Obituary: Donald Broadbent
Friday 16 April 1993
DONALD BROADBENT firmly believed psychologists should not only develop sound theories, but should also have applicable skills that could be used in the public interest. Throughout his career as an applied and experimental psychologist he demonstrated how attempts to solve practical problems can give rise to important theoretical advances.
Donald Broadbent was born in Birmingham in 1926. He normally identified himself as Welsh, however, partly on the grounds of ancestry and partly because his home was in Wales throughout adolescence. He was educated at Winchester College and then, following a three-year spell in the Royal Air Force, at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1949 and joined the Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge.
As was the case throughout his career, Broadbent's early research was motivated by practical problems. Much of this work focused on investigating the effects of noise on performance. This was partly to improve the intelligibility of electronic communications, but also to look at the effects of noise nuisance as a cause of stress.
He is probably best known, however, for his classic work on attention. His studies in this area grew out of a need to improve communications between squadron planes and control centres. On the basis of these studies, he developed an important theory of attention and showed that it is possible to investigate attention rigorously and explain it using information-processing concepts. His first book, Perception and Communication (1958), has been one of the most influential books in British, if not world-wide, psychology. It was seminal in presenting the information-processing approach to theorising about attention to the psychological community, an approach which has remained dominant for more than 30 years.
In 1958 Broadbent was appointed as director of the Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge. Between then and 1974 he continued to expand on his personal research, as well as building up the Cambridge unit into one of the most important and influential applied psychology units in the world.
In 1974 he moved, as a member of the MRC external staff, to the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford so that he could devote more time to his research activities. There he continued with his research projects, and also turned his attention to some new and important problems. One of these was to look at cognitive strategies in relation to work. As part of this, he developed a widely used measure of absent-mindedness - the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire. Together with his second wife, Margaret, he carried out a long programme of studies which investigated the effects of stress in industry, particularly whether differences in medical symptoms could be found as a result of different jobs. As well as being happy to tackle serious problems from the real world such as this, Broadbent was equally at home working on the technical details of laboratory-based tasks. Although, to some, his wide-ranging research interests during this period may have appeared unconnected, he showed an impressive facility for identifying and understanding the underlying relationships between a large number of disparate areas.
Broadbent's contribution to psychology was made not only through his own research efforts, but also through supervision of numerous research students, many of whom have gone on to become important figures in all areas of psychology throughout the world. He has also had a huge and positive influence on British psychology through his service on a large number of national committees. These include the Medical Research Council, the Social Science Research Council, the Science and Engineering Research Council, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Psychological Society, and the Ergonomics Research Society. In later years he set up and chaired the Joint Research Council Committee on cognitive science/human-computer interaction, and chaired the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations Study Group on Operator-Plant Interface.
Perhaps Broadbent's greatest contribution was his development and consistent championing over the years of an approach to psychology that blends sophisticated theorising with careful experimentation and a commitment to tackling problems in the real world. His achievements should be seen not simply in terms of the many excellent books and papers he has published, but perhaps more by his personal example. He was greatly liked and respected, and noted for his approachability, fairness, insight, and ability to explain the most complex concepts in simple terms. Cognitive psychology in general, and British psychology in particular, would have been immeasurably poorer without him.
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