories”. As another commentator mentioned, “that’s very much the loaded language of the polemicist”.

  8. I remember reading that he had been discredited for using data from identical twin studies (separated from birth) and they turned out to be non-existent. I’m still searching for a link.

    1. I have no idea is Eysenck referenced non-existent twins studies, however, when I was at IoP in the early ’90s there was a longitudinal twins study in progress.

Leave a Reply to mitchellporter Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: