Interviewing DR. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Social Science)

Nowadays, more social interactions are initiated, maintained and furthered online than offline, and, while we could assume that this development is just an extension of our natural desire to connect with others, truth is that most people do not have such a great desire to connect with so many others, all the time, in their everyday offline lives.

Also, most individuals do not interact the same way with their family as they do with their friends or co-workers. So, what happens when our social networking profile needs to reconcile all these “levels” of our social interaction in one single digital space?

It is at this moment that, in many cases, a “split” seems to occur. A digital self is engendered and this digital self soon starts developing a whole parallel life of its own.

And, in this parallel existence, likeability is measured by the amount of “friends” and “fans” acquired, even if most individuals are just as happy hanging out with only two or three people maximum on a regular basis.

Whilst the race to accumulate contacts has a simple explanation within the realm of commercial marketing, it however requires a more complex explanation, individual by individual, when it comes to private/personal digital social interaction.

Now, let’s remember that in the beginning of this digital social activity, many people would feel like they were not interacting with other “real people” and thus felt more inclined to share their actual daily activities, their innermost feelings and views, and any other happenings of their private life, edit-free, in the digital realm. But after more than a few celebrity scandals, jumping right from their digital profiles into national and international media, after many job dismissals, an increase in stalking activity, cyber-crimes, cyber-bullying, relationship crisis and teen suicides… well, it is obvious that we now realise that when we log into our preferred social networking site, we are interacting with other beings, who, like us, have consciousness, feelings, and… memory.

So, what is the motivation behind mass digital social networking at the personal level?
What feeds our digital self?

And, are we to expect a decline in this activity and therefore a stagnation of social networking any time soon, specially due to present privacy concerns and the difficulty faced by our brains to healthily filter such a massive flow of information and interactions, or, on the contrary, is this just the beginning of a complete break from how we have interacted with each other as a species up to this point?

We interviewed one of the most prolific writers in social science of his generation, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, to try and get some answers, or at least, some knowledgeable hypothesis on the subject.

Areas of his supervision and research interests include: Personality, intelligence, creativity, psychometric testing, consumer behaviour, psychology of art and music, human performance, learning and individual differences, film preferences, entrepreneurs.

He has been working closely with the BBC and has been featured in other major UK and US TV, radio and media networks in the past 15 years. Some of his publications have also been referenced by famous US talk show presenter Oprah Winfrey.

DR TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, and people analytics.

Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), and visiting Professor at Columbia University; he previously taught at New York University and the London School of Economics.

Dr Tomas has published 8 books and over 120 scientific papers and his work has received awards by the American Psychological Association and the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences.

SRM: Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, thank you for taking the time for this interview.

From your extensive study on human behaviour, why do you think we have the need to split our behavioural personality when interacting with people in different areas of our lives?

DR TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Personality is complex. It reveals the nature of human nature; why and how we do things. Although it is fairly easy to have a superficial understanding of what people are like – even if you are not a psychologist – the essence of an individual is the sum of all of his/her behaviours across different situations. For example, a person may behave in a very friendly manner at work but show clear signs of his/her “dark side” when at home or with friends. The question here in not which one is the “real” personality, because the person is clearly someone capable of containing his aggressive instincts at work (or incapable of expressing it, so they act frustratingly with other people).

The bottom line is this: life presents us with many different events and each of them is a challenge. Personality refers to your characteristic way of dealing with these events, but it is impossible to predict exactly what a person will do in a given situation. All we can do is estimate the probability of a given reaction, and that is what personality tells us.

SRM: Why would we “befriend” complete strangers at a mass level, within the digital realm, when not for a professional/work purpose?

DR TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: It reverses the natural process of meeting people. Usually, people will still have in mind a physical person, which they eventually want to meet. But the fact that they first connect psychologically is unprecedented and we are still trying to work out how personality affects that. I worked on a TV show called “Dating in the Dark” (Living TV in the UK but also shown in the US) where people interacted in pitch darkness for 3 or 4 days. They decided whether they liked each other without having seen each other.

That is what virtual interaction is about, though the physical element does not disappear. Humans are 80% visual creatures and crave for an image. Photos still say more to us, and determine more whether we like someone or not, than a million words. This is how superficial people are: looks are all-too-powerful and personality is a distant second (even for women, though they are less likely to admit it).

SRM: In your opinion, internet social networking can become a dangerous activity when…

DR TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: It becomes addictive (but that is true for anything because the very definition of an addiction is that it is excessive, out of control, and harmful, so I’ve given you a bit of a circular answer). In simpler terms, I think the dangers of social networking have been exaggerated. The only thing that digital social networking does is make relationships quicker, more structured, and eliminate the physical boundaries. It is to relationships what Google is to knowledge – so, like Google, social networking sites are neither good nor bad, it depends on what users do.

Just like in the real world, you can upset others or make them happy. But mostly, I think they bring to the table some very beneficial alternatives for many people: they enable you to track and find real friends who you had lost touch with; they enable you to keep in touch when you are away; they enable you to quickly get hold of anybody; they enable you to relate to people if you lack the necessary social skills to do it in the real world; most importantly, perhaps, they enable you to expand your network of friends, colleagues and contacts (whoever you are).

SRM: Can it truly become a psychological addiction?

DR TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: Yes. A simple example is someone who spends 4 or 5 hours on Facebook while at work and gets fired for it, or someone who spends 4 or 5 evening hours chatting to strangers or having virtual affairs instead of being with his/her partners. In both cases, though, the fundamental problem may not be Facebook, but lack of interest in work or the relationship.

SRM: Could digital social networking be a revolution in how our species interact with each other at a personal level, or could it just be a temporal phase?

DR TOMAS CHAMORRO-PREMUZIC: I don’t think it is temporary, but I don’t see it as revolutionary either. The telephone, the mobile phone, and e-mail, are as revolutionary or more as any social networking site, and you can see how each of these technological advances has changed the way we interact with others. But none of these devices or means have changed the fundamental reason, that is, the core psychological motives, underlying our relationships with others. We relate to people in order to get along or to get ahead – and both motives are present in social networking contacts (in fact, some specialise in professional ones and others in fun/friendly ones).

SRM: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.



Interviewing Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Survival International)

Cover Amazon picture by Neil Palmer/CIAT – CC BY-SA 2.0 >

ROBIN HANBURY-TENISON is the Founder and President of Survival International, the world’s leading organisation supporting tribal peoples. To ensure freedom of action, Survival accepts no government funding. Named as ‘one of the greatest explorers’ and hailed as one of the 1,000 ‘makers of the XX Century‘, he has been on over 30 expeditions, including, as leader of the Royal Geographical Society’s largest expedition, taking 115 scientists to study the rainforests of Sarawak. This research and his book, Mulu: the Rainforest, started the international concern for tropical rainforests. Among his many publications are: A Question of Survival, A Pattern of Peoples, The Yanomami, Fragile Eden, The Oxford Book of Exploration, Mulu: The Rain Forest, Land of Eagles, his two autobiographies, Worlds Apart and Worlds Within, and his most recent books Echoes of a Vanished World: A Travellers Lifetime in Pictures, The Modern Explorers and, for children, Jake’s Escape, Jake’s Treasure and Jake’s Safari. Some of his achievements as an explorer are:

The first person to travel overland from London to Sri Lanka.
The first to cross South America overland at its widest point.
The first to cross South America from north to south by river.
The first to navigate the Orinoco River by hovercraft.
The first to ride the length of the Great Wall of China on horseback.

In 1969 he co-founded the charity Survival International, which, along the years, has received endorsements on different campaigns by celebrities such as Richard Gere, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Gillian Anderson, Julian Lennon, Céline Cousteau, Vivienne Westwood, Amber Atherton, Belén Rueda, Eva Habermann and Cristina do Rego, amongst many others.

‘The idea of an organisation to represent tribal people was greeted in 1969 with profound skepticism by most academics and realists, especially those who believed that progress was unstoppable. Most thought the struggle hopeless and the people we cared about doomed to extinction in the near future.

We were seen as trying to stop the clock, create human zoos and delay progress. The 70s oil crisis and the views of planet Earth from space helped to concentrate peoples’ minds, but it was not until the tribal people themselves started to take control of their own affairs that global consciousness began to change’—Robin Hanbury-Tenison.

SRM: Robin, thank you for accepting my invitation to this interview, it’s a honour.

Thanks to your book titled Mulu: the Rainforest -the result of your expedition to Borneo- which was, in parallel, supported by scientific papers, the international community started to realise the vital importance of the preservation of the rain forests.

© James Morgan / Survival International

More than 30 years later, how do you see that your warning was taken?

ROBIN HANBURY-TENISON: The good news is that the global scientific community has accepted the vital role rainforests play. Further research has only gone to reinforce the case we made back then for protecting them, not only for their intrinsic value but also for their manifest effect on climate, rivers and biodiversity.

Moreover, just about every school in the world now teaches how important they are and how sustainable the lives are of those indigenous societies who have lived in them for millennia.

This makes it even more outrageous and incomprehensible that governments throughout the world still allow their rainforests to be destroyed in the name of short term gain and their inhabitants reduced to penury.

SRM: Does an explorer become a writer, almost irremediably?

ROBIN HANBURY-TENISON: True travellers always write about their travels. Explorers go further and, often through their writings, change the world. So yes, I would say that an explorer must be a writer.

SRM: In The Great Explorers we can get to know forty of the most interesting great explorers, and in your most recent book, Modern Explorers, we can read the personal stories and thrilling accounts of some of the younger generations.

What are the five most important commandments that a conscientious and respectful explorer must follow?

ROBIN HANBURY-TENISON: Today the motivations and justifications for exploration are very different from those of most of the great explorers in the first book. Many of those were driven by a desire for conquest or commercial gain, but quite early on, by the 18th century, great navigators like Cook and Bougainville began to take scientists with them and from then on the best exploration has been about the pursuit of knowledge. My five commandments would be:

1. Tread softly today because the world is a much more fragile place than it used to be.
2. Observe everything and try to understand what you see.
3. Record everything you can by keeping a detailed diary and taking photographs.
4. Respect those whose country you are travelling in, whether they be ministers or labourers, and recognise that you are privileged to be there;
5. Above all, do as the locals do, bringing as little of your world in and changing theirs as little as possible.

SRM: In spite of the skepticism of those who thought that ‘progress’ was unstoppable, you founded what is now the world’s leading organisation supporting tribal peoples: Survival International. Was it a crucial incident, or an accumulation of testimonies that led you to create this organisation? How many tribes around the world, roughly, has the organisation helped to date?

ROBIN HANBURY-TENISON: An article by Norman Lewis in the colour supplement of the Sunday Times in 1969, which revealed the genocide being perpetrated on Amazon Indians, caused a group of us to found Survival. We had all travelled in remote areas with tribal people and we realised that there was no global organisation which represented them. Since then, the 50 staff, interns and volunteers in our offices in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris and San Francisco have worked with and campaigned on behalf of hundreds of groups of people facing many threats.

SRM: Apparently, there are around a hundred tribes in the world, located in different points of difficult access, that have never had any contact with civilization and which, gathered by how they have expressed themselves, want to be left alone. What do you think about this issue: should their decision be respected completely in every case or their decision needs to be weighed according to each case and tribe?

ROBIN HANBURY-TENISON: These are among the most vulnerable people on the planet because not only their lives but their whole culture is threatened by contact, as repeated incidents, both hostile and benign, have shown. If they have made it clear that they do not wish to be contacted, then that is their right and should be respected. I believe that their right to the land they have lived on for many generations and the way of life they have developed overrides any commercial or ideological imperatives ‘modern’ societies may consider important. This is the most basic of human rights.

SRM: We really hope that the world at large finally sees it that way, too.


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Modelled by Anoushka Shankar. Photo © James Betts.


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