In Search of Vigillance: The Problem of Iatrogenically Created Psychological Phenomena

Hancock, P. A. (2013). In search of vigilance: The problem of iatrogenically created psychological phenomena. American Psychologist, 68(2), 97-109. doi:10.1037/a0030214

To what extent are identified psychological processes created in laboratories? The present work addresses this issue with reference to one particular realm of behavior: vigilance. Specifically, I argue that the classic vigilance decrement function can be viewed more realistically and advantageously as an “invigilant” increment function. Rather than characterizing the transient decrease in detection capability that is evident on exposure to enforced monitoring as a diminishment in capacity, it may be more usefully seen as an appropriate scaling by the designated observer to adapt to the nonoptimal circumstances that he or she is forced to endure. This proposition emphasizes the dynamic response characteristics of the observer and locates the origin of the phenomenon and the onus for practical improvements in the design of operational displays with designers rather than apportioning blame for performance decrements to the operator. This perspective reinforces the recognition of a crucial presence of the necessary but often unrecognized external arbiter in the vigilance paradigm and the extrinsically imposed imperative to sustain attention. Explicit recognition of this fact also helps explain the stress involved with extended vigils. In identifying the traditional vigilance decrement as a form of iatrogenic disease, I argue that modern design of work systems should alleviate the need for either the acute or the chronic expressions of such enforced human monitoring activity. It is possible that the case of vigilance is itself representative of a modern propensity to create new psychological phenomena in the face of human exposure to modern, evolving technical environments.

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