Multitasking, communication timing, communication complexity, workload, system monitoring, human performance, figure of merit, auditory preemption, multiple resources, working memory, multiattribute task battery


Auditory preemption theory suggests two competing assumptions for the attention-capturing and performance-altering properties of auditory tasks. In onset preemption, attention is immediately diverted to the auditory channel. Strategic preemption involves a decision process in which the operator maintains focus on more complex auditory messages. The limitation in this process is that the human auditory, or echoic, memory store has a limit of 2 to 5 seconds, after which the message must be processed or it decays. In contrast, multiple resource theory suggests that visual and auditory tasks may be efficiently time-shared because two different pools of cognitive resources are used. Previous research regarding these competing assumptions has been limited and equivocal. Thus, the current research focused on systematically examining the effects of complexity and timing of communication interruptions on visual detection tasks. It was hypothesized that both timing and complexity levels would impact detection performance in a multi-task environment. Study 1 evaluated the impact of complexity and timing of communications occurring before malfunctions in an ongoing visual detection task. Twenty-four participants were required to complete each of the eight timing blocks that included simple or complex communications occurring simultaneously, and at 2, 5, or 8 seconds before detection events. For simple communications, participants repeated three pre-recorded words. However, for complex communications, they generated three words beginning with the same last letter of a word prompt. Results indicated that complex communications at two seconds or less occurring before a visual detection event significantly impacted response time with a 1.3 to 1.6 second delay compared to all the other timings. Detection accuracy for complex communication tasks under the simultaneous condition was significantly degraded compared to simple communications at five seconds or more prior to the task. This resulted in a 20% decline in detection accuracy. Additionally, participants' workload ratings for complex communications were significantly higher than simple communications. Study 2 examined the timing of communications occurring at the corresponding seconds after the visual detection event. Twenty-four participants were randomly assigned to the communication complexity and timing blocks as in study 1. The results did not find significant performance effects of timing or complexity of communications on detection performance. However the workload ratings for the 2 and 5 second complex communication presentations were higher compared to the same simple communication conditions. Overall, these findings support the strategic preemption assumption for well-defined, complex communications. The onset preemption assumption for simple communications was not supported. These results also suggest that the boundaries of the multiple resource theory assumption may exist up to the limits of the echoic memory store. Figures of merit for task performance under the varying levels of timing and complexity are presented. Several theoretical and practical implications are discussed.


If this is your thesis or dissertation, and want to learn how to access it or for more information about readership statistics, contact us at

Graduation Date





Mouloua, Mustapha


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Psychology; Human Factors Psychology








Release Date

August 2014

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)


Dissertations, Academic -- Sciences; Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic

Included in

Psychology Commons