Award-Winning Psychology Video Spotlights Critical Research

by Rashad Mulla

Award-Winning Psychology Video Spotlights Critical Research

George Mason University's Human Factors and Applied Cognition Program, housed in the psychology department, conducts cutting-edge research relevant to some of today's biggest safety issues, including engagement in driving distractions and air traffic management. During the spring 2011 semester, the program took a creative detour.

Ewart de Visser, a psychology doctoral student, and Tyler Shaw, a psychology faculty member, created a catchy, clever rap video to explain their work to non-psychologists. On May 5, the video took first place in the national contest for which it was created, held by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the national psychology organization.

For de Visser, who studied film during his undergraduate career, the video was both a necessary and fun way to explain human factors succinctly to an audience unfamiliar with the field. He and Shaw looked for ways to highlight the currency and importance of the program's research.

“We do research, so outreach is not our main focus, but we wanted to make the video when we heard about the competition,” de Visser said. “What we do here is examine people's abilities and limitations, and design systems, technology and products to ensure human safety. This applies to several different domains, such as driving, air traffic control, and human brain function.”

With this semester came the contest, and Shaw, who had been part of a similar video project at the University of Cincinnati, during his time as a PhD student there. With two motivated psychologists, the video process was under way. Shaw handled the writing and rap performance, while de Visser handled the camera filming, image procurement and video editing.

The program released the video on April 4, 2011. Shaw believes it conveyed the proper message.

“What we do in human factors is very important and hopefully has an impact on the world,” he said. “Ideally, we want to have our research informing policy. Imagine what can happen if we systematically show the layperson the dangers of certain tasks.”

The video touches on some of the research on which both de Visser and Shaw are currently working.

In less than a year, de Visser plans to graduate and complete his dissertation, entitled, “Calibrating Trust in Cognitive Agents.” The research explores differences in trust in both humans and machines.

“We, as humans, look for certain indications on when and how to trust people,” de Visser said. “We try to figure out, at a sophisticated level, the intent of others, and whether they mean harm or good.”

Shaw's research focuses on sustained attention, which has ramifications for anyone performing arduous, monotonous tasks for long periods of time.

“I'm interested in this whole idea of mental energy and the mental fuel we have when we approach certain tasks,” he said. “That fuel depletes over time, and we’re interested in the nature of this mental energy depletion so we can better understand the limits of human perception and attention.”

Throughout the summer, the program hopes to further their distracted driving program, in which psychology faculty and students travel to schools and other locations to explain the dangers of distracted driving, using interactive simulations. The department is also excited about the prospects of the Center of Excellence in Neuroergonomics, Technology and Cognition, which opened in July 2010 under the leadership of University Professor Raja Parasuraman.

These new developments may even be featured in the next de Visser/Shaw film collaboration. The creative duo plans to make short documentary videos to promote different human factors themes.

Watch the original video, posted below: