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The impact of task complexity, cognitive load and anxiety on driving

Driving is a common every day, yet complex, task. It requires attention to the dynamic and ever changing environment and to the control of the vehicle itself. The misallocation of drivers’ visual attention has been suggested as a major contributing factor to vehicle accidents. There are several possible explanations for the misallocation of attention, but commonly it results from increased demand being placed upon the individuals limited cognitive resources. Factors which contribute to changes in cognitive demands include task complexity, additional secondary tasks or increased anxiety.

Personality traits may also affect how individuals maintain their visual attention and driving performance. Driving, like other well-learned skills, is often carried out without consciously processing how to execute the skill. However, evidence from other disciplines suggests that individuals may switch to a more controlled conscious processing due to factors in the environment (e.g., psychological pressure) and also due to individual differences in the predisposition to consciously monitor and control actions. The retrieval and processing of declarative knowledge to consciously monitor and control actions is argued to place demands on cognitive resources, impact visual attention, and ultimately hinder performance.

The aim of this project is to examine the impact of task complexity, secondary task and anxiety on visual attention and performance during a simulated driving task. Visual attention is examined using eye tracking technology. Task complexity is manipulated by altering the numbers of cars on the road and the number of potential hazards (i.e. other cars changing lanes without indicating). In some conditions participants drive whilst completing a secondary task involving listening to letters and recalling them after a time period. Finally, anxiety is manipulated by providing false feedback to the individual and stating that certain conditions are more important than other trials.

Participants are also grouped based how likely they are to engage in conscious processing. This is measured using a psychometric scale, the Decision Specific Reinvestment Scale. Using participants’ responses on this questionnaire we investigate whether a tendency for conscious processing impacts visual attention and driving performance in a variety of conditions (i.e. task complexity, secondary task, anxiety).

Human error remains the biggest cause of car crashes. With the large number of vehicles and cyclists on the road, plus increasing technologies in cars that often act as a distraction, it is important to understand how individuals maintain visual attention on the task at hand and cope with dynamic and ever changing environments. This could impact how driving skills are taught and assessed and also the current laws concerning road safety.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr David Broadbent

Related Research Group(s)

brain scan

Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience - Fundamental and applied research into brain function using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), electromyography (EMG), eye-tracking, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), infrared thermography together with psychophysics and cognitive behavioural paradigms in health and disease.

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Project last modified 15/07/2021