Professor Denis Hilton 1955-2021

Mark McDermott (University of East London) with a tribute.

On Thursday 11 February 2021 Denis Hilton, age 65, passed away in Manchester, in the arms of his beloved wife Ania, after a year-long, private battle against cancer. Despite being diagnosed in November of 2019, Denis had kept on teaching remotely, supervising, researching and publishing right the way through 2020, through chemotherapy, surgery and the pandemic. Even in his last two months he was organising supervision for his postgraduate students, such was his commitment. The world has lost a remarkably gifted social psychologist and cognitive scientist, a supportive teacher and a kind, warm and generous friend to the many who knew him.

I first met Denis in 1983 when, after finishing his PhD at Oxford, he was appointed as a lecturer in social psychology at University College Cardiff, a post he occupied for three years. I had just begun my doctoral research. Denis was fun, open-minded and was able to impart his considerable wisdom for the benefit of those around him. He possessed the unusual gift of being able to be both mentor and friend at the same time. 

Born and raised in the north-west, he attended Manchester Grammar School and studied undergraduate psychology thereafter at Sussex University. At Oxford he conducted his doctoral research under the supervision of Mansur Lalljee and Jos Jaspars, both of whom he admired immensely. He was a relative rarity in British social psychology at the time, as it took its 'discursive turn': Denis was steeped in an understanding of the north-American social cognition literature, in particular focusing on causal attributions. 

He made many notable contributions during his career but without doubt one of the high points was his 1986 paper in Psychological Review with Ben Slugoski in which an alternative model of causal attributions was evidenced: the Abnormal Conditions Focus Model. As Denis explained to me, their research showed that when trying to designate the cause of an occurrence or bit of behaviour, what we do is search over the chain of events that preceded it and ascribe causality to the most unusual or infrequent event in that chain. Oftentimes, that event turns out not to have been of causal significance but we go on believing it to be so and acting accordingly, erroneously or otherwise. This is especially relevant when considering the accuracy of clinical decision making, wherein designating the correct cause of a problem is key to arriving at a potentially efficacious intervention. So, Denis’ work in its implications and impact went well beyond theoretical blue skies. Such marrying of theory and application would see Denis later in his career apply his intellectual skills to analysing decision making in the context of financial markets.

Denis, however, was much more than the sum total of a hugely impressive publication record. He was an international psychologist and cognitive scientist who played an active part in a broad community of scholars and friends, travelling widely, taking part in many conferences overseas, and visiting numerous universities and research groups. He loved his work. He made working pleasurable not only for himself but also for those with whom he collaborated. He excelled in bringing people together. For the last 23 years he worked at the University of Toulouse, being fluent in French. He very much regarded himself as a European psychologist and thought it important to be embedded within a broad transnational understanding. As further illustration of this, as a present he once gave my wife and I an enormous dictionary which enables the cross-referencing of seven European languages. He was a living embodiment of the realisation that the world has to work together across national boundaries to solve its problems. 

During the 1990’s for six years he taught at the Ecole Superieur des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales in Paris, whilst also lecturing for a brief period at the University of Hertfordshire, and spending a year and a half between 1989 and 1990 on a Humboldt scholarship at the Universitat Mannheim, Germany. In the 1980s, after leaving Cardiff, he had worked for two academic years in the centre of 'dustbowl empiricism' at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA. So, by the time Denis arrived in Toulouse he had travelled the academic world; he had absorbed and contributed to a diversity of cross-cultural intellectual contexts in higher education which had enriched his development and facilitated many outstanding collaborations.

As if that weren’t enough, whilst at Toulouse, he spent 12 months as a visiting professor in the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Such an international perspective undoubtedly fed into his work there on social representations of history and collective remembering with Jim Liu and attribution theory with John McClure. Denis had an easy conversational style of thinking which by no coincidence contributed to the development of his feted Psychological Bulletin paper on conversational process and causal explanations, a publication which has been cited nearly five hundred times.  

For all Denis’ undoubted, gentlemanly brilliance, I will remember him first and foremost as a much-valued friend who over the years took the time and trouble to be part of my life, as no doubt he was part of the lives of many others. We shared our enthusiasm for the Rolling Stones, for The Square Club, for an occasional knockabout on a tennis court and for French red wine. Salad days indeed. I will best remember him with a glass in hand, engaged in convivial conversation. This was his hallmark, his modus operandi: an ability to converse with those he was with and develop ideas collaboratively and conversationally – and all this despite being profoundly hearing impaired. He was a remarkable man and will be very much missed, doubtless most and longest by his now six year-old daughter, Victoria, who had all too briefly her wonderful 'papa' by her side. I dedicate this remembrance to her.

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