UC psychologist wins top US award

30 May 2011

A University of Canterbury academic has received international recognition from the world's largest organisation for psychologists.

UC psychologist wins top US award

Associate Professor Deak Helton with Fin.

A University of Canterbury academic has received international recognition from the world's largest organisation for psychologists.

Associate Professor William "Deak" Helton (Psychology) has been awarded the Earl Alluisi Award for Early Career Achievement by the American Psychological Association (APA) in recognition of his work in the field of human factors psychology.

The annual award is presented to an academic in the first 10 years of his or her post-PhD career who has made a significant contribution to applied experimental and engineering psychology. The award is named after Earl Alluisi, a pioneer in the field of engineering psychology who worked on the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Professor Helton, who joined the staff at UC in 2008, said he felt "highly honoured" to receive the award from the world's largest organisation of psychologists.

"I feel especially honoured as the award has rarely been made to someone outside of North America. Having senior colleagues in the field note my contributions to the science of human factors and applied psychology is definitely rewarding."

One of Professor Helton's primary research concerns is the study of vigilance, looking at why people cannot maintain a constant level of attention or alertness over time during monitoring or detection work, for example while looking for weapons in luggage or monitoring radars.

"This is what we in the human factors community call the vigilance decrement."

Professor Helton said a popular theory in neuroscience circles is that the inability to maintain vigilance is due to these tasks being repetitive, monotonous and boring. This leads to daydreaming and performance disruption, "or the monotonous nature of the task itself leads to a disengaged automatic, zombie-like condition".

"This is an attractive theory to most people because it seems to fit their own beliefs about such tasks. While no doubt people daydream at times, the empirical research does not bear fruit for this theory."

Professor Helton said the other theory was that vigilance decrement is tied to how objectively hard the detection task is, not its monotonous nature. People cannot maintain vigilance because these tasks require continuous work without opportunities to rest, are unpredictable and often have cryptic targets.

"We are beginning to link this performance decline with objective physiological changes in the brain. I was one of the first people to use real-time brain monitoring to examine human mental fatigue and vigilance in visual detection tasks. It is critical to unravel why detection failures actually occur because if the failure is due to monotony-boredom then the solution is to provide more external stimulation to the task, for example, increasing the cognitive demands of the task.

"The problem is if the vigilance decrement is really due to mental fatigue, adding even more work will make things worse. Testing the two theories is extremely critical. It can mean the difference between an air-traffic controller detecting a vehicle parked on the runway or not, which in turn means the difference between you, as a passenger, living or not. I have also done innovative work looking at how emotion impacts human performance, and emotion is often a neglected topic in the field."

He has also done research on working dogs from an ergonomic science perspective, one of the first researchers to do so. His work in this area resulted in Canine Ergonomics: The Science of Working Dogs (2009), the first scientific book on working dogs.

"The idea that ergonomic science could enhance working dogs' abilities, which are already exceptional in many regards, just like ergonomic science can enhance human abilities at work, was novel. This generated a great deal of interest in the working dog community and agencies deploying working dogs. I get email all the time from folks in the military, demining or search and rescue organisations," he said.

"If my work helps people find and eliminate improvised explosive devices, landmines and unexploded ordinance that is really all the reward I need."

Professor Helton will receive his award at the 2012 American Psychological Association Convention.

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