When it came to writing the questions ahead of my interview with Geoff Beattie, I am first to admit I didn’t know where to start. Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University, with a successful career as an academic psychologist and nineteen books under his belt, Geoff is instantly recognisable as the man who analysed Big Brother contestants for eleven series. Going on to present several successful programmes and contribute to the likes of the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent, there isn’t much Geoff doesn’t know about body language and reading nonverbal communication. All my preconceptions about asking ‘stupid’ questions to an academic were dispelled as Geoff fast becomes one of the easiest interviewees ever; relaxed, funny and more than happy to chat away. Almost instantly I was struck with the impression that psychology was far more than a career for Geoff, but an infatuation that stems from his Northern Irish roots – ‘My mother said to me “What on earth is psychology and what are you going to do with it?”’. As I lost track of time, his infectious fervour for psychology left me wanting to find out more about his truly fascinating work.
Looking back over your successful career, what was it that first interested you in studying psychology?
At school I was interested in history and the sciences, studying maths, physics and chemistry at A Level. At this time there was not an option to sit an A Level in psychology, but I was introduced to it in my general study classes during sixth form. I instantly thought this is the best of both worlds! I’ve always been interested in understanding people; growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I felt like I needed to try and understand this momentous change in society and realised the relevance of psychology right away. History struck me as being fascinating, but by definition it’s in the past and I had this idea of understanding people’s motivations and actions. My intrinsic interest in why people do what they do led me to realise that as neighbours attacked neighbours, moments in history can make us change and psychology gives us an insight into why. Coming from a working class background, my mother had no idea what psychology was but most of the problems she saw were essentially psychological issues.
How did you go on to get qualified?
It was very straightforward really, I went to the University of Birmingham and did a degree in psychology and then went on to Cambridge to study my PHD. In fact I got my first lectureship with the University of Sheffield before my PHD was finished, so I was already effectively a lecturer at the age of 24. I still am a focused academic psychologist of course, but the media work was always something that was just another side of me and something I have tried to do simultaneously.
How do you think people can use psychology in their everyday lives?
I’ve actually written a book on this called ‘Get the Edge: How Simple Changes Will Transform Your Life’. I wanted to have a look at the published psychological literature and ask a very simple question – how can you use this every day? How can you use psychology to improve your mind state or make more of an impact when you walk into a room? I wanted to reach out to every audience and simultaneously bring some of my academic skills to the critique of core studies and draw connections between the two. Obviously psychology can allow you to get in touch with specific aspects of your life, if there are quite specific things you are trying to remedy, change or improve, it can be incredibly useful.
Was it the Troubles in Northern Ireland that sparked your interest in body language and communication?
Not really, it was more from my time at Cambridge. I have always been interested in psycholinguistics which is the psychology of language. I believe that my fascination in the way people give meaning to their lives through language stems from Northern Ireland; obviously in a polarised community people’s narratives, stories and linguistic accounts of what is happening to them are critical. You can take the same event and describe or encode it in different ways, all with psychological implications. Body language came about differently; when studying people in the lab in Cambridge, I was filming them spontaneously talking in order to measure planning pauses in speech and it hit me that these people were doing so much when talking. There are all these changes in eye gaze patterns and gesture, and I thought perhaps I need to analyse those to get more of an insight into the relationship between thinking and language.
Do you find it hard to turn this off, are you always reading people?
I definitely cannot turn it off – I’m terrible and find myself doing it all the time! I think I’m more sensitive because I analyse the dynamic aspects of non verbal communication, I’m forever spotting the changes in gestural movement and quick micro expressions that people try to cover up. Sometimes I wish I didn’t because when I’m talking to someone and they do a fleeting expression of boredom it’s like a dagger in the heart! On the other hand being able to pick up on cues gives you a big advantage in life; I do a lot of work on gesture and what amazes me when you play gestural movements is how sensitive some people tend to be, without training or practice.
Can you give us an estimation of how much communication is through body language?
You cannot put a figure to it! People who say that 92% of communication is nonverbal are misinterpreting some classic psychology studies. Nonverbal communication works alongside the language, the relative contributions of both vary from modality to modality and from situation to situation.
How did you get into the media side of your work?
I had done a couple of series on Radio Five Live focusing on sports people and the psychology behind sport. I was very interested in trying to get psychology out into the public domain and had done a documentary on BBC One in Northern Ireland, going back to my roots in Belfast as a psychologist to see people I’d grown up with and comment and reflect on what had happened. So I’d done some bits and pieces and then things took off with the first series of Big Brother; I got a phone call out of the blue and they said we’re doing this new series, would you come to London and do a screen test. I went and they showed me the Dutch version and it looked very low key and low production value. I thought well if 50,000 people watch this it’s going to be a big thing, I went on the show every week and was the psychologist for eleven series in the end. On the back of that the BBC asked me to co-present a programme called ‘Life’s Too Short’ and ‘Family SOS’ – that’s the way with media work, as soon as one thing happens it opens up a door to other things.
What was your favourite part of working on Big Brother?
I think it was the intensity of the whole thing, the pressure to generate new insights into human behaviour that ordinary people could understand and relate to. Big Brother gave me this incredible archive of material for me to work from and made me notice things I had never seen before. One of the things I observed was the conditions in which the gestures we used in speech do not match; gestures are unconsciously generated and we do not control them in the way we do our speech. When people lie of course they are very concerned in what they say and how they say it, but what they don’t do is try and control their gestural movement. Everyone said well Big Brother’s not natural, but like every psychological experiment, the participants knew they were getting recorded. I used examples from Big Brother in my book ‘Visible Thought’ and my research on perception.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
For both media and academic psychology the advice I would give is work hard and get a specialisation. Find yourself some specialist knowledge and have some ideas about what’s interesting. I always say to my students ideas are the most valuable commodity in the world, TV programmes are always looking for ideas so have them and be in a position to back them up, if you do that you’ll be a success.
If (like me) Geoff has inspired you to learn more about our human motivations and actions, a psychology course could be a good place to find out more. Whether you want to gain a qualification or work in TV, we have plenty of full time, part time and online courses listed on our site. What are you waiting for?