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Department of Psychology

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Professor Nicholas Mackintosh, FRS. Nick was Head of the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, from 1981 until his retirement in 2002, and a Fellow of King’s College. Nick was Chair of the School of Biological Sciences and served on the General Board. He died after a short illness on the morning of 8th February, 2015, in Bury St Edmunds.

Nick's contribution to Psychology was profound and enduring. In 1974, he published The Psychology of Animal Learning, regarded as the greatest book written on the subject and still used and valued forty years later. A work of supreme scholarship that provides an integrated synthesis of theory and fact, it laid the foundations for contemporary thinking about learning not only in Psychology but also in Behavioural Neuroscience. In 1975, he published an elegant, formal theory of the role of attention in associative learning that defined a sub-domain of Psychology. The theory had an immediate impact, and it remains the standard means of explaining how reinforcement history might influence the attention paid to stimuli, and hence their role in both learning and performance. It has become part of the core theoretical framework that underpins our understanding of human and animal mental life.

In 2010, Nick devised an ingenious revision to his theory in order to reconcile it with the alternative account of attention put forward by Pearce and Hall. His research into latent inhibition and perceptual learning had a similar impact to that of his earlier work. In both cases he accomplished the rare and difficult feat of taking theories that were devised in response to experimental results acquired from rats and pigeons and making them relevant to human cognitive psychology. As a consequence, his influence on Psychology is perhaps greater than that of any other comparative psychologist of his generation.

Nick's other major intellectual interest was the contentious issue of human intelligence and IQ testing. He published several research articles throughout his career and one of the most scholarly textbooks on the subject, IQ and Human Intelligence. It is a fearless and penetrating account of a literature that has, as Nick points out, sometimes made claims beyond its means. One of his major research contributions was the demonstration that ‘g’ cannot be a unitary construct. The area became his major focus during the last ten years of his life and he published the second edition of his book in 2011.

In 2011, Nick was commissioned by the Royal Society to Chair a working party on “Neuroscience and the Law”, evaluating the question of whether neuroscience can be informative to issues of criminal justice and civil law. His report was received with praise by the press, who noted his modesty and caution about the use of neuroscience in legal cases.

Committed to undergraduate teaching, Nick continued to lecture after his retirement through to the Michaelmas term before his death. He was deeply respected by students and this was reflected in the popularity of his lecture course.

Nick was cherished dearly by all those who knew him well. His death is a profound loss.

Professor Trevor Robbins/Dr Kate Plaisted Grant