Originally, I wanted to be a diplomat. So I enrolled in the International Relations program at the University of Toronto. I was taking a few politics and economics courses, and thought there were a lot of untested and implausible assumptions about what motivates people. But one of the psychology courses I was taking used actual evidence, and I ended up switching my major to psychology in my second year.
Instead of an idealised view of rational decision makers, social psychology talks about decision makers being influenced by emotions and identities, which is much more exciting. Experimental methods are exciting. That’s one of the major strengths of psychology—that you can test what you think is happening, and have data that support or challenge what you are claiming.
You have to enjoy learning and think that people are really interesting. To sustain a career in psychological research you to need to be a good time manager and writer, and be detail oriented or able to manage different tasks effectively. If you don’t have these skills, you need to be willing to learn.
Personally, I found it quite hard to learn how to manage all the different details of a research career. Eventually I worked out that I needed to keep a huge list of things to do, which I religiously update every week. When the list runs onto the third page, I know I’m in trouble.
I’m interested in collective action. Why do people stay on the sidelines in the case of injustice? How do people’s identities and norms shape the way they get involved and what they choose to do?
People pay a lot of attention to group membership. For example, people are able to stereotype concern about climate change as ‘something that greenies do’. Anyone who isn’t a greenie gets let off the hook.
I also look at terrorism and political violence. What makes people take up political violence, and does it work? In terms of group identities and decision-making, it seems that people learn their beliefs about whether violence or non-violence will work through political identities and social norms. For example, in some communities and groups, people learn to believe that non-violent activism and democratic voting will lead to meaningful change. In other communities and groups, people learn to believe that those beliefs are naive, and that only violence and power produce change. I’m very interested in understanding these processes.
I’m a bit of an English speaking authority on Hong Kong films; Chow Yun-Fat’s press agent used to send me press releases for movies and things.
I’m also an expert on Nero Wolfe, a character in a mystery series. At one time, I was consulted by people who were developing an A&E television series about the novels.