Verbeke worked at Erasmus University for 34 years. The university awarded him emeritus status just before Christmas. That very same day, he left for China to work on a paper. In China, he will also be holding a professorship: three months in the year, Verbeke will supervise PhD candidates at the Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. He doesn’t feel like hanging up his sword just yet, Verbeke tells us when we meet in the Novotel restaurant next to campus Woudestein.

He still enjoys science too much to retire. “We had already analysed all the data for that study in China, although we didn’t exactly understand the significance of our results. So you spend three weeks thinking, writing, asking questions, conferring. And all the while I feel insecure and restless: ‘Am I smart enough for this?’ But once the penny drops, I feel very relaxed.”

Why have you decided to continue working after becoming Emeritus Professor?

“I enjoy working, but actually I don’t see performing research as work. It’s about finding solutions, piecing together the puzzle. You start out on your own – by writing and discovering – and then you study how others have approached the issue. Whenever I get stuck, I go to bed and start over again in the morning. And when I ultimately find a solution, I feel enriched. Wow! Emerging from that struggle can be so fulfilling: finding an explanation for counterintuitive results in your data.”

What was the main insight when you arrived in China?

“Allow me to give you a different example from a study we performed into interbrain synchronicity in the context of a trust game. Subject A is handed five euros. He is free to give a share of this amount to Subject B, at which point the money is multiplied by three. B is then invited to give a share of his money to A, and the process is repeated fifteen times. You’d expect this experiment to lead to stronger inter-brain synchrony between their two brains, since the subjects can make a lot of money by trusting each other and taking a rational decision. But we actually observed the opposite: the higher the level of trust, the lower the level of interbrain synchronicity. At which point you sit down to think, write, put together the puzzle. What’s going on? At the end of the day, it’s quite simple: Subject A feels anxiety, because he needs to hand over money – at the risk of B making off with the cash. And Subject B needs to be stable and win A’s trust. It actually makes a lot of sense: this idea can also be applied to leadership or motherhood, for example.”

Are you driven by a desire to find an explanation for counterintuitive results?

“Yes. We tend to think that science goes like this: you formulate a hypothesis and you refer to data to check whether it’s correct. But this generally yields different results to what you would have expected. In most cases, whatever you suspected isn’t supported by the data, so you start looking for alternative explanations: ‘Let the data speak’. See it as a kind of detective story.”

'Mama, I want to become a professor'

Willem Verbeke straatnaambord – Geisje van der Linden
Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

Verbeke grew up in a family with five children in the Belgian village of Stekene, between Sint-Niklaas and Hulst. His father Robert Verbeke was mayor of the village – as testified by a street sign (Robert Verbekelaan) in the rural district of Kemzeke. His uncle was also active in Flemish politics. As one of twins, he developed ambition, drive and something of a competitive streak from a very early age. At the end of secondary school – Verbeke was taught at a boarding school – his mother asked him what he wanted to become. “I said: ‘Mama, I want to become a professor’ – I had set myself that goal at the age of 18.”

“This is my secret weapon,” says Verbeke as he fishes a book out of his bag and lays it next to the French loaf with tapenade. Norbert Elias’s Wat is sociologie? – the Dutch translation published in 1971. It reminds him of the goal set by his 18-year-old self, which is why he has saved it. “I always try to learn from intelligent people: it helps you progress in life. And my uncle once told me a story after going off to Ghent to study. He had a friend who wasn’t particularly intelligent, and he told my uncle: ‘You know what? I’ll start studying beforehand.’”


Willem Verbeke penn michigan harvard – Geisje van der Linden
Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

So when the young Verbeke went to study Philosophy in Ghent, he left a day earlier so he could read a bit in Wat is sociologie?. He leafs through the little book full of underlined sentences and notes in the margins: “At the time I only understood bits and pieces, but I was the only student who was able to ask the professor a question on Monday. And that’s how I’ve approached things ever since. I’m fairly intelligent, but I’m not brilliant. So I have to work hard for everything.”

In 2009 Verbeke made an appearance on the television programme Pauw en Witteman to talk about his research. Looking back, he thinks he shouldn’t have made such sweeping statements – nowadays he would never put it that way. During the broadcast, he showed two brain scans, of a strong salesman and a poorly performing one. The strong salesman showed more brain activity than his colleague. Verbeke concluded that within five years, brain scans would be included in many job application procedures. This prediction put him squarely in the firing line. Two prominent psychologists even called it ‘ludicrous boasting’ and ‘neurobabble’ in NRC Handelsblad.

Compilation of Pauw & Witteman with Willem Verbeke (Dutch only) Source:

How do you look back on your appearance on Pauw en Witteman?

“That interview caused quite a stir. I got 500 e-mails that night, with the harshest criticism. One person even wrote: ‘You’re the Dutch Mengele’. That kind of thing hurts. But at the same time, it also makes you stronger. I like to test the water – this has always been my approach as a lecturer too. Some students absolutely love it; others abhor it.”

Do you regret your appearance on Pauw en Witteman?

“No, I don’t regret it. My father always said: ‘Make sure never to regret whatever you do’. More than anything, the experience proved very educational. You need to run into a brick wall now and then to get better at what you do. I’ve become a lot more cautious in my statements. As a result, I have a better understanding of the fact that a lot of science is about commas rather than full stops. Something isn’t an established fact forever, but only temporarily. You can find a lot of information in an fMRI scan, but my prediction that those scans would ultimately replace selection and application procedures was putting it far too strongly.”

Is there anything you do regret?

“You need to learn how to find happiness. It has been six weeks since I last worked at the university, so I’ve closed that chapter in my life. I’ve been very strict on myself, and now I need to learn to enjoy myself. Dwelling on everything I’ve missed out on would be a waste of time. If I were asked to take stock, I think I fared quite well.”

Let me rephrase my question: Is there anything you would have liked to have done differently?

“Of course there are things I could have done differently. But at the same time, it’s beside the point –after all, you need to make choices. When I was young, for example, I was a decent runner. At 16, I could run 800 metres in 2 minutes and 8 seconds – even mornings when I wasn’t feeling particularly fresh. Imagine I had a coach who could teach me how to deal with that energy: I may have become a better runner. It’s the same thing in academia: every now and then you need to be lucky enough to bump into someone who offers solid advice.

“One thing that took me a long time to find out is that you need to do research together. I think that was due to my background in Philosophy: that whole idea of thinking and working on your own is rather outdated. A while back, I had a meeting with Professor André Uitterlinden [Professor of Complex Genetics at the Erasmus MC, eds.] and he told me: ‘Willem, you’re doing it wrong; you’re working far too much on your own.’ The fact that you need to build research consortiums is something I only found out in the past five years.”

Ronald Reagan

Willem Verbeke in Bolivia – eigen archief
Willem Verbeke in Bolivia during the end of the seventies Image credit: Personal archive

The waiter interrupts our conversation: “Would you like another glass of wine, Professor?” It’s clear from how the staff address him that Verbeke is a regular guest at Novotel. While the waiter sets down two new glasses of wine, Verbeke shows me a picture from when he still had long hair. It was taken during a trip through South America, shortly after he had graduated in Ghent with a thesis on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. “I travelled around for a while and wanted to help the poor. But I didn’t like it at all: that whole Woodstock ideal didn’t suit me. That’s when I realised: I want to earn my PhD in the US: the leading country worldwide.”

He returned to Belgium and sent a letter to every American university that had a Department of Philosophy. “Four weeks later, the postman was ringing my doorbell every day with a fresh stack of study guides.” He eventually ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded a PhD in Educational Psychology. He attended Marketing classes at Wharton School, which had a portrait of Donald Trump up on the wall, as one of their best students. He had cut his long hair by then, and Ronald Reagan’s election resolutely closed the door on 1970s idealism. “There I was – a European sophisticate – watching incredulously as people danced on the tables in celebration of Reagan’s election. That was definitely a turning point for me.”

It is also the germ of Verbeke’s interest in interdisciplinary research. He realised that as a worldly European with a Philosophy degree, he was at a loss when it came to explaining Reagan’s victory. His scholarship needed to become more practical and relevant. So he decided to enrol in a wide range of subjects, from biology and communication to advertising. After obtaining his PhD – 34 years ago – he went to work for Erasmus University. He chose Sales, a niche that not too many other academics were focussing on at that point. He has always kept this interest in interdisciplinary research. In his research into sales professionals, he combines insights, theories and methods from a wide range of fields. He’s particularly interested in the human brain. “These last ten years have been the best years of my life. I have been allowed to work with fMRI, EEG, hyper EEG, endocrinology, genetics, epigenetics. I call it a gift from heaven.”

Willem Verbeke hometrainer – Geisje van der Linden
Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

What do you feel proudest of?

“My father has a street sign; I have something like a street sign on Google Scholar, where I stand to break the 8,000 mark this year as far as citations are concerned. I’m the most frequently cited and published marketing scientist at EUR. There are only a few people as disciplined and consistent as I am. That may sound arrogant, but I am proud of my determination and drive. And I hope it inspires others. Although I suppose my self-discipline could inspire envy too. That may not make me popular, but I don’t mind. If you want to be universally loved, forget about becoming a professor.”

These past few years, the performance culture within academia – with its strong focus on publications and citations – met with a lot of criticism. What’s your perspective?

“My answer’s very simple: if you want to shine at the Olympics, you’ll need to work hard every day. They’ll never hold an Olympics for people who only train once a week. And to an extent, this also applies to academic life. Deep down, every scientist wants to have a lot of citations to his or her name. That’s also why I felt very much at home at ERIM: they make no bones about their objective: ‘publish or perish’.”

It sounds like a tough, cold-hearted environment.

“In my eyes, Erasmus University is a business-like, dynamic and very large-scale environment. And envy is part and parcel of the academic performance culture. I feel a bit jealous too if someone has more citations than I do. For me personally, the current system works. I’m in my element in this culture. Besides, you get a lot of freedom in return: if you manage to deliver, you’re more or less free to do what you like.

“You have to make considerable sacrifices though. For a lot of people, it’s important that they find a good partner. Will he or she allow you to devote a lot of time to your work? If your partner wants to go on holiday five months in the year, it becomes difficult to establish yourself as an academic.”

Do you have a partner?

“No. To be honest, I’ve stayed unmarried so I could devote myself to my work. My favourite part of the week is Saturday morning. The university is dead quiet, so I can really concentrate. Doing something fun with a partner would have been out of the question. If I hadn’t made that choice, I would never have got where I am today.”

Have you never had a partner at all?

“Yes of course I have. But I enjoy talking shop. With you, with colleagues, with managers. If I go out on a date, it only takes an hour for everyone to realise: all this fellow talks about is his work or the university. That’s not much fun for your partner.”

Will you be changing tack now that you’re an Emeritus Professor?

“Yes, I need to make some changes to my lifestyle and slow down a bit. Research shows that growing old alone isn’t good for you. I’ve decided on a few steps I’ll be taking now that I’m an Emeritus. One of them is finding a partner. But I also want to join a gym or cycling club. The university has played a big role in my life, and now I need to find a replacement.”

Willem Verbeke mok pennsylvania- Geisje van der Linden
Image credit: Geisje van der Linden