Norman Wetherick 1929-2022

A tribute from Donald Wetherick and Ken Gilhooly

Norman Wetherick was a large man with a large personality, with broad and deep intellectual interests, and with a genuine interest in others. His advice helped many students and junior colleagues to fulfil their potentials and he continued till late in a long life to contribute to fundamental issues in psychological science.  

Early life and education

Norman Edward Wetherick was born into a stable working class family in southeast London in 1929, the son of Ted, a clerk at Pascal’s (the sweet manufacturer) and Madeleine, a shop assistant. His mother had been denied educational opportunity as a child, but as Norman wrote in his memoir ‘she was determined that, whatever it was, I (her only child) should have it.’ Norman made the most of the opportunities available, gaining a scholarship to Alleyn’s School and narrowly avoiding national service in the Korean War when his CO (Major Gough Allen) allowed him to take up a place at Bristol University to study philosophy and English literature. This was a happy time.

After a few less happy years in industry Norman used a modest inheritance from his father’s death (when Norman was 29) to take a further degree in psychology and economics at UCL. He went on to a PhD in Liverpool where he met Mary through mutual friends and an active involvement in amateur theatre. They married in 1961. From Liverpool, where their son Donald was born in 1965, the family moved first to Bradford and then to Aberdeen where Norman was a senior lecturer from 1971. 

Norman repaid his mother’s support in later life, taking her into his own home in Aberdeen for twenty years until her death. As well as a love for theatre and opera he retained a love for music hall and comic song, an echo of his east-end origins. 

Teaching

Norman’s lectures on the history and philosophy of psychology revealed his deep wells of knowledge. He had a remarkable ability to give riveting talks and lectures without notes or any visual aids at all. This is a lost skill these days.

Pastoral work

Norman was very approachable and his standard greeting when someone came to see him was “Hello my friend! What can I do for you?”

He was particularly helpful to students seeking personal advice. One approached him at the end of second year in Aberdeen convinced that they should do an Ordinary rather than an Honours Degree. Suitably reassured by his wise words, the student went on to do well in Honours and is now a Professor of Psychology who still has warm feelings toward Norman for his advice and support. 

Norman was also a source of wise personal and career advice for younger staff as well as for students as many will attest. 

Norman and Mary were always genial hosts at dinner parties for staff which they held on a regular basis – a custom which boosted staff wellbeing and morale but which sadly has become very rare.

Research work

Norman was a regular attender at research seminars, and often appeared to nod off during seminars – however,  speakers usually found out he had, as he said, merely been “resting his eyes” –  and always asked penetrating questions, based on careful listening.

He was active for many years in the area of reasoning research, in which he contested the popular irrational “confirmation bias” explanation for performance on tasks that required people to form and test hypotheses (viz., Wason’s 4-card selection task and the reverse-20 questions task). Norman argued that it was the artificiality of the tasks led to apparent errors when people applied reasonable approaches. He had a long standing dispute over this issue, with an eminent figure in the field, Peter Wason (1924-2003), and with Wason’s many followers. Some say Norman’s views on this issue arose as a result of his being a student participant in Wason’s original studies in late 1950s, while he was studying at UCL, and his strongly disagreeing with the debriefing that his answers were logically wrong! Despite Wason’s great influence and eminence in the field, Norman was not to be swayed, and eventually, after many years, Norman’s explanation of performance in these tasks became widely accepted in the field.

Norman ran into further controversy with his study on the role of the nose in visual perception, possibly as a sort of anchor in the visual field. This work involved small lights inserted into nostrils, which does strike most people as a funny thing to do. Despite the comical sounding method this research was published in the highly prestigious science journal, Nature on March 31, 1977. Soon after publication the prominent and notoriously acerbic commentator, Bernard Levin, satirised Norman’s study as being basically crazy (in The Times of June 7, 1977); to which Norman replied somewhat delphically (in a Letter to the Editor of The Times, published June 18, 1977), that he was as serious in his work as Levin was in his! Although the role of the nose in visual perception had been raised previously by very serious perception researchers such as Ernst Mach and James J. Gibson, there remains a question mark over whether Norman intended his paper purely as a straight study or at least in part as a “dig” at the strange things experimental psychologists get up to and get published! Indeed, that the paper appeared just one day before April Fools’ Day, led to speculation that it was a subtle joke. Credence to this view is also given by the fact that Norman was highly critical of many developments in cognitive psychology, which he felt had become too laboratory based and too divorced from the important questions about the purpose and functions of the mind – a critique forcefully expressed in his influential (2003) polemic 'Against cognitive psychology', published in The Psychologist, 16, 22-23.  

After voluntarily leaving his full time position as Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Aberdeen University in 1983, following the severe budget cuts and the ensuing redundancies of 1981-83, he focussed on his first academic love of seeking to understand human nature by studying and contributing in the area of the History and Philosophy of Psychology until very late in his long life. During this near 40-year period, he contributed numerous thoughtful essays, review articles and book reviews to the literature as well as giving many conference presentations.

BPS activities

Norman was a loyal member of the BPS from his student days in 1959 and contributed much to its activities over many years. He was Member of four sections, viz., the Cognitive, the Developmental, the Consciousness & Experiential and the History and Philosophy Section, of which he was Chair and Council Representative (1987-90) as well as Editor of the Section Newsletter.

Family life

Norman was a reliable and generous family man, fond of telling stories from his life. He was intellectually rather than physically vigorous, encouraging appreciation of the arts, culture and knowledge generally. Although not musical himself he encouraged and supported both Mary and Donald in developing their musical skills and careers. He continued to write well into his eighties and his latest publication was in 2018. There was always a pile of books by his side until dementia made reading unrewarding. He remained remarkably content as his world gradually diminished, spending his final year in hospital and a local care home. 

In his memoir, written in his 70s, Norman wrote: ‘Nothing in my career turned out as I had hoped it would, I am not even sure that I should have dignified my employment history by calling it a career.’ Whatever one makes of this the memoir itself is full of humour and written without a hint of bitterness, a record of a life and not just a career. Norman died on 1 February 2022 after a short illness, aged 92. He is survived by his wife Mary and son Donald.

Donald Wetherick

Edinburgh

Ken Gilhooly

University of Hertfordshire    

Thanks to the following for thoughts and memories shared with us about Norman: Graham Davies, Jan Deregowski, Mary Gilhooly, Bob Logie, Derek Sleeman,  Mary Wetherick and Val Wynn.

Copies of Norman’s memoir ‘Apologia pro vita sua’ and an interview with Kate Davidson given as part of the BPS oral history of psychology are available from [email protected].

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber