Biography of Hans Eysenck

Photo of Hans Eysenck
Photo of Hans Eysenck, June 1988.

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Hans Eysenck (1916-1997) was a German-born British psychologist whose best-known work focused on personality and intelligence. He was also a highly controversial figure because of his assertion that racial differences in intelligence were the result of genetics. 

Fast Facts: Hans Eysenck

  • Full Name: Hans Jürgen Eysenck
  • Known For: Eysenck was a psychologist best known for his work in the areas of personality and intelligence
  • Born: March 4, 1916 in Berlin, Germany
  • Died: September 4, 1997 in London, England
  • Parents: Eduard Anton Eysenck and Ruth Eysenck
  • Education: Ph.D., University College London
  • Key Accomplishments: The most frequently cited British psychologist in scientific journals before his death. Prolific author of over 80 books and more than one thousand articles. Founding editor of the journal Personality and Individual Differences

Early Life

Hans Eysenck was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1916. He was an only child and his parents were stage and screen performers. His mother was Jewish and his father was Catholic. Shortly after he was born, his parents divorced, leaving Eysenck to be raised by his Jewish maternal grandmother. Eysenck despised the Nazis, so after graduating from secondary school in 1934, he emigrated to London.

His initial plan was to study physics at University College London, but due to a lack of prerequisites in the physics department, he ended up getting a degree in psychology instead. He went on to complete his Ph.D. there in 1940 under the supervision of Cyril Burt.

Career

By the time Eysenck graduated, World War II had started. Eysenck was declared an enemy alien and was almost interned. Initially, he was unable to find a job due to his status. Finally in 1942, with the ease of restrictions, Eysenck found a position at North London’s Mill Hill Hospital as a research psychologist.

He went on to found the psychology department at the Institute of Psychiatry after the war, where he stayed until his retirement in 1983. Eysenck continued pursuing research and writing until his death in 1997. He produced articles and books on a plethora of subjects, leaving behind over 80 books and over 1,600 articles. He was also the founding editor of the influential journal Personality and Individual Differences. Before he passed away, Eysenck was the most cited British psychologist in social science journals. 

Contributions to Psychology

One of Eysenck’s most significant contributions to psychology was his pioneering work on personality traits. Eysenck was among the first to use the statistical technique called factor analysis to reduce the number of possible traits down to a specific set of dimensions. Initially, Eysenck’s model included only two traits: extraversion and neuroticism. Later, he added the third trait of psychoticism.

Today, the Big Five model of personality is considered the gold standard for trait measurement, but the Big Five echoes Eysenck’s model in several ways. Both models include extraversion and neuroticism as traits and Eysenck's psychoticism includes elements of the Big Five traits conscientiousness and agreeableness.

Eysenck also made the argument that there is a biological component to traits. He claimed that biology combined with the environment to create personality, accounting for the importance of both nature and nurture.

Controversial Beliefs

Eysenck is known for sparking a great deal of controversy in the field of psychology. One of his major targets was psychoanalysis, which he argued was unscientific. Instead, he was a vocal advocate for behavioral therapy and was largely responsible for establishing clinical psychology in the United Kingdom.

In addition, he claimed that there was no evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. Instead, he said that there was a link between personality, smoking, and cancer. His research on the topic was done with the support of the tobacco industry. Although it was a conflict of interest, Eysenck argued that it didn’t matter where funding came from as long as studies were done correctly.

The biggest controversy Eysenck became embroiled in was over intelligence. After his student Arthur Jenson asserted in an article that racial differences in intelligence were inherited, Eysenck defended him. He fanned the flames of the backlash even more by writing a book on the subject called The IQ Argument: Race, Intelligence, and Education. However, in his autobiography he was more moderate, saying that environment and experience also play a significant role in intelligence.

Key Works

  • Dimensions of Personality (1947)
  • "The Effects of Psychotherapy: An Evaluation." Journal of Consulting Psychology (1957)
  • Uses and Abuses of Psychology (1953)
  • The Structure and Measurement of Intelligence (1979)
  • Rebel with a Cause: The Autobiography of Hans Eysenck (1997)

Sources