Automation failures have been the cause widely reported disasters, such as the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009, as well as much more minor incidents in just about every workplace that uses automation.

In the case of the Air France flight, the focus was placed on deficiencies in the automated system. Although automation does help in avoiding human error in completing tasks, people still are needed to monitor how well the automated system is operating.

Monitoring of systems often requires multitasking: There usually is more than a single function to monitor, and when one function fails, it likely leads to subsequent failures, which can occur in rapid succession. Operators can experience something known as “cognitive lock-up” if they are lacking in ability or training in working memory and sustained attention.

A paper recently published online in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, describes a correlation between an operator’s working memory and ability to sustain attention and cognitive lock-up, which is when an individual focuses longer on an initial failure event than on subsequent failures, allowing a sequence of events to spiral out of control.

“Previous research had focused only on identifying task- and automation-related predictors of cognitive lock-up,” said Meike Jipp, a researcher at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

She studied the reaction time, working-memory ability and sustained attention ability of 85 students (18/39 years old) as they monitored a simulated flight display and engine warning display similar to those in the Airbus A320. The first failure was with the autopilot, followed by a failure of one of the three engines.

Jipp’s findings showed that to a significant degree, individuals with better working memory not only were able to correct an initial system failure quickly but also could switch their attention to secondary failures more quickly. Furthermore, her results upheld her hypothesis that the influences of working memory and sustained attention on the reactions of human monitors increase across failures.

These results expand the knowledge base in determining characteristics that can be used to develop systems and processes to help prevent cognitive lock-up and the sometimes catastrophic failures it can cause. Examples noted by Jipp include “enabling automation to prioritize failures and communicate such information… improve the task environment …and modify personnel selection strategies and establish training procedures for working memory, cognitive flexibility and sustained attention.”

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society is the world’s largest scientific association for human factors/ergonomics professionals, with more than 4,500 members globally.