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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'