Load theory behind the wheel: an experimental application of a cognitive model to simulated driving

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Murphy, Gillian
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University College Cork
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Load Theory is a prominent model of selective attention first proposed over twenty years ago. Load Theory is supported by a great many experimental and neuroimaging studies. There is however, little evidence that Load Theory can be applied to real world attention, though it has great practical potential. Driving, as an everyday task where failures of attention can have profound consequences, stands to benefit from the understanding of selective attention that Load Theory provides. The aim of this thesis is to apply Load Theory to the task of driving, using driving simulation technology, to examine the real-world relevance of the load model as well as the applied recommendations such an endeavour may generate. First, a literature review exploring the applied potential of Load Theory was conducted. This review highlighted the artificial nature of most experimental paradigms used in Load Theory research. Therefore, before driving simulation studies could get underway, a series of basic EPrime experiments was carried out to establish a novel load manipulation that could be translated to more complex tasks. The load model was supported by this new paradigm, and alternative explanations such as expectancy and dilution were ruled out. Chapter 4 then used this new paradigm in a driving simulator task. Load Theory was again supported, most notably with the finding of reduced distractor processing and increased inattentional blindness and deafness under high perceptual load. Chapter 5 replicated this finding using a different, more ecologically valid load manipulation. Chapter 6 examined the cross-modal effects of load, finding that high auditory load increased inattentional blindness for an unexpected roadside animal. Finally, Chapter 7 considered the effects of cognitive control load on driver attention in more detail, comparing verbal and visuo-spatial working memory load. Interestingly, and in line with Load Theory, increasing cognitive load actually reduced levels of inattentional blindness for an unexpected object. In summary, this thesis clearly demonstrates the robust nature of Load Theory and its utility in understanding driver attention. The thesis has many applied implications as well as raising important theoretical issues which may help to advance the development of the load model.
Cognition , Attention , Driving , Applied cognitive psychology , Perceptual load
Murphy, G. 2017. Load theory behind the wheel: an experimental application of a cognitive model to simulated driving. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.