APS News

Research Exposes Danger of Boring Environments

By Eric Betz and Michael Lucibella

With funding from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, scientists are enthusiastically studying bored people. The goal of the research, being conducted at MIT’s Humans and Automation Laboratory–or HAL–is to find out what effect a static and sterile environment has on nuclear power plant operators.

“The NRC wants to tell you that their environments are sterile and if you have a sterile environment people won’t get distracted,” said HAL director Missy Cummings. “I actually think they will, and it will be worse than if these people had the ability to amuse themselves.”

Cummings is among those studying the effects of automation and believes keeping workers engaged and making decisions is key to preventing mishaps. She says increased automation in places like power plant operating facilities has reduced people’s skills and eaten away at situational awareness.

“There are a lot of tasks today…that are becoming more and more automated,” said Nancy Cooke, science director of the Cognitive Engineering Research Institute, who is separately studying the impacts of boredom. “They’re called vigilance tasks.”

Cooke says these involve scenarios where people are required to pay close attention over long periods of time, a situation common in power plant control rooms. The problem arises when an operating environment is automated to the extent that boredom sets in. It’s then exacerbated in a team environment where individuals can distract each other.

Much of the research in the past has focused on people’s reactions to emergencies where many things are happening at once. Cummings is focusing on the opposite–long bleak stretches of nothing that are punctuated by brief events.

“Technology is starting to change our world so much that we don’t really recognize the behavioral impacts on it,” Cummings said. “When plants are up and running at full power there is absolutely nothing happening and these guys are bored out of their minds.”

Speaking for the NRC, Sean Peters, chief of the Human Factors and Reliability branch for the agency, denied that power plants are currently boring. He said the agency is more interested in addressing potential future problems as the NRC considers how much automation to include in its next generation of designs.

“Boredom is not being identified as an issue at the current generation of nuclear plants,” said Peters. “The research is really exploratory; we’re looking into it to see if it is an issue for future plant designs.”

The Humans and Automation Lab plans to test an unusual solution that teenagers have been using to combat boredom for years: video games. Using MIT students as guinea pigs, HAL is conducting a series of experiments to determine how best to keep people engaged in the task at hand.

Participants will be told to operate a nuclear reactor simulation in three different scenarios: the first will be to replicate the current sterile environment of a plant control center with no allowed distractions of any kind; the second will be anything goes, participants can bring cell phones, laptops and reading material to amuse themselves as they choose; and third, the simulation will be bundled with a video game about operating a nuclear power plant that the subjects can use to entertain themselves.

The researchers expect that those playing the video game will perform better than those forced to work in a sterile environment, because the distraction might serve to keep them engaged.

This may make it sound like video gamers would be the ideal people to run nuclear power plants, but previous studies have shown this is not the case. In her research on boredom in simulated unmanned aerial vehicle operation, Cummings found that hard-core gamers were among the worst scorers. The reason appears to be that the virtually continuous stimulation provided by video games is an environment too far removed from the long hours of nothing involved in operating an unmanned aircraft.

Cummings half-jokingly suggests that these types of scenarios might be an ideal place for the aging workforce. “Maybe they’d operate these systems with more patience than the rest of us,” she said. “Maybe we should weed out people based on their love of Halo.”  

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Editor: Alan Chodos