Obituary: Donald Broadbent - People - News - The Independent

Obituary: Donald Broadbent

Donald Eric Broadbent, psychologist: born Birmingham 6 May 1926; Director, Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit, Cambridge 1958-74; FRS 1968; CBE 1974; Medical Research Council External Staff, Oxford, and Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford 1974-91; publications include Perception and Communication 1958; Behaviour 1961; Decision and Stress 1971; In Defence of Empirical Psychology 1973; married 1949 Margaret Wright (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1972), 1972 Margaret Gregory; died Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire 10 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.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week