“But now, we’ll pause for the Angelus”: Psychologists, Political Power and the Irish Regime


What follows, further down, is a transcript of a segment from the Marian Finucane show, broadcast just before noon on Saturday 9th of March. It is a conversation with Professor Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

When I heard the first 30 seconds or so of the segment, as I was travelling by train towards Dublin on Saturday, I thought about writing a post about it. I’m not an especially keen listener or viewer of RTE, the Irish public broadcaster, but it has often struck me, when tuning in, just how much coverage it devotes to matters of psychology, self-help, and techniques for bringing one’s mind under control so as to manage one’s own personal circumstances. Flourishing author Maureen Gaffney is the example that springs most readily to mind; there is also Tony Bates, who had a Psychology Series on the Marian Finucane show and who frequently appears at public events as the ‘resident psychologist’ for that show. RTE’s afternoon show Drivetime had a regular feature called Mind Time in which the presenter spoke to a clinical psychologist about aspects of personal mental life. An RTE television series titled Not Enough Hours entailed ‘Psychologist and Time Management Expert, Owen Fitzpatrick’ helping families come to terms with the pressures of running a household and holding down a job, or looking for a new job. David Coleman, a clinical psychologist specialising in children, is billed by the RTE’s Tubridy show as ‘Tubridy family psychologist’ is another expert making frequent appearances on both TV and radio. In a blurb for David Coleman’s book, Ryan Tubridy says that For a clear, concise and coherent take on the world of family life, David Coleman is the first man we go to‘. Operation Transformation, a series concerned with weight loss and the consequent transformation of one’s life, uses the services of Dr Eddie Murphy MBA, a Principal Clinical Psychologist with the HSE. He is also a contributor to the Marian Finucane Show, the John Murray Show, and the Ryan Tubridy Show.

As I was listening to the opening remarks, I recalled a survey conducted a couple of years ago, published in the Irish Times, I think, that found that what people surveyed on unemployment lines most wanted to talk about was political solutions to the social and economic crisis in which they found themselves (if anyone can recall this survey, and has a link, please post in the comments below).

Meeting such a demand would entail a process of dialogue, a process of questioning of fundamental assumptions about how society ought to be run. It would entail asking about what things ought to be prioritised and protected. It would involve widespread participation from citizens, and in particular those most affected by the crisis. No such thing has been facilitated by the public broadcaster. On the contrary, its reliance on experts, on expert opinion over public participation, has served to block any such process.

In the case of the areas addressed by the psychologists listed above, that might entail talking about why there are not enough hours in the day, not at the level of an individual family, and not in terms of how to cope with such an absence of time for pleasurable productive activity, but in terms of how political solutions might be achieved. It might entail asking why people end up overweight, why there is such a stigma attached to weight gain, what social factors make people feel miserable about their weight, and what political changes might need to occur in order to address these problems. It might entail asking why children bully at school, and what the range social factors are, for instance, a culture of bullying in the workplace and other social institutions and how this might replicate itself in parental behaviour, or indeed in the character of the school itself. But no such thing ever happens during the appearances of media mind experts.

In a recent note that sought to outline reasons for the passivity of the majority of society in light of the present social and economic crisis with its processes of impoverishment and degradation, poet, literary translator, moral philosopher and sociologist Jorge Riechmann listed seven factors. Among these were:

          the deepening of capitalist globalisation with its implicit counsel of “don’t confront things, flee and start again somewhere else” (don’t struggle, re-invent yourself);

          the progress of anomic individualisation that inhibits collective action;

          the culture of capitalism in which each human life consists of the exchange of commodities

Instead, the function of psychologists and other experts on mental processes –or rather, their deployment on the public broadcaster as experts- is to forestall political dialogue and social questioning that one might otherwise expect to be generated through radio and television, and to reproduce individualised, atomised ways of thinking about oneself, ways that spurn collective solutions and produce self-regulating, self-disciplining subjects who must manage themselves as if they were their own investment portfolio, who are trained to see every problem as a ‘challenge’ and every challenge –to expertise, to conventional wisdom, to the dominant order of things- as a problem.

If the segment had not gone on to mention Hugo Chávez, I would be finishing the post here. However, it is particularly interesting to see the thoroughly odd and incongruous way in which the deployment by the public broadcaster of an expert in psychology goes about addressing the phenomenon of a society that has undergone a deep process of politicisation over the past decade and a half, and the person who was the democratically elected figurehead of that process, a few days after he died from cancer.

I am not going to get into the matter of the veracity of the claims made about Hugo Chávez –or Fidel Castro: at one point, Marian Finucane appears confused- there are plenty of decent pieces out there where you can judge for yourself, such as here, here, here, here, and here, among other places.

I will, however, make the general point that I made to people the other night: the bits and pieces I’ve happened across here and there in the Irish media haven’t provoked the usual bouts of head-spinning bewilderment I normally experience. Instead, I’ve been hit by a sense of cringing embarrassment at the sheer mediocrity of it all: the historical, political and geographical illiteracy, the automatic identification with the view from Washington, the recourse to ludicrous cliché, the absence of any kind of self-awareness or comparative perspective. The right response to all of this isn’t embarrassment, but laughter.


Transcript from Marian Finucane segment with Professor Ian Robertson, Saturday 9 March 2013.

MARIAN FINUCANE: I want to move on now, we’re going to talk about the seven secrets of a healthy brain, how to have a healthy brain, which kind of most people would like to have? And most people would dread the thought of losing it if they currently have one. But, and I’m joined in the studio by the gentleman who’s going to talk to me about that because there’s a research being done in Trinity and I understand that, in the memory research unit, and they are looking for candidates to participate in that, and you’re very welcome indeed Professor Ian Robertson again to studio.

But before that, as we say. Arising from The Winner Effect


MARIAN FINUCANE: Which you have written. There’s a small little event going to take place today which is

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah, 5 o’clock, yeah

MARIAN FINUCANE: 5 o’clock (laughs)…Lansdowne Road




MARIAN FINUCANE: And you, you take a view on what might -by the way I saw in the paper, I don’t know if it’s true or not, I hope it’s not but anyway, that this may be Brian O’Driscoll’s last match at home. It was just one of the papers, now whether it’s speculation or inside information I don’t know, but it would be, we would miss him dreadfully, but anyway, how do you apply your winner effect



PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: I was really struck when I saw Paddy Jackson taking, you know, the kick he missed. You could kind of see it in his eyes, he was going to miss it, and generally, you can compare him with Ronan O’Gara, who, obviously, poor old Ronan, who has been dropped this week, but, he..

MARIAN FINUCANE: He was another fine servant it has to be said.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: And he very seldom missed his kick. And what Ronan had was a complete killer instinct. He’s a man with a…

MARIAN FINUCANE: He believed it, didn’t he?

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: He believed it, and he has that will to dominate. Someone said, I think it was Kidney said he had ice in his veins, you know? And that’s true about O’Gara, there’s a ruthlessness about him, and that’s what you need to win, and that’s what the Irish, the Scottish team have never really had for years, and the Irish team, rugby team, didn’t used to have it. Now, they had it for a while, they really had that professional will to win that the English team have always had, but they seem to have lost it in the last few weeks. Whether it’s the whole dynamics of the team and the relationship with the coach but it seems to have run its course in the team, so I feel that they’re going to be on the back foot psychologically this afternoon.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Yeah, because you believe that winning gives you the confidence to win.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: That’s right. So something called The Winner Effect, the title of my book..


PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: is actually a phenomenon that applies across all species. And you win one event, against a weakened opponent, even though it’s a really bad contest, you’re more likely to win against a stronger opponent. So if you beat Italy this week, you’ve got a better chance of beating England the following week.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Mind you, we played rather well, or they played, I didn’t play, rather well in Cardiff


MARIAN FINUCANE: And then it didn’t

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: No, that’s the problem, you see, team dynamics. The Winner Effect is about individual competition. Teams are a whole different kettle of fish. It’s much more complicated than the relationship between the coach and the team bonding, and..remember the France, the world cup in France, the whole team fell apart and there was an appalling performance. So it’s more complicated than teams. You see it particularly when it comes to kicking, you see it in soccer as well.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Such a responsibility. But you’re right, O’Gara used to do it with such confidence, you just knew that it was definitely going to happen. And indeed Johnny Sexton. And indeed hopefully the other two that are named for this week as well. Now, you also say that you can look at Hugo Chávez.


MARIAN FINUCANE: I remember you telling me that I, or anybody else indeed (laughs), couldn’t be a benevolent dictator.


MARIAN FINUCANE: Because the power, the power changes chemicals nearly, in the brain.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Oh it absolutely changes chemicals. I mean, power acts through the same part of your brain that cocaine does and sex does. There’s only one reward network in the brain. And power has a mainline into it. And so Chávez, I mean, he was a remarkable man. He halved the levels of poverty in Venezuela. And then (laughs) he squandered the wealth. Among the biggest oil reserves in the world, and now mortgaged them to the Chinese. You know, the place has the highest crime rate in the world, it’s a mess, the country.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Why though? Why, why do..

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Well, here’s why, here’s why. So. I can give you the example of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.


PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Before the election, he performed really badly. I remember him on the Late Late Show when you thought “my goodness this man’s not fit to be Taoiseach. Since he’s become Taoiseach -and I hold no card for Fine Gael particularly- he has become smarter. He has become really impressive I think. And that’s because having power increases testosterone, the hormone testosterone, that increases dopamine in the brain, and that makes the front part of your brain work better. It makes you smarter. Power makes you smarter. Powerlessness makes you less smart. So for a person like Enda Kenny who I think has a strong ethical and kind of moral background, he is someone who’s unlikely to be corrupted by power but can benefit from its biological effects. It’s like a drug. It’s like a brain-enhancing drug. The trouble is for other people, different personalities, it can tip them over the other side. The brain has..there’s a Goldilocks zone for this dopamine, the chemical messenger – too little and you underfunction, too much and you underfunction. But unconstrained power like dictators have, like Gaddafi or, or, Saddam Hussein, it just tips them into complete madness.


PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Castro..Castro..em..it did, yes, because, I mean, there’s a series of characteristics, absolute power causes, it makes you narcissistic, and it makes you start to see the world as an arena for yourself. It makes you totally concerned with your own image and it gives you a messianic manner and Hugo Chávez..he really started to feel himself to be God-given and that happens to most dictators.


PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: And some great businessmen. I mean, who just begin to..this happens to men more than women, Marian, so it’s a vulnerability of men. Margaret Thatcher had it a bit as well.

MARIAN FINUCANE: And tell me, how do you relate, now you were talking about ..if you win, it makes you want to win, it makes you win.


MARIAN FINUCANE: So where would you put Rory McIlroy? We’ve been reading about him all week.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: That’s so interesting you know, because he…he was a man who had..it wasn’t a meltdown a few years ago but a couple of years ago anyway.


PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah.  But he, but he’s done really well. And I don’t think it was a coincidence, it was just after he’d signed his Nike deal for $170m that he’d had this uncharacteristic walking off.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Why? Why would you make the connection?

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Well, there is a…I’m only speculating, I cannot know the psychology. It could be he had a sore tooth, it could be that he had girlfriend trouble..heh..it could be that the new clubs were interfering with his swing. I’m just speculating. But all I can tell you is that there’s something called choking. And choking is when you want something, and you’re rewarded too much for something, it can disrupt your fine brain control. So, you know, if you, even an experiment, if you get people chasing, doing a tracking task on the computer, and for some of the time, they get a €5 if they find  the target and for the others you get a €50 reward, you’ll find that many people actually fail to get the €50 reward because they want it too much, it’s too big a reward. And the increased dopamine in their brain interferes with the brain function, and the brain’s such a highly tuned machine that too little of this stuff or too much of this stuff can disrupt its skills. So with Rory McIlroy, here is a young man with a €170m in his bag, and the whole kind of motivation of being the young terrier coming though the ranks and fighting for this..

MARIAN FINUCANE: Number one goal

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Big number one goal..and suddenly he’s kind of there, there’s a problem of motivation here now, of what am I doing this for? I’ve got my $170m, so, motivation and maybe a combination of the new clubs can really..it’s going to take a while for his brain to realign to a completely different psychological and biological environment. So I cannot answer the Rory McIlroy question, because it would be speculation, but all I’m saying is, give anyone a $170m for the rest of their life and the risk is you sap some of the meaning from their life


PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: and you get that from lottery winners often.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Yep. I’m just coming up to 12 and we’ll have to go to the Angelus, but just before I go, what advice would you give to our rugby team today? I’ve forgotten to ask you that.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: I would say remember past victories you have had, great victories you have had against France and don’t let the worries and the doubts about O’Gara being dropped and the conflict that can happen in a team, just remember the victories and believe you can do that again.

MARIAN FINUCANE: OK, listen Ian, thank you very very much indeed for that, now we will be talking about the new project in Trinity on 7 ways to improve your memory and to keep your memory and all that bit of you nice, or memory and brain, people are interested in these things, anyway, we’ll come back to that after we have the Angelus, the news, and maybe a short trip to Rome to see what’s happening there. But now, we’ll pause for the Angelus.



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2 responses to ““But now, we’ll pause for the Angelus”: Psychologists, Political Power and the Irish Regime

  1. One is immediately struck by two things here (a) the quality of the dialogue which would be a challenge to any professional actor – the timing, the fillers, the sheer mastery of the oblique unstated and (b) the extraordinary intellectual level of the psychological analysis which would undoubtedly leave any last-drinks pub conversation in the shade for its grasp of the technicalities of psychodynamics and its familiarity with the work of people like Freud, JUng, Klein or even Foucault, Lacan and the others. Thank you for posting this. It justifies the very existence of our national broadcaster!

  2. shea

    heard a theory before David Pepper on modern environmentalism. darwins survival of the fittest, he was culturally biased, 19th century england, middle class, those private schools, competition was his culture. its actually survival of those who can co operate best. imagine if that idea was propagated in the media instead of the dominate one.

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