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Effects of auditory warning signals on attention in complex settings

Research project

Many workers, such as pilots, nuclear power station operators, and healthcare staff constantly have to pay attention to warning signals in their working environment. One of many problems with auditory alarms occurs in settings where a worker must simultaneously respond to several alarms, and studies report that a badly designed alarm can cause serious outcomes. The aim with this project is therefore to investigate the effects of alarm signals on behaviour using a well-established attention task and to study the effects of alarm signals in a simulated cockpit environment.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period

2012-10-01 2016-10-01

Funding

Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, 2013-2016: SEK 4,100,000

Research subject

Psychology

Project description

Many workers, such as pilots, nuclear power station operators, and healthcare staff constantly have to pay attention to warning signals in their working environment. Auditory signals, the most important warning signals, are harder to ignore than visual signals because they can be perceived regardless of the worker’s location in relation to the origin of the signal. If a worker does not detect or respond to an alarm signal, this could indicate a poorly designed alarm, leading to dangerous and inferior performance. One of many problems with auditory alarms occurs in settings where a worker must simultaneously respond to several alarms. Pilots, for example, have reported that the activation of several auditory alarms can be distracting, creating confusion rather than triggering an intended reaction. Similar incidents have happened in hospital wards leading to patient injuries and fatalities.

One way to improve the design of alarm systems is to enhance our understanding of the behavioral impact of alarms as opposed to their subjective perception as has been used in the vast majority of past studies. Indeed, such studies have almost solely relied on subjective ratings and have examined the relationship between subjective perception of the importance of a message (recorded warning signals) and the actual design of the warning signal. These studies have found that certain alarm features (e.g., pitch, or intonation in a spoken message) are better at capturing attention than others, but this has rarely been studied behaviourally.

Not much is known of how these alarm signals affect for example attention and memory. The aim with this study is therefore to first investigate the effects of alarm signals on behaviour using a well-established attention task to identify which signals that best captures attention, and second, to study the effects of the identified alarm signals in a simulated cockpit environment in which participants have to perform several tasks at the same time.