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Tributes paid to Strathclyde Psychology Professor

Tributes have been paid to Strathclyde's Emeritus Professor of Psychology, John Davies, who has died at the age of 73.

Professor John Davies

Professor Davies was at Strathclyde for more than 30 years and was an authority in psychology related to music, addiction and human factors in accidents and safety. He was also an accomplished trumpeter and a long-serving conductor of the University of Strathclyde Big Band.

Born near Manchester, Professor Davies initially worked at Durham University before arriving at Strathclyde. His first book, The Psychology of Music, published in 1978, dealt largely with the cognitive psychology of music, though it also included humorous coverage of other fields.  It introduced his model of musical aesthetic preferences based on cultural influences and personal memories, which he called DTPOT (‘darling they’re playing our tune’) and Professor Davies was subsequently credited with helping to establish music as a field of study in UK university psychology departments.

Professor Davies went on to carry out research which challenged the dominant way in which addiction is understood.  His 1992 book, The Myth of Addiction, suggested that, notwithstanding pharmacological influences, addiction was a causal attribution for undesirable behaviour with personal, social and political functions.  Senior addiction specialists voted the book as one of the most influential in the field in 1999.

These ideas were extended in a later book, Drugspeak: The Analysis of Drug Discourse (1997), in which he argues that the idea that people have no control over addictive behaviours was to an extent a self-fulfilling prophecy sustained by a wider societal context in which individuals must justify their behaviour.

Explaining behaviour in terms of addiction, Professor Davies proposed, served the important function of allaying responsibility for undesirable conduct.  The explanation of addiction, he suggested, directly undermined people’s belief in their ability to change behaviour, which was a strong predictor of actual behaviour change. 

Professor Davies became founding co-editor in chief of the academic journal Addiction Research and Theory and was an active member of the New Directions in the Study of Alcohol Group, traditionally delivering a presentation on the final day of its annual conference.

Professor Davies became involved in human factor research in the 1990s and, in 1996, he founded, as director, the Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System (CIRAS) for rail safety.  Following the Paddington rail crash of 1999, in which 31 people died, this was mandated as a national system by the then UK Transport Secretary, John Prescott, and it is still in operation today.

The contract to run the national system led to the setting up of Human Factors Analysts Ltd, a Strathclyde spinout company which undertook research into human factors and safety for the NHS and UK nuclear and defence companies.  He also served on the board of NHS Quality Improvement Scotland. His last book, God Versus Particle Physics: A No-score Draw, was published in 2013.

As a musician, Professor Davies recorded and toured extensively with jazz fusion group Head in the 1970s. His other hobbies included cycling, making model aeroplanes, mountaineering and birdwatching. 

Professor Davies’ friends spoke of him as being a one-off, a maverick and complete original who was without pretensions, had a great sense of humour, was a captivating storyteller, and an unflinchingly rigorous proponent of honesty and integrity.  He was keen to get to the bottom of the explanation of any phenomenon and, expecting nothing less in return, loved to argue points to exhaustion, regardless of social convention, embarrassment or the eminence of those with whom he was arguing. 

They also described him as a fantastic unyielding mentor who deployed his considerable intellect in a supportive and thought-provoking manner, encouraging those close to him to push their ideas beyond the constraints of traditional thought and accepted ‘truths’. 

Professor Davies is survived by his wife of 50 years, Shirley.


23 November 2017