Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Sir Tim Hunt affair: the science behind the saga

After publishing my blog post earlier this month on The Tim Hunt affair - a call for evidence-based judgement and decision making I was contacted by Professor Narinder Kapur who, like me, has an honorary position at University College London. Professor Kapur was interested in exploring some of the psychological perspectives of the case, and we agreed to collaborate on a short article which we offer below. We hope that this article will help to inform the debate by providing an understanding of the underlying behaviour involved.

Sir Tim Hunt’s predicament following his remarks at an international conference caused major controversy. Here, we examine how psychology as a scientific discipline may inform an understanding of some of the behaviours which formed part of that controversy. We briefly note findings in relation to eye-witness memory, cognitive bias, humour, moral behaviour, communication and online discourse.

Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize Winner, found himself at the centre of media attention after he made remarks at a conference of science journalists in Korea in June 2015. He subsequently resigned from positions within University College London, the Royal Society, and the European Research Council (Hunt, Wikipedia entry, 2015).

This article considers ways in which findings from psychological research may help to understand aspects of the controversy.

1. Eye-witness memory

The event in question, and Sir Tim Hunt’s speech in particular, appears not to have been video-taped or audio-recorded in full, so it is difficult to be certain about errors relating to eye-witness memory. Nevertheless, there is now overwhelming evidence to show that eye-witness memory may be fallible (Lilienfeld and Byron, 2013; Loftus, 2013), that memory for conversations may be particularly liable to error in a number of ways (Davis et al., 2005; Hirst and Echterhoff, 2012), and that a high level of confidence in a memory may in fact be related to the falsity of a memory (Weinstein and Shanks, 2010). The evaluation of evidence by eye witnesses can be biased by existing beliefs (Snyder and Cantor, 1979), and memory for events can be readily distorted by such beliefs (Johnson et al., 2012).

2. Cognitive and affective biases

Judgmental and emotional statements were made by many individuals, including scientists, journalists and the general public via social media channels. Numerous books and articles have pointed to the presence of cognitive and affective biases, many of which may operate at an unconscious level (Sutherland, 2013; Kahneman, 2012; Sheeran et al., 2013). Individuals may not be aware of their bias ‘blind spots’, and higher cognitive ability has in fact been associated with a larger bias blind spot (West et al., 2012). In the ensuing debates relating to the controversy, there were many instances of confirmation bias, whereby evidence was sought out to support a particular point of view. More sophisticated forms of bias also appeared to occur – e.g. retrieval-induced forgetting, whereby repeated retrieval of a particular piece of information can result in suppression from memory availability of related information (Storm et al., 2015), appeared to be manifest in the repeated retrieval of the ‘sexist’ remarks by Sir Tim Hunt and the associated suppression of the remarks and actions in favour of women which seemed to characterise much of his career.

3. The psychology of humour

Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks at the conference were reportedly offered as humour, and it is how this humour was viewed that was a key part of the affair (Bishop, 2015). As Jarrett (2013) has pointed out, humour may have evolutionary benefits, and those who suffer a neurological condition, such as the Nobel Prize winner Sir Peter Medawar after his stroke, have pointed to a sense of humour as being one of the key survival and coping strategies (Kapur, 1997; Roger et al., 2014). Scott et al. (2014) have highlighted the social side of humour, where it is associated with bonding, agreement and affection. It is thus one way of communicating with others, be it an individual or an audience, and it may serve a dual function of imparting information and generating affection and commonality. Jarrett (2013) has alluded to possible sex differences in both the generation and appreciation of humour, and also how it has been used as an avenue for understanding conditions such as autism. Lockyer and Pickering (2009) have pointed to the limits of humour, and situations in which it may backfire. Ford and Ferguson (2004) have concluded that while in some cases disparagement humour may create a normative climate of tolerance to discrimination, in general exposure to such humour does not appear to reinforce negative images of the group that is the target of the disparagement. Riesch (2014) has reviewed the ways in which humour has been used in science communication, and UCL has in fact pioneered the Bright Club to use the medium of comedy to convey scientific messages (

4. Moral behaviour

The controversy surrounding Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks included many moral judgments as to the righteousness of actions by Tim Hunt, by UCL and by those who spread news of his comments. It is possible to discern moral dilemmas faced by those who were put into certain positions and asked to make judgments. Researchers such as Haidt (2007) have highlighted the importance of moral intuitions, the social rather than the truth-seeking nature of moral thinking and the coevolution of moral minds with cultural practices and institutions. Some of the debate following Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks appeared to be divided along gender lines, and it is of note that Fumagalli et al. (2010) found gender-related differences in moral judgments, with men giving significantly more utilitarian answers to personal moral dilemmas. Baumard and Boyer (2013) have touched on the issue of proportionality of punishments in the context of moral behaviour, and how this appears to be a universal feature of interactions with a moral theme.

5. Communication

Lapses in communication between a wide range of individuals and organizations appeared to be one of the major features of the controversy. After considering the matter, UCL Council ordered a review of its communication strategy. Communication failures abound in all walks of life, from politics to patient safety. In the case of the latter, Kapur (2014) has, on the basis of relevant research studies, pointed to lessons that have been learned from studies of communication failures, and some of these lessons can probably be applied to the Sir Tim Hunt controversy. Thus, errors of communication are more likely to occur when – there are multiple, often contradictory, pieces of information from a range of sources; when there is time pressure; when there is high emotion; when there is ambiguity or duplication of roles; when there are authority gradients and where authority rather than evidence or reasoned decision-making determines the communication; where there is a culture that suppresses bad news and strives to put reputation before truth and transparency; and where there is mutual stereotyping between parties. Research has shown that seemingly innocuous sentences which contain implied emotion can result in what the authors termed ‘combinatorial processing’ and can readily activate emotion-related areas of the brain (Lai et al., 2015). Fischhoff (2013) has outlined four sets of expertise required for good science communication – subject matter scientists to get the facts right; decision scientists to identify the right facts that need to be communicated; social and behavioural scientists to formulate and evaluate communications; and communication practitioners to create trusted channels and modalities of communication. Uncertainties about facts and about predictions abound in science, as they did in the Sir Tim Hunt controversy, and both the recognition of such uncertainty, and ways of communicating in the presence of uncertainty, have been outlined by Fischhoff and Davis (2014).

6. The psychology of online discourse

It is widely acknowledged that online communication media such as Twitter played a key role in the transmission of messages after Sir Tim Hunt made his remarks. Domenico et al. (2013) have shown how the rapid spread of online communications via Twitter can be systematically modelled. Fenn et al. (2014) noted that false information acquired through Twitter was less likely to be integrated into a memory representation. There is greater potential for inflamed communications when these occur online (2015), and this may be due to factors such as relative anonymity of participants and absence of direct body cues during such interactions.


We would like to thank Sam Schwarzkopf from UCL for commenting on an early draft of this article.


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Wikipedia contributors. Tim Hunt. Available from: [accessed July 17, 2015].

© Narinder Kapur and Debbie Kennett

1 comment:

A. J. Simonsen said...

the social rather than the truth-seeking nature of moral thinking

Regarding Sir Tim Hunt, these two concepts got turned upside down and twisted around in so many ways that the moral compass was screwed before even the first twitter. All I can gather is that the people who colluded to report it as they did are tone deaf.