I am an academic psychologist, writer and broadcaster.
I grew up in a working class household in Ligoniel in North Belfast (an area often called ‘Murder Triangle’ by the media). I went to Belfast Royal Academy and then studied psychology at the University of Birmingham graduating with a First Class Honours degree. I did my PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge.
I am Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University and a Masters supervisor on the Sustainability Leadership programme at the University of Cambridge. I was Professor of Psychology, at the University of Manchester from 1994 to 2012 and Head of the School of Psychological Sciences from 2004 until 2011. Whilst working at the University of Manchester, my media work was much celebrated, as described in their Your Manchester publication.
I was Research Group Leader of the 'Language and Communication Research Group' (2004-2011), and a Professorial Research Fellow in the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) at the University of Manchester from 2008-2012. I was also Visiting Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2012.
My own research has been funded from a range of sources, including research councils (like the ESRC), the EU, charities (like the Leverhulme Trust and the Nuffield Foundation) and from commercial sources like Tesco. I played a major role in the successful development of the SCI at the University of Manchester, funded by £25M from Tesco.
I am a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and was awarded the Spearman Medal by the BPS for ‘published psychological research of outstanding merit’ for my work on nonverbal communication. I was also President of the psychology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 2005-6.
In 2010 with a number of colleagues I was awarded the internationally acclaimed Mouton d’Or for the best paper in the leading semiotics journal Semiotica for research on the effects of deception on gesture production.
I am currently working on a number of new book projects:
‘Rethinking Body Language: How Hand Gesture Reflects Hidden Thoughts’
This book argues that the hand movements we make whilst speaking articulate our thinking, like language itself but in a completely different manner. It is an image-based system of communication that works unconsciously alongside speech. These hand gestures actually embody our thinking through bodily action. The fact that hand gestures communicate without our conscious awareness makes them particularly interesting. Indeed, the book argues that such behaviours provide us with a glimpse of our hidden unarticulated thoughts and therefore these movements can act as a window on the human mind.
‘The Janus Effect: Why We Say One Thing and Do Another’
Over the past ten years there has been considerable interest in the significance of rapid decision making guided by the ‘adaptive unconscious.’ This is the notion of ‘the power of thinking without thinking’ in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink, those unconscious processes that allow us to arrive at the ‘correct’ conclusion without any apparent consciously controlled thinking on our part. We are now told to trust our gut instincts, to be more spontaneous in our decision making, to go with what feels right. ‘The Janus Effect’ argues that this may be fundamentally wrong. There are unconscious processes within us all but they often lead to conclusions that are far from adaptive. In many domains (including judgments based on racial differences, our behaviour with respect to the environment, interpersonal attraction) our unconscious impulses often provoke us to do something completely non-adaptive. We should not rely on our gut instincts and surrender our decision making to the ‘adaptive unconscious’, as Gladwell suggests, but instead understand these unconscious processes, identify them, recognize them, and in many cases control them.
‘Environmental Communication: How to get it right’
(Sage, in preparation).
This book focuses on strategic communication about environmental issues, which, of course, is critical in these days of climate change, explaining how to optimize environmental communication to target audiences. Effective communication is not just about getting the message right, it involves understanding the intended audience in some detail, determining how receptive they are, and gaining some insight into their real underlying values and attitudes. Effective environmental communication also requires an understanding of how reason and emotion operate in influencing everyday human action both in terms of the maintenance of routine habitual behaviour and in behaviour change. This book describes the latest significant interdisciplinary research to demonstrate how we can move towards more effective communication about environmental issues in the light of these sorts of considerations.
'Our Racist Heart?' examines implicit, as opposed to explicit, racial attitudes in contemporary British society. It uses new experimental approaches to reveal these implicit attitudes and shows how unconscious biases can influence our everyday actions and thinking. In this exploration of unconscious prejudice I use my own experiences of class and religious prejudice in Northern Ireland to bring this whole process to life, and I discuss implicit prejudice in relation to the history of race, racism and social psychological theory.
This was a book jointly written with my son Ben who is bordering on elite status as a distance runner. It explores how running, which is a lifetime passion of mine, brought us back together after we had drifted apart. This book explores the psychology of running but much more importantly it is a book about the psychology of a father-son relationship and those bonds that tie fathers and sons together regardless of what they go through.
In this book I tried to show how the latest research in psychology could be used by people in their everyday life to make things better for themselves, things like improving one's mood or mending a broken heart, or working in a more sustained way on a project, or spotting a liar, or making what you say more memorable, or making more of a first impression. The idea behind the book is that academic research in psychology can be used by everyone.