BPS Award-Winner Alex Haslam on Teams and Trump

Alex Haslam
Alex Haslam

Alex Haslam isn’t shy about sharing credit. The social psychologist is happy to note his extensive list of collaborators, nearing 250, and says this legion of peers is “massively empowering. It gives you the sense that you’re part of some sort of movement.” Haslam’s career has included many high-profile collaborations, including a recreation of the Stanford prison experiment with Steve Reicher and an exploration of the workplace phenomenon known as the “glass cliff” with Michelle Ryan.

“Actually everything I have done, and I assume this is true for most people, I’ve done with other people. I’ve done it as part of a team.” Reflecting on having received the British Psychological Society’s President’s Award on May 4, he added that he hoped no award given an individual detracted from the “we-ness” of the research.“Luckily,” he continued in a conversation where he spoke repeatedly on Newton’s old adage about standing on the shoulder of giants, “most of the people I work with get awards, too.”

Haslam is a professor of psychology at the University of Exeter and professor of psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Speaking from his Australian campus office, he discussed a number of his research areas – organizational studies, leadership, identity, and political crisis among them — in a wide-ranging interview via Skype.

Much of his research has already cast a long shadow. In academe, for example, the European Association of Social Psychology gave him its Lewin Medal for excellence in social psychological research in 2005 and the International Leadership Association awarded his, Reicher and Michael J. Platow’s The New Psychology of Leadership its Outstanding Leadership Book Award in 2012. In the public sphere the “glass cliff” work was identified by the New York Times as one of the ‘Best 100 Ideas’ of 2008, the term was shortlisted as 2016 Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries, and the BBC filmed the replication of the Stanford prison experiment for a popular documentary titled The Experiment.

“Professor Haslam’s research is at the cutting edge of some of our most fascinating subjects – the psychological processes operating in groups, political change, and in the sometimes banal psychology of evil. His work is important – and very timely,” a release quoted Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society. “Given our current turbulent political context, I can think of few occasions when a study of the consequences of prejudice, groupthink, the psychology of crisis and the role of female leaders is more relevant.”

Looking at the ‘turbulent political landscape’ – he spoke after Donald Trump’s first 100 days but before Emmanuel Macron’s victory – Haslam said he and Reicher are “fascinated” by the rise of Trump. They’ve written extensively about it already, including the first chapter in a new book edited by Mari Fitzduff, Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump. He and Reicher approached ‘The Donald’s’ appeal as a demonstration of identity politics; their chapter is titled, “The Politics of Hope: Donald Trump as an Entrepreneur of Identity.”

“One of the interesting things about the rise of Trump was that I think it really laid to death the idea of what you might call the ‘Great Person Theory of Leadership.’ Clearly, Hillary Clinton was the best qualified person, actually something like 70 percent of people at the polls said she had the better leadership attributes, but at the end of the day she didn’t encapsulate or look like she was going to advance the collective interests of voters.”

This wasn’t apparent to academics, pundits or even the Clinton campaign, he said. Even long before the election, he and Reicher wrote about how people were misreading Trump – he jokingly used the Bushism of “misunderestimate him” -and suspects they still do to a large extent. “He’s very good engaging with his supporters,” Haslam said of the American president. “Saying things that people have thought but haven’t heard their leaders saying is very powerful. Of course, there was a good reason people weren’t saying it: it was wrong.”

Despite the title of the book, “there’s nothing really irrational about Trump or his appeal … I think it’s frighteningly rational.”

Haslam views himself as outside Trump’s “sphere of influence … we don’t share identities with him; he doesn’t embody what we’re about.”

And by the same token, he doesn’t flatter himself by thinking his own work is required reading at the White House. “I don’t think the work we do has had much of an impact in the field of politics, and I think that Donald Trump and his ilk have a much better understanding of native psychology than I think [do] the sort of people who are part of the global science establishment.”

“There’s an awful lot of bad psychology written about Trump,” Haslam said. “The real risk is that your psychological analysis is a substitute for your political analysis, and if it is, you will almost always get it wrong.” In that vein, he sees many intellectuals as falling into the trap they ascribe to others, filtering out information that’s unappealing – and broadcasting that which resonates.

“I think,” he said, “it’s more instructive in these things to reflect on your own behavior, and your own worlds rather than just project it onto other people’s worlds.” Not having lived the life of a Trump supporter, but existing among fellow “sort of liberal, democratic, left-leaning, socialist-types,” means he and his fellow travelers are susceptible to things like groupthink just as much as anyone else.

“We imagine the only people who fall prey to alternative facts are people who support political movements we’re not members of. We don’t interrogate our own ability to be seduced by alternative facts.”

This is a problem for psychology and for science itself beyond today’s politics, one he says “has been a long time coming.” Scientists must faithfully report and understand different perspectives, he explained, and in this case ideology overwrites process. “I feel there is still quite a big chasm between popular representation of these extraneous groups and what they’re actually like.”

“Not only are we being derailed politically, we’re sort of being derailed psychologically.”

This disconnect warps other aspects of the science community. The science “information model” was always about showing the truth, or at least validity, of something and that validation was itself the key point of persuasion. However, Haslam said, in reality, “the most important thing is for me to persuade you that you and I share some group membership, some sense of identity. Then once I’ve done that, you might be willing to the information I give you.” In that absence, “the louder I shout, the more you don’t listen to me.”

Ignoring this identity component also hampers things like health care. Quoting from a paper he was working on about the social determinants of health, Haslam read, “The present data shows that the obstacles to progress are not simply information based, but also, at least in part, ideological and political.”

As a result, for both the public and the expert, “We have the information, but we haven’t done enough of the identity work … to take on board the science, the facts or the knowledge.”

A different sort of deeper examination informs another of Haslam’s interests, re-examining classic studies in psychology. While this was first exhibited in restaging the Stanford Prison experiment, it’s echoed in Haslam’s his co-editorship, with Exeter colleague Joanne R. Smith, of SAGE Publishing’s Social Psychology: Revisiting the Classic Studies. On one level those studies are the building blocks of psychology, but on another level research outputs like groupthink, Milgram, the Stanford prison experiment are known outside of psychology. “These studies have really been powerful because they have a currency outside the lecture theater, outside the social psychology textbook.”

As the messages migrated into the public sphere, they often mutated (at times with the connivance, or at least acceptance, of the original researcher). Hence the book’s introduction calls for “unlearning” what we know from the classics.

Find out more about Alex’s British Psychological Society’s President’s Award win and read a chapter on the Milgram experiments from Social Psychology: Revisiting the Classic Studies here.

Haslam cited the case of Stanley Milgram, whose work came to be shorthand for unthinking obedience to authority. Starting in the early 1960s, Haslam relates that Milgram had a very particular sense of what had gone on in his studies. But by the time Milgram published his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View, “His ideas were sort of a pale shadow, a very vulgar representation of his earlier ideas. In the intervening years I assume he’d told and retold his story many times, and he’d worked out what went down well, what did people understand, what did people like, and adjusted it accordingly.”

“I think he’d sort of slipped anchor in a way.”

A lot of senior scientists, when questioned about their work or asked to help replicate an experiment, are “quite vicious” in response. “There is a problem if you’re not able to question or challenge or revisit people’s analysis. That’s the way science has got to work. But it’s obvious that was a custom more honored in the breach.” Such as his and Reicher’s work on repeating the Stanford prison experiment (itself seen as an extension of Migram’s work), which the original researcher assailed with terms like “fraudulent” and as a “scientifically irresponsible ‘made-for-TV-study’.” “We were taken aback by the way that [Professor Philip] Zimbardo reacted against what we thought was a very legitimate, scientific interrogation of his ideas. We had assumed he would engage with us just as scientists, but he didn’t. He saw us as a sort of threat to his empire.”

He wasn’t alone. “Those studies have come to represent what people have wanted them to represent,” he said, “and then that everyday understanding gets fed back into academia.” The feedback loop continues as textbooks, he added, citing the work of Richard Griggs, reproduce all manner of myths around these studies. “That what I mean about unlearning stuff … there’s a difference between familiarity and knowledge. Familiarity is often the adversary of knowledge.”

Will his own work on the glass cliff – the idea that women are thrust into leadership positions during times of crisis, achieve ‘classic status’? Haslam acknowledged the ubiquity of the findings into everyday parlance. “It’s almost not seen as a piece of research, it’s just, ‘Well, there’s this glass cliff’ because it’s been so well documented.”

But a classic? Saying that is his mind ‘classic research’ would be more interactive and dynamic, “I [do] think it’s a useful contribution at a particular point in time. What I often say is that good science is a comma, not a full stop. … The world is a different place right now, potentially because of glass cliff. Of all the ideas I’ve worked on, this is probably the one that’s had the most attention and the most impact. I think there’s been some progress on this issue.

“All I would ask as a researcher is that other giants stand on our shoulders and see further. My criticism of Zimbardo is that he seemed very reluctant to have anyone stand on his shoulders.”

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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