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Copyright 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

The Cognitive Revolution at Age 50:

Has the Promise of the Human
Information-Processing Approach Been Fulfilled?

Robert W. Proctor
Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University

Kim-Phuong L. Vu
Department of Psychology, California State University, Long Beach

The cognitive revolution and the human information-processing approach it adopted

are now more than 50 years old. This article provides an overview of the history of hu-
man information processing and its relation to human factors and humancomputer
interaction (HCI). Fundamental concepts and findings concerning human informa-
tion processing and their applications to HCI are summarized. The last half of the arti-
cle discusses new developments and evaluates criticisms of human information pro-
cessing and alternative approaches that have been proposed. Our conclusion is that
the information-processing approach has served psychology and HCI well, providing
cumulative basic and applied knowledge in a variety of areas and a basis for integrat-
ing this knowledge. The approach continues to be a fruitful source of empirical and
theoretical advances across a variety of disciplines.


Beginning in the 1950s, a major change in theorizing in psychology occurred that

has come to be known as the cognitive revolution (see, e.g., Baars, 1986; Simon, 1991).
This change involved a shift from an emphasis on behaviorist theories to theories of
a more cognitive nature. Although there is disagreement as to whether the cogni-
tive revolution is best characterized as a discrete paradigm shift (e.g., Lachman,
Lachman, & Butterfield, 1979) or a more continuous evolutionary change (e.g.,
Kendler & Kendler, 1975), the revolution had a significant impact on theory and re-
search not only in psychology but also in a variety of associated disciplines, includ-
ing human factors/ergonomics and humancomputer interaction (HCI). Green-

Correspondence should be sent to Robert W. Proctor, Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue

University, 703 Third Street, West Lafayette, IN 479072081. E-mail:
254 Proctor and Vu

wood (1999), who takes an intermediate position concerning the continuity of

theories before and after the cognitive revolution, said,

I believe it is important to recognize that the advent of cognitive theories in the 1950s did
mark a fairly radical theoretical discontinuity, and precisely the sort of theoretical dis-
continuity that is characteristic of many revolutionary episodes in the history of science
(Cohen, 1985). (p. 1)

Or more bluntly, as Estes (1975) put it, Without depreciating its oftentimes impres-
sive accomplishments, we must recognize that behavior theory did not lead in any
direct way into the body of theory we find sparking and directing the present broad
expansion of research in human cognitive psychology (p. 15).
The cognitive revolution is characterized by the widespread adoption of the
human information-processing approach to psychological research and theory
(e.g., Lachman et al., 1979). The basic idea behind this approach is that theories
can be developed that describe, at levels ranging from high-level plans to neural
events, the way in which information pertaining to overt stimuli and responses
is represented and processed by human and nonhuman organisms. The ap-
proach uses a range of specific behavioral and psychophysiological methods to
evaluate the nature of the elementary codes, the operations that act on them,
and alternative models concerning the structure of the information-processing
system and the flow of information through it when performing specific tasks.
As David, Mircea, and Opre (2004) noted in a recent special issue of the Journal of
Clinical Psychology devoted to implications of the cognitive revolution for clini-
cal psychology,

Cognitive psychology seems to have achieved its prominence in current mainstream

psychology due in part to its argument that the human mind should be described in
terms of information processing, to its use of experimental and modeling tools to under-
stand this information processing, and to its use of multilevel analyses. (p. 360)

The impact of the information-processing approach on the field of psychology

cannot be overstated. As one indicator, as of May Week 1 2006, the PsycINFO index
of publications in psychology listed 3,899 entries that contained the term informa-
tion processing in the title, only 2 of which appeared prior to 1960. The actual num-
ber of articles devoted to some aspect of human information processing is many
times larger than this, because most do not include the term in the title.
In this article, we provide a historical overview of research conducted since the
cognitive revolution on the processes and representations that affect human per-
ception, cognition, and action. This overview emphasizes general contributions to
psychology and related fields, specific contributions to HCI, and recent develop-
ments. We then consider criticisms and limitations of the assumptions that underlie
the human information-processing approach and discuss alternative theoretical
approaches that have been proposed.
Promise of Information Processing 255


2.1. Significance

As with many significant events in science, it is impossible to determine an exact

date on which the cognitive revolution occurred (see Figure 1 for a time line of ma-
jor events). Much of the impetus for the revolution came out of applied research
conducted in relation to World War II (Posner, 1986), and many groundbreaking
studies were conducted during the 1950s. Greenwood (1999) distinguished two rel-
atively independent movements, one involving attention and short-term memory
and the other computational models of thought, emphasizing that both devel-
oped out of advances in applied engineering in the 1940s and 1950s (p. 19). The
first of these movements concerns the human performance tradition, which fo-
cused on empirical analyses of perception, attention, memory, response selection,
and motor control (Fitts & Posner, 1967). Classic studies in this movement include
Cherrys (1953) studies of attention, the investigations of Hick (1952) and Hyman
(1953) on effects of stimulus-response uncertainty on speed of information process-
ing, Fitts studies on stimulus-response compatibility (SRC; Fitts & Deininger, 1954;
Fitts & Seeger, 1953) and the speed-accuracy trade-off for aimed movements (Fitts,
1964), and Broadbents (1958) filter theory of attention.

FIGURE 1 Time line illustrating some of the major work in human information pro-
cessing from its inception to 2006.
256 Proctor and Vu

The second movement to which Greenwood (1999) alluded is that of computa-

tional models of thought, which is associated most strongly with the work of Newell
and Simon (1972). Their classic book, Human Problem Solving, described on the jacket
as a definitive presentation of the information processing approach to human cog-
nitive processes, laid a foundation for studying aspects of problem solving and
thinking. One could cite many other movements in the cognitive revolution, includ-
ing Chomskys influential work on transformational grammar in linguistics. Indeed,
Greenwood (1999) emphasized, The cognitive revolution itself seems to have been
comprised of a number of originally fairly distinct developments and movements
that only eventually became interrelated and interlocking (p. 18).
Although it is impossible to designate a single date or event as crucial to the revo-
lution, Newell and Simon (1972) stated, 1956 could be taken as a critical year for the
development of information processing psychology (p. 878). This is a date with
which George A. Miller (2003), another major figure in the cognitive revolution, re-
cently agreed. Simon (1991) described four significant publications that appeared in
1956: (a) G. A. Millers (1956) classic article, The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Mi-
nus Two, on limits of information-processing capacity; (b) one of Chomskys (1956)
first articles on transformational grammar; (c) Bruner, Goodnow, and Austins (1956)
book, A Study of Thinking; and (d) Newell, Shaw, and Simons (1957) report on a com-
puter program that solved problems by using heuristic search strategies. G. A. Miller
(2003) placed particular emphasis on an interdisciplinary symposium held at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 1956, which included papers by
Newell and Simon on problem solving, Chomsky on transformational grammar,
Swets and Birdsall on signal detection theory, and Miller himself on short-term mem-
ory limitations, among other papers. G. A. Miller (2003) was careful to point out,
though, that although 1956 was a good year for cognitive psychology, it was only
slightly better than the years just preceding and following (p. 142).
Another event that is often cited as significant in the development of human in-
formation processing is publication of Broadbents (1958) book Perception and Com-
munication. Memory researcher Alan Baddeley said in this regard, Donald
Broadbents 1958 book elaborated probably the first and most influential informa-
tion processing model in the area [of short-term memory] (as cited in Reynolds &
Tansey, 2003, p. 57). Neissers (1967) book Cognitive Psychology is also considered to
be a landmark in that it provided an identity to the field.
From the outset, the information-processing approach has been interdisciplin-
ary. This is evident in the composition of the contributors to the 1956 symposium
that G. A. Miller (2003) considered to be of central importance. This inter-
disciplinarity has included a close relation with engineering, computer science,
and consequently HCI. For example, G. A. Miller (2003) characterized the research
of the 1950s as follows: Many were riding the waves that began during World War
II: those of servo theory, information theory, signal-detection theory, computer the-
ory and computers themselves (p. 142). Given the close relation of the informa-
tion-processing approach to computers and artificial intelligence, and given the
view that both humans and machines can be conceived of as being types of symbol
manipulators, it seems only natural that the information-processing approach has
provided a primary basis for understanding and analyzing HCI.
Promise of Information Processing 257

2.2. Characteristics of the Information-Processing Language

and Approach

Posner (1986), in his overview of the section of the Handbook of Perception and Perfor-
mance devoted to information processing, stated clearly the value of the informa-
tion-processing approach and its historical roots. He began the overview with a
heading, Information Processing Language, in which he emphasized that the concepts
of the information-processing approach are crucial to its success. According to

Human performance can be described in terms of subjective experience or in terms of

brain processes. The language of human information processing provides a common
vehicle for the integration of these two approaches. On the one hand, information pro-
cessing can be related to subjective experience, since verbal reports often serve as a
method of accumulation of evidence and can be viewed as the output of a specialized
processing system that has its own objective status within an information/processing
theory. On the other hand, the language of information processing provides an analysis
of psychology that is congenial to physiology because it places emphasis on different
levels of processing and the time course of their activation. Information/processing lan-
guage provides an alternative way of discussing internal mental operations intermedi-
ate between subjective experience and activity of neurons. (p. V-3)

Posners quote captures well the important point that the success of the informa-
tion-processing approach is due in large part to its providing a language that en-
ables interaction and unification across a broad range of psychological, behavioral,
and neurophysiological concerns.
In agreement with G. A. Miller (2003), Posner (1986) noted, The information/
processing language has been influenced by computers (Simon, 1969) and by the
mathematics and insights of information and control theory (Shannon & Weaver,
1949) (p. V-3). He went on in the next sentence, though, to emphasize, its empiri-
cal base rests mainly in experimental studies of human performance (p. V-3). This
linking of data and modeling is crucial to the success of the approach. As Simon
(1991) indicated,

By studying thinking at the information/processing level and by modeling thinking on

a computer, which is a completely different device physically from the human brain, by
showing that we can carry out these same information processes on the computer, we
have been able to abstract the operations of mind from the particular material base that
supports those operations in any particular instance. (p. 50)

Another useful feature of the human information-processing approach is that it

takes a systems perspective to human performance that is similar to the perspec-
tive of humanmachine system that is adopted more generally in human factors
and HCI (e.g., Sheridan, Rossmeissl, & Howell, 2002). This common approach al-
lows the basic research on human information processing to be integrated closely
with applied issues (Proctor & Van Zandt, 1994). The fundamental assumption of
viewing the human and machine as a system is that the system can be decomposed
258 Proctor and Vu

into machine and human subsystems, and each can be analyzed further. The con-
cepts, methods, and theories for analyzing the processes of the human subsystem
are provided by the human information-processing approach. Posner (1986)
stated, Indeed, much of the impetus for the development of this kind of empirical
study stemmed from the desire to integrate description of the human within over-
all systems (p. V-6). More recently, in a chapter on human information processing
in air traffic control (ATC), Roske-Hofstrand and Murphy (1998) noted this relation
between the systems approach and human information processing, stating, Hu-
man factors engineers apply knowledge about human information-processing ca-
pabilities and limitations (the domain of cognitive psychology) to the design of the
ATC system, i.e., its technologies, interfaces, procedures, and so on (p. 66). They
concluded their chapter by noting, As long as there is a human role in ATC, hu-
man information-processing capabilities will continue to be critical components of
the system (p. 107).

2.3. Application to HCI

HCI is fundamentally an information-processing activity, and one of its central

goals is to facilitate communication between the human and the computer. The
psychologist J. R. R. Licklider recognized the importance of linking human and ma-
chine cognition many years ago. Licklider, who played an essential role in the es-
tablishment of the Internet (see, e.g., Bernstein, 2005), said in 1960,

The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be
coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human
brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the informa-
tion-handling machines we know today. (p. 4 of reprint)

In their classic book applying information-processing analyses to HCI, Psychology

of Human-Computer Interaction, Card, Moran, and Newell (1983) were explicit in
noting, It is natural for an applied psychology of human-computer interaction to
be based theoretically on information-processing psychology (p. 13).
In a recent discussion of the history of the British Medical Research Council Ap-
plied Psychology Unit, Philip Barnard noted not only that the research on HCI con-
ducted by the unit was based in human information processing but also that it was
extremely challenging to match human and computer cognition:

From 25 or 30 years doing research on HCI, two things became very clear. First of all, this
kind of technology was not really like the technologies we had before. We were really
faced with the challenge of figuring out how it was that you would integrate different
cognitive capabilities, like memory, problem solving, language, and so on. (as cited in
Reynolds & Tansey, 2003, p. 24)

Although many other approaches to HCI have been developed in recent years (see,
e.g., Carroll, 2003), Stewart (2003) still made the point in the introduction to a recent
Promise of Information Processing 259

special issue of Behaviour & Information Technology devoted to computer use that
cognitive issues are both fascinating and vital to successful human-computer in-
teraction (p. i).
Human information-processing analyses have at least three main uses in HCI
(see, e.g., Dumais & Czerwinski, 2001). First, basic facts and theories about informa-
tion-processing capabilities can be taken into account when designing interfaces and
tasks. Second, information-processing methods are used in HCI to conduct empiri-
cal studies evaluating the cognitive requirements of various tasks in which a human
interacts with a computer. Third, computational models based on specific cognitive
architectures are employed to describe the information processing of a user interact-
ing with a computer while performing specific tasks and to provide quantitative pre-
dictions of human performance with alternative interfaces.

Information-processing capabilities. A basic distinction can be made be-

tween three processing stages, sometimes called perception, cognition, and action
(e.g., Proctor & Vu, 2003). This categorization is an extreme oversimplification, be-
cause many of the same processes may be involved in tasks classified as primarily
perceptual, cognitive, or motoric, and the relation between perception and action is
much closer than this categorization implies (see the section PerceptionAction Re-
lations). However, it provides a useful starting point for analyzing those processes
that involve input to the human from the environment, mental manipulations of
and operations on this input, and control of actions that affect the environment. The
model can be expanded to distinguish sensory processes from perceptual organiza-
tion and identification; to separate cognition into attention, memory, problem solv-
ing, and decision making; and to partition action into response selection and re-
sponse execution (e.g., Wickens & Carswell, 2006). Moreover, specialized models
can be developed for describing specific processes in detail and for characterizing
the processes involved in performance of particular tasks.
The following are examples of research examining basic information-processing
capabilities that are directly relevant to HCI. Considerable research in visual infor-
mation processing during the past 30 years has been devoted to visual search (Lo-
gan, 2004; Wolfe, 1998). In the typical visual search task, a display of many items is
presented, and the participant must indicate whether a target is present or not, or
identify which of two or more possible targets is present. The primary concern is
the extent to which reaction time and/or error rate increase as a function of the
number of items in the display. Search can range from being very efficient, showing
little influence of number of display elements on performance, to very inefficient,
with reaction time and/or error rate increasing substantially as additional ele-
ments are added. Studies have identified many factors that distinguish situations
in which search will be efficient, such as when the target is distinguished from dis-
tracting elements by a distinct color, shape, or orientation, from situations in which
it will be time consuming and effortful (e.g., when the target is defined by conjunc-
tions of features that are present individually in other elements).
Not only has a large database on search performance been developed, but for-
mal theories have been specified as well. Logan (2004) summarized two families of
260 Proctor and Vu

formal theories of attention that provide quantitative accounts of visual search

data, one based on similarity-choice theory and the other on signal-detection the-
ory. Similarity-choice theories attribute efficient search to parallel processing and
inefficient search to serial processing. Signal-detection theories assume that all
searches are performed in parallel, with search efficiency differences attributed to
an influence of discriminability on decision processes. Logan emphasized that
these theories also provide quantitative accounts of a range of other attentional
phenomena, including categorization, cuing benefits, task switching, and strategy
A related example involves control of saccadic eye movements. Because only a
small region of the visual field centered about the fovea is high resolution, complex
displays such as natural scenes must be scanned systematically to extract the rele-
vant information. Saccadic eye movements while looking at scenes have been the
subject of investigation for years (see, e.g., Findlay & Gilchrist, 2003), with several
phenomena established, including that fixations increase in duration over time
viewing the scene and saccadic amplitude decreases, with both reaching an asymp-
tote after several seconds. Unema, Pannasch, Joos, and Velichkovsky (2005) noted
that no adequate theoretical account of these processes has been developed previ-
ously. They provided evidence to support a model that attributes both the changes
of fixation duration and changes in saccade amplitude to a common mechanism.
The model includes a theory of saccade generation in which move and fixate
activity are in a mutually inhibitory relationship. During fixation, a salience map
for all possible saccade locations is formed, with salience based on several factors
(intrinsic salience, search selection, and spatial selection); the time at which a win-
ner is chosen depends on control of the fixate-move balance by automated pro-
cesses. The model also relies on the concept of two modes of visual processing
(Trevarthen, 1968), with the basic idea that initial saccades rely more on an ambient
mode to locate objects in the scene, whereas later ones rely more on a focal mode to
identify specific objects. Unema et al.s model provides not only a good fit to the
fixation duration and saccade amplitude data but also an explanation for several
related phenomena.
Another topic of relevance to HCI that has attracted considerable research inter-
est is SRC. Indeed, Newell (1990) said, SRC is of major importance in humancom-
puter interaction and human factors. A large part of what makes displays and but-
tons easy to operate is whether stimuli and responses are compatible (p. 277).
Most HCI and human factors professionals know from the classic study of Fitts and
Seeger (1953) that performance is better with some combinations of spatially ar-
rayed displays and controls than with others, as well as with direct mappings of the
individual display elements to the control elements. However, contemporary re-
search on SRC and related effects has shown that compatibility effects are perva-
sive phenomena that occur for essentially any dimension along which stimulus
and response sets may be physically, conceptually, or structurally similar
(Kornblum & Lee, 1995; Proctor & Vu, 2006b). Rather than being solely a function of
the physical layout, compatibility effects are determined by task goals, immedi-
ately prior experience, and the mappings of other tasks that may possibly need to
be performed or are to be performed concurrently. Guidelines can be derived from
Promise of Information Processing 261

current data and theory concerning compatibility effects to assist in the design of
compatible interfaces (Proctor & Vu, 2006a).

Studies of HCI tasks. We provide two examples of areas of research in HCI

that have benefited directly from methods and principles developed in basic hu-
man information-processing studies. The first example is the depth versus breadth
issue with respect to menu and Web design, for which basic research on working
memory capacity has been influential. G. A. Millers (1956) magic number 7 2 has
served as a rule of thumb for many HCI tasks, indicating that working memory ca-
pacity is limited to about 7 chunks of information. D. P. Miller (1981) examined how
many items and levels are optimal in a menu a structure. He examined four condi-
tions in which the number of elements was 64, but arranged in a deep structure (six
levels, with two items per level, or 26), intermediate structure (43 and 82), or broad
structure (641). Participants had to navigate through the menu structure to find a
target item. Performance was considered correct when the target was selected at
the lowest level menu in which it was presented. The time to acquire the target item
was shortest when the display consisted of the intermediate structures (i.e., 43 and
82), with errors lowest for the 82 structure. D. P. Miller noted that these optimal
menu arrangements are consistent with the magic number 7 2.
Larson and Czerwinski (1998) reviewed several studies that examined the
breadth versus depth debate regarding the optimal structure of menu items. Sev-
eral of the studies of menu designs showed, consistent with the findings of D. P.
Miller (1981), that performance is best when the menu breadth of the tested struc-
ture falls within the range of 7 2 items (e.g., Jacko & Salvendy, 1996; Kiger, 1984).
Larson and Czerwinski concluded,

In essence, G. Millers findings that people are only able to make quick, accurate deci-
sions with a small handful of objects at a time has had wide support across studies, and
may provide useful guidance in the design of web hyperlinks across pages. (p. 26)

Larson and Czerwinski (1998) went on to test the implication of the magic num-
ber 7 2 for the structure of Web sites. They had users search for target items in a
Web site with one of three possible categorization structures: a three-level (8 8 8)
structure or two different two-level (16 32 and 32 16) structures. Task comple-
tion time was shortest for the 16 32 structure and longest for the 8 8 8 struc-
ture, indicating the broader structures led to better performance than deeper ones.
In addition, users deviated from the optimal path for locating the target item more
with the 8 8 8 structure than with the 16 32 structure.
Based on their findings, Larson and Czerwinski (1998) concluded that the depth
variable was a stronger predictor of performance than the number of items within a
level. However, they found a correlation between performance and a memory span
pretest for the two broader structures but not the deeper one, suggesting that work-
ing memory capacity becomes a significant factor when the breadth of the structure
is large enough to impose a high memory load. Tullis, Catani, Chadwick-Dias, and
Cianchette (2005) pointed out that although broader Web structures tend to yield
262 Proctor and Vu

better performance than deeper structures in complex tasks of the type examined
by Larson and Czerwinski, a deeper structure is often better than a broader one for
simpler tasks.
The second example of an area of HCI that has profited from basic research on hu-
man information processing is that of cursor positioning. Two laws of human perfor-
mance discovered in the early days of human information-processing research are
the HickHyman law (or Hicks law; Hick, 1952; Hyman, 1953) and Fitts law (Fitts,
1954). Both of these laws were based initially on information theory, with the former
relating reaction time to the amount of uncertainty among the stimulus-response al-
ternatives and the latter relating the time for aimed movements to the area and dis-
tance of the target. Although both laws have direct implications for HCI, the
HickHyman law has been investigated primarily in other domains, whereas Fitts
law has been the subject of considerable research within HCI (Seow, 2005).
Card, English, and Burr (1978) are usually credited with conducting the first HCI
study based on Fitts law. They evaluated the efficiency of text keys, step keys, a
mouse, and an isometric joystick for performing a text-selection task on a screen.
Users were to select the text by positioning the cursor on the desired area and press-
ing a button or key. Card et al. found that positioning time for the continuous con-
trol devices conformed to Fitts law, with the mouse and joystick both yielding
faster performance than the discrete entry-key methods. Moreover, the mouse was
more efficient than the joystick for this positioning task.
Since Card et al.s (1978) study, the amount of HCI research devoted to Fitts law
has been sufficiently great for an entire 2004 issue of the International Journal of Hu-
manComputer Studies to be devoted to studies commemorating Fitts (1954) work
50 years earlier. In the introduction to the issue, the editors noted, Fitts law has
proven highly applicable in HumanComputer Interaction (HCI), making it possi-
ble to predict reliably the minimum time for a person in a pointing task to reach a
specified target (Guiard & Beaudouin-Lafon, 2004). Articles in the issue provide
recommendations on use of Fitts law as a predictor of performance on a variety of
computing tasks and for evaluating alternative positioning devices. Furthermore,
the articles illustrate numerous applications of Fitts law to current technology and
to future virtual enhancements to reduce pointing times.
It is perhaps appropriate to end this section with a statement made more than 40
years ago by Paul Fitts (1964), the discoverer of stimulus-response compatibility ef-
fects and Fitts law, both of which have had enduring impact on basic and applied
research and theory:

Rather than viewing perceptual-motor behavior as a series of motor responses made to

reach some goal, it is possible, and I believe considerably more profitable, to view such
behavior as an information-processing activity guided by some general plan or pro-
gram. (p. 248)

Fitts belief has been amply justified in the ensuing years.

Computational models. Research on human information processing has

yielded an abundance of knowledge relating to perception, cognition, and action
Promise of Information Processing 263

that is relevant to a broad range of issues in HCI. Many of the facts about human-in-
formation processing have been incorporated into computational models and cog-
nitive architectures that are applicable to HCI (Byrne, in press; John, 2003). Compu-
tational models are computer programs developed to simulate and predict
performance of specific tasks within a cognitive architecture that depicts the infor-
mation-processing structure and flow. One intent is to be able to use these models
in different phases of the design cycle in HCI. In this regard, Yoshikawa (2003) em-
phasized, The cognitive aspect is the most indispensable one from the viewpoint
of applying the relevant knowledge during the various phases of design, analysis,
and evaluation for HCI (p. 119).
The Model Human Processor (MHP) and GOMS (Goals, Operators, Methods,
and Selection rules) analysis, developed by Card et al. (1983), are regarded as defin-
ing events in the application of cognitive models to HCI. Card et al. argued that to
be useful for engineering, application of human information processing should be
based on task analysis (which establishes the users goals), calculation (laws of
parametric variation, p. 10), and approximation (the calculations should be sim-
plified and should not need fitting to new empirical data). The MHP is a cognitive
architecture based on (a) processors for the information-processing stages of per-
ception, cognition, and motor execution (with mean cycle times of 100, 70, and 70
ms, respectively); (b) working and long-term memory stores, and (c) principles of
operation. By specifying the operations required to perform a task, response time
can be predicted from the time estimates for the elemental operations. For example,
a task that involves one operation of each of the three types would be estimated to
take 240 ms, using the mean cycle times.
The first step for implementing the MHP is to perform a cognitive task analysis,
which is the purpose of GOMS. A GOMS analysis describes the task in terms of goals
and subgoals, the methods for obtaining these goals, the elemental operators that
make up the methods, and when there are competing methods, rules for selecting be-
tween the alternative methods (Strybel, 2005). This analysis of the hierarchy of proce-
dural knowledge and the sequence of operators needed to perform a task allows
quantitative predictions to be derived from the MHP for the time to perform the task.
As summarized by John (2003), since the work of Card et al. (1983), a family of GOMS
models has been developed that has had many successful applications in HCI, in-
cluding text editors, operating systems, and Web pages. John emphasized,

The concepts associated with GOMS are a mixture of several types: task-analysis tech-
niques from the human factors and system design literature, models of human perfor-
mance on specific tasks, computational models of human cognitive architecture, and
loosely defined concepts about human cognition and information processing. (pp.

Other current cognitive architectures include Adaptive Control of ThoughtRa-

tional (ACTR; Anderson, Matessa, & Lebiere, 1997); States, Operators, And Re-
sults (SOAR; Howes & Young, 1997); and Executive Process Interactive Control
(EPIC; Kieras & Meyer, 1997). These models are in continual development and
have also been applied to a range of problems in HCI and human factors. The ACT
and SOAR architectures were the earliest unified theories of cognition, focusing
264 Proctor and Vu

mainly on learning and performance of cognitive tasks. EPIC included detailed

perceptual and motor processors as well, allowing a fuller range of HCI tasks to be
addressed. EPIC also emphasized the different strategies a person could adopt to
perform multiple tasks. The most recent version of ACTR, version 5.0 (Anderson
et al., 2004), likewise includes perceptual (vision and audition modules) and motor
(motor and speech modules) processors and can model multiple-task performance
(Anderson, Taatgen, & Byrne, 2005).
The three architectures just mentioned are all production system models that
rely on production rules (IF THEN statements that specify actions that occur
when certain conditions are met) and a memory representation of the current state
to emulate cognitive activity. Production system models are popular for unified
theories of cognition because they are extremely flexible and can accommodate the
full range of human information processing. Other models not based on produc-
tion systems, such as LICAI (Kitajima & Polson, 1997), which is designed to model
human discourse comprehension that captures exploratory behaviors, have been
shown to be useful as well.
A good example of use of computational modeling in HCI research is provided
by Hornof and Halverson (2003). They conducted a study that combined eye-track-
ing data and cognitive modeling techniques to examine the core perceptual, cog-
nitive, and motor processing involved in searching a visual layout, and how this
processing changes when a useful hierarchy is introduced (p. 250). Participants
were asked to find a target item among distractors that were arranged in a hierar-
chical layout. The layout had one, two, four, or six groups of five items and was ei-
ther labeled with a heading or unlabeled. Search time was shorter with smaller lay-
outs and labeled layouts. Hornof and Halverson used EPIC to develop a
computational cognitive model that was able to simulate foveal vision as well as
saccadic eye movements. Cognitive strategies were encoded as production rules
based on how people would search labeled versus unlabeled layouts and coordi-
nate perceptual-motor processes during the task. The EPIC model was able to pre-
dict search performance well, with an average error of 7%. The model also did well
with regard to many aspects of search such as anticipatory fixations and number of
items being considered but was not as successful in other areas. The model can be
revised to overcome these limitations. An important point for HCI is that the com-
putational models can minimize costs associated with extensive human testing be-
cause once they are developed they can be reused and changed to adapt to new evi-
dence regarding how information is processed.



Although the information-processing approach is more than 50 years old, it contin-

ues to have considerable vitality. Cosmides (2006), an evolutionary psychologist,
recently emphasized this point in a column in the APS Observer, entitled The Cog-
nitive Revolution: The Next Wave. In that column, Cosmides stated, in agreement
with the view expressed in this article,
Promise of Information Processing 265

Scientific progress sometimes comes not from new methods, but from new concepts,
new ways of framing old problems. The cognitive revolution is a wonderful example of
this. The language of information processing and computation provided a new way of
thinking about what the brain does. (p. 7)

Cosmides went on to argue, This revolution is not yet complete . We psycholo-

gists have barely begun to tap the potential of the cognitive revolution for transform-
ing our own field (p. 7). In this section we briefly review four areas in which the cog-
nitive revolution is effecting significant transformations: cognitive neuroscience,
evolutionary psychology, social cognition, and perceptionaction relations.

3.1. Cognitive Neuroscience

A quick scan of journals, job announcements, and grant initiatives reveals that cog-
nitive neuroscience is a rapidly emerging field, probably the hottest area in psy-
chology today. For example, a brief announcement of a National Science Founda-
tion initiative in cognitive neuroscience in the 2002 American Psychological Society
Observer stated,

The last decade has seen cognitive neuroscience emerge as an influential discipline,
growing out of an interaction between cognitive sciences, neurology, neuroscience, and
other fields. This cross-disciplinary integration has generated rapid growth in knowl-
edge about sensory processes, higher cognitive functions, language, and social pro-
cesses. Among other things, it is anticipated that cognitive neuroscience research will
help pinpoint functional brain organization, such as the operations performed by a par-
ticular brain area. (p. 25)

As noted earlier, the major goal of research in the area of cognitive neuroscience
is to analyze the brain mechanisms responsible for cognitive functioning. The
knowledge gained from behavioral studies of human information processing pro-
vides the foundation for much of this research. This point is acknowledged explic-
itly in the instructions for authors for the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, which
state, The Journal publishes papers that bridge the gap between descriptions of in-
formation processing and specifications of brain activity (see http://
Indeed, a recent special issue of the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
was devoted to Neurobiology of Cognition in Laboratory Animals: Challenges
and Opportunities, with the editors having noted in their introductory editorial
that investigators are increasingly concerned with the assessment of cognitive
functions in laboratory animals (Sarter & Sutherland, 2004, p. 643). In his article on
methodological issues, Sarter indicated, Cognitive psychology has defined im-
portant variables of cognitive processes, particularly with respect to different types
of material (e.g. learning or recalling time and place versus memory for procedural
skills) and levels of processing (e.g. automatic versus effortful) (2004, p. 647) and
recommended that animal researchers take these variables into account when de-
266 Proctor and Vu

signing and interpreting their experiments. The special issue includes articles on
the content topics of memory, spatial navigation, executive functioning, and inter-
pretation of response times. It should be apparent that the gap between descrip-
tions of information processing and specifications of brain activity indicated in the
instructions cited here for the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience would not exist were
it not for the success of research on human information processing.
A 2003 special issue of the journal Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science was de-
voted to the topic of neuroergonomics. The editor, Parasuraman, stated,

Neuroergonomics is the study of brain and behaviour at work. As the name implies,
this emerging area comprises two disciplines that are themselves interdisciplinary, neu-
roscience and ergonomics . Neuroergonomics focuses on investigations of the neural
bases of such perceptual and cognitive functions as seeing, hearing, attending, remem-
bering, deciding and planning in relation to technologies and settings in the real world.
(p. 5)

Parasuramans description indicates that neuroergonomics is based heavily in hu-

man information processing and cognitive neuroscience, although it is concerned
with the physical bases of behavior as well. Articles in the special issue address top-
ics related to attention and memory, including oculomotor behavior, cognitive
workload, and cueing by automation. One article (Gevins & Smith, 2003) focuses
specifically on use of the electroencephalogram (EEG) as a measure of cognitive
workload for individuals working at computers. Cognitive overload has been rec-
ognized for years as a significant cause of HCI errors. Gevins and Smith noted,
The ability to continuously monitor cognitive workload might, thus, be valuable
in task analysis research and in efforts to improve the usability of humancom-
puter interfaces (p. 114). Their research program has examined basic cognitive
tasks, continuous monitoring tasks, and more naturalistic computer-based tasks.
Schmorrow (2005), the editor of a book of proceedings papers called Foundations
of Augmented Cognition, advocated a new field closely related to neuroergonomics
called augmented cognition. According to Schmorrow,

The goal of Augmented Cognition research is to create revolutionary human-computer

interactions that capitalize on recent advances in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive
science and computer science. Augmented Cognition can be distinguished from its pre-
decessors by the focus on the real-time cognitive state of the user, as assessed through
modern neuroscientific tools. (p. xvii)

Schmorrow went on to acknowledge the role of cognitive neuroscience in this re-

cent development, stating,

At the close of the 20th century, basic science understanding of the human brain began to
provide quantitative insight on how the human brain functioned at the most basic ele-
mental levels and how human thought and performance was associated with brain
functioning. The human brain revolution provided the beginnings of a detailed knowl-
edge of human thought processing, functioning and performance. (p. xvii)
Promise of Information Processing 267

The authors of one of the proceedings papers, Patrey and Kruse (2005), were
even more explicit in acknowledging the contributions of cognitive psychology
and human information processing, stating,

Over the last decade, significant advances in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psy-
chology, and physiology have occurred. These developments have revolutionized the
way we understand cognitive functioning at a basic level, as well as the more abstract
features of human information processing (situational awareness, decision making)
(p. 43)

Clearly, Parasuraman (2003) and Schmorrow (2005), among others, envision ma-
jor advances in application beginning to occur as a function of the developing
knowledge in cognitive neuroscience, which is based on human information-pro-
cessing analyses. To the extent that the gap between descriptions of information
processing and specifications of brain activity is bridged successfully, the advances
in neuroergonomics and augmented cognition envisioned by Parasuraman and
Schmorrow will become reality.

3.2. Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology, which has gained many adherents in the past 10 to 15

years, is based on the assumption that the human mind has evolved in response to
selective pressures, or adaptive problems (Workman & Reader, 2004). Because
these adaptive problems are very specific, such as detecting cheaters, it is hy-
pothesized that evolution has furnished the mind with many specific processing
modules rather than with a small number of more general processing subsystems.
Problems and tasks that are compatible with the processing modules will be easier
to perform than tasks that are not.
Kock (2004) applied principles of evolutionary psychology to the development
of a model of computer-mediated communication. The model is based on the as-
sumption that evolution has predisposed humans for processing face-to-face com-
munication. Thus, according to the model, a computer-mediated communication
medium that is similar to the face-to-face communication will be more natural to
the user and require less cognitive effort than one that is not.
Mundale (2003) characterized evolutionary psychology as follows: Evolution-
ary psychology represents an integration of two disciplines which themselves are
markedly interdisciplinary: evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology. It thus
inherits all the potential and vigor of a multidisciplinary hybrid (p. 229).
Cosmides (2006) was explicit on this point in her column, with which we began this
section, in which she advocates evolutionary psychology as the next wave of the
cognitive revolution. Cosmides stated, To describe the brains operation in a way
that captures its evolved function, you need to think of it as composed of programs
that process information. This requires theories expressed in information-process-
ing (computational) terms (p. 7).
268 Proctor and Vu

The main proposition of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology is that the
information-processing mechanisms evolved in response to adaptive problems
such as cooperation among friends and competition between groups. Cosmides
(2006) proposed, Natural selection will have engineered distinct computational
specializations for each [adaptive problem] (p. 7). She indicated,

Given content-specific theories of the adaptive problems our brains evolved to solve, we
can now search for previously unknown computational systems, ones that are well en-
gineered by selection for producing evolutionarily functional outcomes. This will lead
to a field populated by topics far different from those to which we are accustomed. (p. 23)

Cosmides envisioned that the boundaries between different areas of behavioral sci-
ence will disappear:

Distinctions among cognitive, social, and developmental psychology are dissolving as

more and more psychologists work on formulating computationally explicit (and neu-
rally grounded) theories of how the brain processes information in more and more do-
mains. Its all computation, and as that realization becomes deeply integrated into the
psychological sciences, the organization of departments may evolve around adaptive
problems . Programs in cognitive science will eventually disappearnot because the
cognitive revolution has outlived its usefulness, but because it will have finally realized
its full potential. (p. 23)

Mundale (2003) argued that there are obstacles resulting from the particular in-
formation-processing (IP) model of cognition (p. 229), adopted by Cosmides
(2006) and many other evolutionary psychologists, because it is inspired by a
functionalist theory of mind (p. 229). Basically, Mundale contended that the func-
tional approach taken by the information-processing model does little to foster in-
tegration with lower level neurophysiological explanations because it assumes that
the manner in which the cognitive processes are physically instantiated is a sepa-
rate issue. She claimed similarly that the individual-cognizer perspective of the IP
model inhibits integration with the cultural, anthropological, and perhaps even po-
litical theories required for understanding group dynamics (p. 232).
We think that the evidence from cognitive neuroscience and social cognition (as
described in the following section) argues against Mundales (2003) argument that a
functional analysis of human information processing inhibits integration with lower
and higher levels of analysis. However, even if one accepts Mundales negative as-
sessment of the value of the standard information-processing approach for evolu-
tionary psychology, she is emphatic that IP models as such need pose no difficulties
for the progress of evolutionary psychology (p. 229). Rather, Mundale proposed,
by abandoning certain functionalist commitments, the information-processing
model can be retained; primarily this would involve recasting IP descriptions to in-
clude more fine-grained, biologically specific levels of analysis (pp. 239240). Thus,
regardless of whether or not one accepts the current information-processing model
as the most adequate, the vigor and potential of evolutionary psychology still de-
rives in large part from the information-processing approach.
Promise of Information Processing 269

3.3. Social Cognition

Human information processing has had, and continues to have, considerable im-
pact on research in social psychology, primarily through the approach called social
cognition (Moskowitz, 2005). As noted by E. R. Smith (2000), social cognition as-
sumes that the same basic information-processing principles apply in both social
and nonsocial domains (p. 326). Consequently, social cognition researchers use
variants of many of the methods and theories developed within the human infor-
mation-processing tradition to study the nature of the processing involved in social
interactions. Information-processing analyses have been applied to such topics as
attributions, stereotyping, and attitudes.
The impact of social cognition within social psychology has been, and continues
to be, considerable. E. R. Smith (2000) said, Virtually all topic areas of social psy-
chology have been influenced to varying degrees by the social cognitive perspec-
tive (p. 327). Kunda (1999) elaborated on this point, saying,

Building on a long tradition of research and theory in social psychology, and invigorated
by an infusion of new ideas and methods emerging from cognitive psychology, so-
cial-cognition researchers have shed new light on many classic social psychological
questions, and also have endeavored into previously uncharted areas of investigation.
(p. 1)

Kunda (1999) indicated that in the early days of research on social cognition, the
emphasis was on cold cognitions that excluded emotion and motivation. She
went on to say,

More recently there has been renewed interest in the relatively hot cognitions under-
lying motivation and affect, leading social cognition researchers to examine how our
goals, desires, and feelings can influence the way we remember and make sense of social
events. This research has led to renewed theoretical efforts to integrate cognition, moti-
vation, and affect. (p. 3)

One of the major themes of recent research is that much of social information
processing is automatic, or implicit, and takes place outside of conscious aware-
ness. Bargh and Williams (2006) summarized the implications of this research as

Much of social life is experienced through mental processes that are not intended and
about which one is fairly oblivious. These processes are automatically triggered by fea-
tures of the immediate social environment, such as the group memberships of other peo-
ple, the qualities of their behavior, and features of social situations (e.g., norms, ones rel-
ative power). Recent research has shown these unconscious influences to extend
beyond the perception and interpretation of the social world to the actual guidance,
over extended time periods, of ones important goal pursuits and social interactions.
(p. 1)
270 Proctor and Vu

The potential impact of social cognition on HCI is recognized in the call for pa-
pers for the 2006 Americas Conference on Information Systems. Its track on HCI in-
cludes a minitrack on social cognition in computing. The description of the track

HCI research is limited in its exposure to a rich and fruitful school of thinking known as
Social Cognition in the psychology literature. Judgments, decision making, and visual
perceptions are all well understood and reasonably reliable in testing in the social cogni-
tion studies of priming, person perception, and social judgment. Exposing the IT [Infor-
mation Technology] research community to this mature and robust field of reference
discipline theory will provide for fresh and important perspectives as we begin to exam-
ine computer mediated social interactions, computer persuasion, and user perceptions
of the trustworthiness of computer media sources. (Association for Information Sys-
tems, 2006)

The emphasis in social cognition is on determinants of the social environment on

cognition and behavior. This is opposite the emphasis of evolutionary psychology,
which is on specialized processing modules that have evolved for specific adaptive
functions. Although the relative importance of environmental and adaptive factors
as determinants of cognition and behavior remains to be resolved, both social cog-
nition and evolutionary psychology are currently very active areas of inquiry.

3.4. Perception-Action Relations

Some cognitive psychologists have noted a tendency for many information-pro-

cessing models to minimize or exclude the role of action. For example, Prinz and
Hommel (2002) stated, Research has tended to emphasize stimulus- over re-
sponse-related processing, and there has been rather little interest in response-re-
lated processing mechanisms and the way they are linked to those dealing with
stimulus information (p. 3). Similarly, Rosenbaum (2005) recently commented,
The study of how decisions are enactedthe focus of motor control researchhas
received little attention in psychology (p. 308). Both Prinz and Hommel and
Rosenbaum attribute the lack of interest in response-related processing to an impli-
cation of the linear information-processing model that perception and cognition
precede action.
As Fitts (1964) fully appreciated many years ago, there is no reason why the in-
formation-processing approach cannot be applied to the study of the selection and
control of action. Indeed, over the last 25 years, a considerable body of empirical
and theoretical research devoted to the relation between perception and action, and
to the control of action, has been conducted from an information-processing per-
spective (Proctor & Vu, 2006b; Schmidt & Lee, 2005). Phenomena that have been
studied in detail include stimulus-response compatibility effects of the type dis-
cussed earlier, correspondence effects for irrelevant and relevant information,
dual-task performance costs, blindness for response compatible stimuli, and effects
produced by actions. Hommel, Msseler, Aschersleben, and Prinzs (2001) theory
Promise of Information Processing 271

of event coding provides a good example of an information-processing theory that

emphasizes perceptionaction relations. According to the theory, the contents of
perception and plans for action are coded in a common system. Perceptions and ac-
tions are represented by networks of feature codes, called event codes. Many phe-
nomena of the type just listed can be explained through activation stimulus and re-
sponse codes in the common coding system.
The primary point is that the relation between perception and action is one that
can be addressed directly within information-processing models. Indeed, the pur-
pose of Prinz and Hommels (2002) Attention and Performance volume was to focus
on structural and functional aspects of the architecture mediating between stimu-
lus- and response-related processing, with an emphasis on both diversity due to its
modular organization and coherence due to common mechanisms within mod-
ules (p. 3). Increased interest in the relation between perception and action is evi-
dent as well in several special issues of journals published in the last 5 years. For ex-
ample, Ward (2002) edited an issue of Visual Cognition devoted to Independence
and Integration of Perception and Action, for which the articles represented a
changing emphasis away from the conception of rigidly segmented perception and
action systems, and towards the study of integrated visuomotor networks (p.
391). More recently, special issues of the European Journal of Cognitive Psychology and
Psychological Research were devoted to Voluntary and Involuntary Control Over
Automatic Processing in Spatial Congruency Tasks (Caessens, Notebaert, Burle, &
Soetens, 2005) and Cognitive Control of Action: The Role of Action Effects
(Nattkemper & Ziessler, 2004), respectively. As these examples illustrate, there is
currently considerable research activity on perceptionaction relations, and much
of this research stems from an information-processing perspective.



Since the earliest days of the cognitive revolution, the human information-process-
ing approach has had its detractors and has been challenged on many grounds.
Critics have championed alternative approaches, several of which currently have
some degree of popularity. In this section, we consider some of the arguments
raised against the information-processing approach and take into account its rela-
tion to other approaches. Our arguments in this section are an elaboration on an ini-
tial, briefer treatment we provided in a recent chapter (Proctor & Vu, in press).
At a general level, T. J. Smith and Henning (2005) recently stated, The basic sci-
entific problem with information processing models that have come to dominate
cognitive science in the past four decades is that they are non-refutable (p. 641). In
our view, this argument is inaccurate and irrelevant. The theoretical framework of
the information-processing approach indeed makes fundamental assumptions
that are not subjected to empirical test, but it has been known since Kuhns (1962)
analysis of scientific paradigms that this is true for all theoretical frameworks. For
example, Lakatos (1970) distinguished the hard core of a research program, which
is the theoretical and methodological commitments that are immune to empirical
272 Proctor and Vu

test, from a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses that are not. The important point
is that the specific models and theories developed within the human informa-
tion-processing framework are subjected to test and thus are refutable, a fact at-
tested to by decades of research spent developing and testing alternative models
(see, e.g., Logan, 2004).
The issue in evaluating the information-processing approach is its relative suc-
cess at providing solutions to issues of theoretical and applied importance. As
Pashler (1998), who takes an information-processing approach to the study of at-
tention, noted, The success or failure of information-processing psychology can
be assessed only on the basis of the insights that do or do not emerge from the re-
search it spawns (p. 7). We might add to this statement that such an evaluation
must be based on how the approach fares relative to alternative theoretical ap-
proaches (Proctor & Capaldi, 2006). Given the continued prominence of the infor-
mation-processing approach in contemporary research in psychology and in hu-
man factors and HCI, it is clear that the assessment of many researchers is that it has
fared well on numerous counts.

4.1. Behavior Analysis

Among the strongest critics of the information-processing approach have been be-
havior analysts who follow in the tradition of B. F. Skinner. The experimental analy-
sis of behavior focuses on functional analyses of behavior, with an emphasis on
contingencies between behavior and reinforcing events. Much of this research has
been conducted with laboratory animals, but in recent years there has been growth
in basic and applied analysis of human behavior.
Skinner remarked in an address to the American Psychological Association in
1990, shortly before his death, As far as Im concerned, cognitive science is the
creationism of psychology (as cited in Bales, 1990, p. 6). Recently, Schlinger (2005),
a behavior analyst, offered the similarly negative opinion of the cognitive revolu-
tion: The cognitive revolution was a major step backward. Although its goals
were laudable, its insistence on a return to mental constructs as its subject matter
has stood in the way of psychology developing into a true natural science (p. 8).
Schlinger (2004) elaborated on this statement in an article entitled Why Psy-
chology Hasnt Kept Its Promises. In that article, he contended that psychology
has produced very few noteworthy discoveries: it has offered few if any satisfac-
tory explanatory concepts (p. 124). Contrast this assessment with that of Graham
Richards of the Applied Psychology Unit, who said, Psychology has absolutely
penetrated into everything from the development of military psychology to the de-
sign of traffic layouts. Absolutely all areas of modern technological society have
had psychological input somewhere along the line (as cited in Reynolds & Tansey,
2003, p. 69). Needless to say, we think that Richards assessment of the impact of
cognitive psychology, to which he is referring, is much closer to reality than that of
Schlinger (2004) continued on to conclude that, in the sad state of affairs that he
perceived for psychology, the main culprit is psychologists continued emphasis
Promise of Information Processing 273

on mind, though nowadays it is dressed up in the fancier metaphorical garb of

information processing or neuralese (p. 124). Schlinger indicated, In concentrat-
ing on unobserved events before first trying to understand observed events,
cognitively oriented psychologists have put the cart before the horse (p. 129). In
other words, he advocated a much more inductive approach, stating, In the ma-
ture sciences, the approach begins more inductively (p. 135). However, this em-
phasis on induction as the primary basis for science is not consistent with the his-
torical evidence (Proctor & Capaldi, 2006). Rather, progress in science occurs
primarily by means of what the philosopher C. S. Peirce (1957) called abduction,
which involves generating hypotheses about what could have led to observed
events and inferring the best explanation based on consideration of all relevant
facts (e.g., Hanson, 1958; Holcomb, 1998; Lipton, 2004).
According to Schlinger (2004), Obviously, a different strategy is needed, that
of returning the focus to the relationship between behavior and its context as the
primary subject matter. Those who call themselves behavior analysts have already
made a good beginning (p. 141). Thus, Schlingers recommendation is that psy-
chology would be better served by adopting behavior analysis as its primary ap-
proach instead of information processing. Yet, ironically, immediately after making
this recommendation, Schlinger went on to note that behavior analysts have
been slow to offer empirical accounts of the content domains of psychology, includ-
ing perceptual, cognitive, and social behavior, although they have offered inter-
pretive accounts. In other words, behavior analysts do not have predictive models
to offer for most of the content areas of cognitive psychology and HCI, and they put
forward at best ad hoc interpretations of phenomena that for the most part would
not have been studied if the behavior analytic approach had been taken.

4.2. The Ecological Approach

Gibson (1979) developed an ecological approach to perception and action that is

typically presented as an alternative to the information-processing approach (e.g.,
Schvaneveldt, 2005). The ecological approach places emphasis on analyzing the in-
formation that is available in the optic array and the dynamics of this information
as individuals and objects move about in the environment. It also takes the position
that perception is direct and that accounts relying on mental representations and
cognitive processes are unnecessary and incorrect (see, e.g., Michaels & Stins,
1997). In Gibsons view, perception occurs with respect to possibilities for action,
called affordances, which are physical aspects of the environment.
In contrast to Gibsons emphasis on the physical environment, much of HCI in-
volves performing information-intensive tasks in artificial, human-made environ-
ments that do not resemble carrying out actions in the natural environment. Ware
(2003) described the situation as follows:

The problem is that objects on computer screens are not physical objects and we can in-
teract with them only indirectly by using a computer mouse. There are no direct physical
affordances in a computer interface. Thus, to be useful, we must develop a cognitive
274 Proctor and Vu

model of affordancesthe user interface is perceived as offering opportunities for ac-

tion. However, this is a radical departure from Gibsons theory because it places empha-
sis on perception and cognition, not on Gibsons version of physicsecological op-
tics. (pp. 2425)

With respect to the Web, Aziz and Macredie (2005) indicated, The use of
web-based information system[s] mainly involves processing of information (p.
1). Because such environments are similar to those studied in basic human informa-
tion-processing experiments, the approach has much to offer for analyzing and un-
derstanding the tasks performed in them.
For HCI tasks of a more ecological nature, such as navigating in a virtual world,
understanding the information available to an observer/actor in the environment
being simulated is clearly essential. As an example, Schvaneveldt (2005) noted that
he and his colleagues focused their recent studies of aviation on analyses of the in-
formation in the flight environment that allows pilots to perform effectively during
different stages of flight. From an information-processing perspective, although
such ecological analyses are valuable, and indeed necessary, they must be incorpo-
rated within information-processing models (e.g., Ullman, 1980).
Although the human information-processing approach has been applied suc-
cessfully to many issues in motor control and learning (e.g., Schmidt, 1975), an eco-
logical/dynamical systems approach that emphasizes coordinative structures and
movement constraints has been advocated by many researchers in the past 26 years
(e.g., Kugler, Kelso, & Turvey, 1980). Recently, Anson, Elliott, and Davids (2005)
compared these two approaches and concluded that the models of motor-skill ac-
quisition developed from each are more similar than they are different. Among
other points made by Anson et al. is that the development of what they call the con-
straints-based approach was based to a large extent on a misunderstanding about
human information processing. They placed great emphasis on Fitts (1964) pio-
neering work on skill acquisition and stated,

Although Fitts proposed an extensively researched three-stage model of motor skill

learning, the model is seldom cited as a pillar of information-processing-based theory.
Ironically, the apparent lack of recognition of Fitts model could have inadvertently con-
tributed to the rise in popularity of the constraints-based approach to explaining per-
ceptual-motor skill. (p. 220)

Anson et al. concluded, The content and structure of this information-process-

ing-based model is consistent with, rather than antagonistic toward, contemporary
views of skill acquisition (p. 221).

4.3. Cybernetic Approach

The cybernetic view of cognition is that cognition emerges as a consequence of mo-

tor control over sensory feedback. The cybernetic approach is closely related to the
ecological approach but places greater emphasis on self-regulation control of per-
Promise of Information Processing 275

ception and cognition. T. J. Smith and Henning (2005), who advocated a cybernetic
approach, took a strong position against the information-processing approach,

The cybernetic perspective presented here differs in a number of fundamental scientific

respects from an information processing model. Behavioral cybernetics emphasizes
active control of information as sensory feedback via motor-sensory behavior, with mo-
tor-sensory behavior mediating both perception and cognition. In contrast, information
processing models treat information as a fixed commodity presented on the input side
of the processing system, ignoring the need for specific design factors to promote hu-
man motor control over this information as a source of sensory feedback. This failure to
include motor-sensory control is a direct consequence of using an information-process-
ing model, where overt/motor behavior is viewed as a system output with no central
role in the organization and control over information as feedback, nor over the control of
subsequent behavior through the reciprocal effects of motor control on
psychophysiological state. (p. 641)

T. J. Smith and Hennings (2005) statement stands in contrast to an assessment

by Young, Clegg, and Smith (2004) that an information-processing analysis is es-
sential for understanding the dynamic interactions of an operator with a vehicle for
purposes of computer-aided augmented cognition. They emphasize that the most
basic distinction between three processing stages (perception, cognition, and ac-
tion), as captured in a block diagram model of human information processing, is
important even for understanding the dynamic interactions of an operator with a
vehicle for purposes of computer-aided augmented cognition. Young et al. noted,

This block diagram model of the human is important because it not only models the flow
of information and commands between the vehicle and the human, it also enables access
to the internal state of the human at various parts of the process. This allows the model-
ing of what a cognitive measurement system might have access to (internal to the hu-
man), and how that measurement might then be used as part of a closed-loop hu-
man-machine interface system. (pp. 261262)

Although T. J. Smith and Henning (2005) may have been correct that researchers
should place more emphasis on the role of sensory feedback produced by actions,
in our opinion they mistakenly attributed a simplifying tactic used by researchers
to fundamental assumptions underlying the human information-processing ap-
proach. Recollect that human information processing has its roots in control theory,
as emphasized by Fitts (1964) in his classic chapter on perceptual-motor skill learn-
ing: Several very general concepts of significance for psychological theory have
been borrowed from control systems (p. 249).

4.4. Alternative Approaches to HCI

In the past 20 years, several alternative approaches to HCI with different specific
emphases have been introduced. Carrolls (2003) edited book provides an excellent
276 Proctor and Vu

introduction to many of these approaches. One approach is information foraging

theory, which concentrates on how users locate useful information for a specific
purpose (Pirolli, 2005). The theory is based on an analogy between searching for in-
formation and the strategies identified in evolutionary ecological explanations of
foraging for food. A fundamental assumption is that people will modify the strate-
gies they use to maximize the rate of gain of information.
Pirolli (2003) explicitly linked information foraging theory to cognition, indicat-
ing that it is grounded in computational theories of human cognition and optimal
foraging theories from biology (p. 157) and began his chapter with an acknowl-
edgment to the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller. The link to computational
theories of cognition is explicit in Pirollis (2005) development of a computational
cognitive model based on the ACT architecture (e.g., Anderson et al., 1997), de-
scribed earlier. Pirolli (2003) indicated that information foraging theory has fo-
cused on well-defined tasks in the past and needs to place more emphasis on ill-de-
fined tasks of a more complex nature in the future.
Another alternative approach in HCI stems from a trend to distribute work
across teams of people (see, e.g., van Tilburg & Briggs, 2005). Teams can be situated
in a common location or dispersed in different locations. Regardless of the physical
locations of team members, the distribution of work requires that the members
must communicate with each other and coordinate their activities. This communi-
cation and coordination among members of a distributed team can be facilitated by
collaborative systems (van Tilburg & Briggs, 2005). One approach to addressing
team performance is distributed cognition, which is based on the information-pro-
cessing approach. In this regard, Perry (2003) indicated that distributed cognition
grew out of a need to understand how information processing and problem solv-
ing could be understood as being performed across units of analysis larger than the
individual, to incorporate tool use and the involvement of other people (p. 194).
He emphasized that distributed cognition extends the traditional notion of cogni-
tion using a similar theoretical framework and ontological basis for describing hu-
man activity in these larger units of study (p. 194).
An alternative approach to team performance, which distances itself farther
from information processing, is that of situated action. Kiekel and Cooke (2005)
stated, according to situated action theories, much of what symbolic [information
processing] theorists assign to the individuals head takes place outside of the con-
fines of the individual and is directed by a world that is a much richer place than
symbolic theories tend to suggest (p. 92). They went on to say, Information pro-
cessing research tends to isolate psychological principles from a generic context,
such as a laboratory , while [situated action] research focuses on understanding
the specific contextual constraints of the environment (pp. 9293).
The emphasis that the situated action approach places on the environmental
context in determining performance is similar to the emphasis on environmental
affordances in the ecological approach. Both stress the close relation between per-
ception and action and how the environment provides context for actions. We
noted earlier, when discussing the ecological perspective, that although percep-
tion-action relations have indeed tended to be neglected by many cognitive psy-
chologists, this neglect does not logically follow from adopting an informa-
Promise of Information Processing 277

tion-processing approach. Byrne (1994) emphasized this point with respect to

situated action, stating,

If the message of the [situated action] community is taken to be that traditional ap-
proaches neglect the importance of the environment, then not only is the message an im-
portant one, but the typical symbol processing system is guilty as charged. However,
this does not mean that, in principle, symbol processing systems must have this limita-
tion. The two approaches can work hand-in-hand to produce more general and more ac-
curate computational models. (p. 118)

Another approach oriented toward the work environment is activity theory. Ac-
cording to Bertelsen and Bdker (2003), activity theory adopts a participatory action
research approach and is concerned mainly with introducing computer technology
into the workplace. As with participatory action research in general (see, e.g., Fine et
al., 2003), activity theory emphasizes cooperation and interaction among researchers
and intended users instead of studying performance of users in experiments and us-
ability tests. Bertelsen and Bdker indicated that activity theory was developed to
remedy several perceived shortcomings of cognitive science-based theories, includ-
ing emphasis on a generic user, utilization of novice users for validation purposes,
lack of concern with real-life action and the work environment, and focus on the indi-
vidual user rather than user interactions. According to them, because of these short-
comings, it was necessary to move outside cognitive science-based HCI to find or de-
velop the necessary theoretical platform (p. 293).
As should be apparent by now, our view is that the perceived shortcomings of
the information-processing approach do not reflect fundamental limitations. As
with Anson et al.s (2005) position regarding alternative approaches to percep-
tual-motor skill, we view activity theory as complementary to the human informa-
tion-processing approach and not in opposition to it. Norman (2005) seemed to
take this view in his advocacy of activity-centered design, which he indicated was
motivated by activity theory, over human-centered design. Norman argued, Suc-
cessful devices are those that fit gracefully into the requirements of the underlying
activity, supporting them in a manner understandable by people (p. 15), empha-
sizing that this does not necessarily mean that the devices are easy to use. However,
he went on to state that activity-centered design is much like human-centered de-
sign, indicating that although both require understanding of users, the former also
requires a deep understanding of the technology, of the tools, and of the reasons
for the activities (p. 16). Again, the primary point is not that an understanding of
human information processing is unnecessary, just that more is required.
The extent to which the principles and theories developed from information-pro-
cessing research conducted in the laboratory generalize to other contexts is an empir-
ical issue. Although the evidence is not all in, the widespread application of informa-
tion-processing principles and theories to human factors and HCI (e.g., Wickens,
Lee, Liu, & Becker, 2004) suggests that what has been learned about human informa-
tion processing is applicable to a variety of domains. Thus, although environmental
context is important and may constrain the generalizability of specific laboratory
phenomena, basic processes such as those of attention and memory are much more
278 Proctor and Vu

general that what a situated action approach would imply. Moreover, in HCI, these
basic principles can help guide the design process so that user testing in the context of
the task can be limited to a small number of possible systems.


Fifty years have passed since 1956, the year cited by Newell and Simon (1972) and
G. A. Miller (2003) as pivotal in the rise of the human information-processing ap-
proach. Given the technological and scientific advances that have occurred during
this period and the tendency for fads to come and go in psychology and human fac-
tors, it is perhaps remarkable that the information-processing approach is as alive
and vibrant today as it was 50 years ago. The approach provides the foundation for
much of contemporary cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, human factors,
and HCI. By almost any measure, the empirical and theoretical knowledge today is
much greater, more sophisticated, and better integrated than when this period be-
gan. For example, Logan (2004) indicated that his review of formal theories of at-
tention document[s] cumulative progress in theoretical understanding of atten-
tion from the 1950s to the present (p. 207). Similar assessments could be made of
the progress in many other research areas as well. Thus, our answer to the question
posed in the title is Yes, the promise of the human information-processing ap-
proach has been fulfilled.
What accounts for the success of the information-processing approach? We be-
lieve that the answer lies in Posners (1986) emphasis on the common language and
concepts it provides for integrating across different domains, levels, systems, and
disciplines. Information-processing language allows integration of knowledge
across (a) humans, computers, and other machines; (b) humans and other species;
(c) perception, cognition, and action; (d) cognition and emotion; (e) conscious expe-
rience, mind, and brain; and (f) basic research and application, as well as within
and between disciplines. Computational models can be developed that incorporate
the full spectrum of factors that influence human performance, allowing accurate
predictions to be derived for various purposes.
Despite the success of the information-processing approach, it has had numer-
ous critics. Although any scientific framework has limitations, we think that
many of the criticisms of the approach are misguided. Critics often attribute per-
ceived deficiencies in existing models and theories to fundamental defects in the
approach when instead they reflect only shortcomings of the current state of af-
fairs. Rarely is a serious alternative posed that can be shown to provide a better
explanation of the phenomena than the information-processing approach does
for the domain in question. For cases in which a competing alternative is offered,
as in the constraints-based approach to motor skill, close analysis reveals more
similarity than difference. Moreover, jettisoning the information-processing ap-
proach for one domain comes at a cost of severing the connections to related do-
mains and areas. Whether ones interests are in evaluating interactions of users
with Web sites or of team members in a work environment, human information
processing provides a foundation on which to base a broader understanding of
these interactions.
Promise of Information Processing 279


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