Vale Emeritus Professor Alex Wearing

Tribute by Professor Nick Haslam

Emeritus Professor Alex Wearing passed away on June 18 after a long illness. Alex was a lodestar for the School of Psychological Science, who inspired and guided many generations of academic colleagues and students over a period of almost half a century. His loss will be keenly felt within the School, the University and the wider psychological community.

Alex began his academic journey at the University of Adelaide, where he took out an honours degree in psychology, with minors in English and Mathematics, in 1963. A Master of Arts followed in 1966, with a thesis on personality and religious belief. In 1964 he left Adelaide for the sweeping plains of the mid-west, completing his PhD at the University of Illinois in 1969. The year before he had joined Yale University as an Assistant Professor of Psychology.

In 1970, two years into his appointment, Alastair Heron, then the Chairman of the Psychology Department at Melbourne, notified Alex of a new full professorship in experimental psychology. Alex, just 30 years old at the time, was unsure of being ready, writing to Heron: “I am doubtful whether I am an appropriate candidate since I have only been out of graduate school a little over two years, and so have relatively little work experience.” But he applied, writing in a letter that “I … strongly wish to return to Australia to a position in which my background and training in America can be of some service”. Thankfully for the Department, he was successful.

Alex moved to Melbourne to occupy his Chair in early 1972 at the tender age of 31, full of optimism. As he told The Age in a profile soon after arriving:

“Professionally it would have been better to stay in the U.S., where everything was happening,” he said. “But Australia seems to me to have so many advantages … we are not hampered by the traditions of Britain and the U.S. We could be free to try anything new … we could become a pathfinder to the world”.

In the years that followed, Alex made that aspiration a reality, helping to lay the path and encouraging others to follow it. He taught cognitive, organisational and applied psychology. He wrote over 100 articles and book chapters as well as 5 books and countless reports. He travelled around the world for conferences and sabbaticals, maintaining a global scholarly network at a time when this was rare in Australian psychology. He played a major role in developing computing at the university, having been engaged in programming from the mid-1960s. For a time, he served as Associate Dean for budgets in the Faculty of Arts, and as an adjunct Professor in the Melbourne Business School.

Most of all, Alex led the Department. Over the 36 years of his appointment as a Professor, he served as Head for 12, including five substantial terms. He was renowned for his ability to foster a collegial culture, taking the time for personal conversation with staff, distributing responsibility, encouraging people to take on leadership roles and supporting them when they did. He influenced people by setting a positive example and by gently nudging them with reasons rather than pushing them with directives. He was a whole-hearted and effective mentor of female leaders at a time when this was far from universal.

In 2008 Alex retired as the longest-serving professor in the University, but as Professor Emeritus he remained highly involved, coming in frequently to write, supervise, chat and generally be in the thick of things until he was too frail to travel. When that day came, an era ended.

As a scholar, Alex had three hallmarks: Innovation, Complexity, and Application. Starting with innovation, he was in many ways ahead of his time. He was a very early adopter of computers in data analysis and simulation as well as in educational practice. As a teacher, he broke the lecture mould by developing group projects and collaborative learning opportunities. He studied topics before they became mainstream, notably his research with Bruce Headey and colleagues on the structure and determinants of subjective well-being, now a vast enterprise but a lonely field when they started their work over 35 years ago.

Alex’s approach to psychology also respected the complexity of the human subject and the need for our models of mind and behaviour to reflect that complexity. His work on decision making emphasized how decisions are made in settings of dynamic change, and his well-being research recognized that happiness is always the outcome of complex, entwined processes that implicate personality, life events, needs, and the balance of positives and negatives. Alex believed that any psychology worth doing considered both individuals and the systems in which they were embedded; that everything had to be studied at many levels. This necessitated a wide-ranging curiosity about the world beyond psychology. He had a very well-stocked mind.

In addition to its openness to complexity, Alex’s work always valued application over abstraction. In a chapter he wrote in 2001, he distinguished between correspondence thinkers, who are most concerned with how ideas relate to facts, and coherence thinkers, who care most about how ideas relate to one another. He was a correspondence thinker, a pragmatist who did not push theoretical barrows or aspire to formal elegance or conceptual purity but hoped to stay close to the world as it is and to make a difference in it. He preferred ideas that were plain and true to those that were beautiful but false. His commitment to application shone through in his leadership of courses in applied and organizational psychology and also in his research, which explored a remarkable assortment of applied topics: coping with stress among nurses, causes of tax evasion, well-being among police officers, morale among school-teachers, reducing residential water consumption, misconceptions about the economy, managerial performance, factors predicting the initiation of smoking, cervical cancer screening, and decision making effectiveness in firefighters.

In addition to his scientific contributions, Alex had a deep impact on his students. While still at Yale, he was a pivotal influence on Bob Sternberg, then a college junior and now an eminent thinker on the psychology of intelligence and creativity, who wrote that Alex “was one of my principal inspirations for continuing on in cognitive psychology when I went to graduate school.” Alex had the same career-defining effect on many other protégés. He continued to shape new generations of students once he arrived in Melbourne, graduating well over thirty doctoral students, and many more at Honours and Master’s levels, not to mention the thousands of students fortunate enough to take his classes. His students have gone on to great things in many spheres of academia, the psychology profession and industry.

One thing that his students and colleagues will remember is Alex’s enormous generosity with his time and attention. He took a personal interest in many people and offered guidance, support and gentle wisdom. The School is diminished by the loss of such an integral part of its success and its way of life. We express our profound gratitude for Alex’s contributions, and our heart-felt condolences to Rosemary, Niki, Kim and Robin.