Fellows Detail

Emeritus Professor Alan Richardson

RICHARDSON, Alan. BA, DCP (Western Australia), PhD (London), FAPsS. 1981. Panel D.

Elected: 1981

Discipline: Psychology

Date of Passing: 26/06/2002


Alan Richardson, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australia, died on 26 June at the age of 78. He had been a Fellow of ASSA (Panel D) since 1981 and was the Branch Convenor for Western Australia from 1985 to 1991. Alan was a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a founding Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, but, although he was a competent administrator, he was not at heart an organiser or even a joiner.

He was much more a relentless seeker after knowledge of the human condition and more particularly an understanding the workings of the human mind. His major research fell into two rather diverse fields: the psychology of immigration and the characteristics and potential of human imagination. He will be remembered best by those with the good fortune to have known him as a kind, warm and intellectually stimulating presence. In Who’s Who he described his recreations as ‘conversation and reflection’.

Alan came to academe relatively late in his life. He was born into a lively middle-class family in Southern England and worked as a draftsman before performing his military service in the British Army. He migrated to Perth in 1948 and qualified by mature age matriculation for enrolment in Arts at the University of Western Australia. It was a double degree, in literature and psychology, which he completed with first class honours. He married a fellow student, Faith Clayton, and returned to England to undertake his PhD (University of London, Bedford College). In 1957 he was appointed to the Department of Psychology at Western Australia where he stayed until his death. During that period he accepted Visiting Fellowships in several overseas universities, including the Universities of Exeter, Sussex and London in England, Trinity College in Ireland, and the University of Saarlandes in Germany. His research program and his international standing led to the award of a Personal Chair by the University of WA, a rare honour at that university.

As a migrant himself, it was not surprising that Alan’s main research topic in his first years was the psychology of immigration. In this respect he was in the right place at the right time, and was able to play an important role almost from the outset, in the group at the University of WA that constituted some of the pioneer researchers on that subject. Alan made substantial contributions to the conceptualisation and measurement of the psychological changes in migrants as they shift membership from one society to another. In Perth he studied British immigrants as they settled into the new country, and in his PhD research in London he studied the prospective immigrants before their departure. Alan also had a longstanding association with the ANU Demography Department where he was a visiting fellow in 1966. Among other contributions, he established empirically that acculturation was more likely to follow identification by the immigrant with the new country rather than the reverse sequence, ie, acculturation leading to identification.

Alan’s interests went well beyond social psychology. He was deeply intrigued by what it is that makes up a person and what goes on in the life of the mind. He was a rigorous scientist, but unlike many psychologists of 40 years ago, was very willing to work with the ‘soft’ topic of subjective experience. In the 1960s he began his pioneering studies of mental imagery before this topic had become relatively fashionable in the wake of the psychedelic movement. He even took LSD (under legitimate conditions) in order to observe its effects. Alan’s work is one of the reasons that the study of private experience, such as imagery, became more respectable in Psychology. He published Mental Imagery in 1969 (it was translated into Japanese in 1973) and in 1975 gave the Keynote Address at the First International Conference on Mental Imagery, in San Francisco. Imagery, to Alan, was as legitimate subject for research as other cognitive experience, and it is typical of him that he included in his studies the extraordinary eidetic imagery of children who see what they imagine as vividly as if they were looking at it. He not only developed ways of measuring and improving imagery; he also established that we could improve skills, sporting skills for example, by practising them mentally. Sports psychologists and coaches throughout the world now know this and, as a result, more and more athletes live the life of the mind.

Alan’s deepest work was about consciousness and the varieties of conscious experience, from dreams and daydreams to the peak experiences that he thought, along with the highest forms of art, gave meaning to life. He published The Experiential Dimension of Psychology in 1984. Until the week he died he was supervising an honours candidate whose project on how the heart responds to fear-laden imagery was based closely on his own work.

His exceptional teaching was recognised by a University award, and he was an inspiring colleague. Into what can sometimes be the cockpit of academic life he brought a civilising influence. He was charming, stylish and affable; he trusted people and they trusted him; he radiated warmth and trust with his distinctive stance and euphonious voice.

Alan’s academic reputation meant that he had colleagues all over the world and he travelled a lot to work with them. But his home was Perth and the Department of Psychology remained his intellectual home. He helped form it and it helped form him. He recently wrote a history of it to help its current members to understand what they have inherited. When he retired in 1989 to become a Senior Research Fellow of the University he continued to live the life of a scholar, consulting generously with all who sought his advice and writing up the results of many years of research, review and reflection.

Alan’s death leaves a big hole, nowhere more than with his soulmate Faith and his daughters June and Catherine.

John Ross and Ronald Taft


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