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Sutherland was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham before going to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology. He stayed at Oxford for his DPhil which he took in zoology under the supervision of J. Z. Young. He held a lecturing post at Oxford before moving in 1964 to the recently opened University of Sussex as the founding Professor and head of its Laboratory of Experimental Psychology; with the young colleagues he appointed, he rapidly built an international reputation for Sussex in this field.
Among psychologists, Sutherland is best known for his theoretical and empirical work in comparative psychology, particularly in relation to visual pattern recognition and discrimination learning. In the 1950s and 1960s he carried out numerous experiments on rats but also on other species such as octopus; the two-factor theory of discrimination learning that he developed with Nicholas Mackintosh was an important step in the rehabilitation of a cognitive approach to animal learning after the dominance of strict behaviourism in the first half of the twentieth century. He was also interested in human perception and cognition, and in 1992, he published an exposition on empirical studies of cognitive biases and common failures of human judgement titled Irrationality: The enemy within.
Among a wider public, Sutherland is most famous for his 1976 autobiography Breakdown, detailing his struggles with manic depression. A second edition of Breakdown was published in June 1998, only a few months before his death from heart attack in November.
(incomplete; excludes journal articles, of which Sutherland published many)
- The methods and findings of experiments on the visual discrimination of shape by animals, 1961
- Animal discrimination learning, 1969 (Edited, with R. M. Gilbert)
- Mechanisms of animal discrimination learning, 1971 (with N. J. Mackintosh)
- Breakdown, 1976, second edition published 1998 ISBN 0-19-852380-7
- Prestel and the user: a survey of psychological and ergonomic research, 1980.
- The psychology of vision, 1980 (Edited, with H. C. Longuet-Higgins)
- Discovering the human mind, 1983.
- Men change too, 1987 (novel).
- Macmillan dictionary of psychology, 1990 (also published as the International dictionary of psychology).
- Irrationality, 1992, reissued by Pinter & Martin 2007, ISBN 978-1-905177-07-3
- Biography of Sutherland on the University of Sussex website
- Pinter & Martin publishers of Irrationality
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