Sit around and think up ways to drive people crazy _ that's
what Kirby Gilliland does.
What's more, he gets paid for doing it, and has even gotten
grants to further his aims. People volunteer to be his research
Gilliland is an associate professor of psychology at the
University of Oklahoma. His special interest is workplace stress,
and how individuals respond. For about 10 years, he and a
colleague researched the effects of workload on individuals using
tests called "human performance task batteries."
These could be as simple as tracking tasks that use motor
skills, or mathematical problems, verbal and memory tests, and
spatial rotation tasks.
"Some become more and more complex, depending on how you want
to combine them," Gilliland said. "We assess the workload in the
lab, and begin to analyze tasks and see how hard they are. Then
we compare these difficulty ratings to jobs people do in the real
world . . . and measure how difficult certain types of jobs
The work is important, because technology has reached the
point that airplanes could be built with such intricate and
complex instruments that a human couldn't fly them, he said. If a
weapons system were added, the aircraft would be a greater
"Conceivably, we could be facing that in other jobs, such as
nuclear power plants or air traffic controllers," Gilliland
Particularly in safety-sensitive jobs, "we don't want to put
people in a job situation they cannot perform because of the
workload," he said.
Gilliland has long been interested in the ways people react to
stress _ not just the physiological and psychological effects,
but how they adapt to it.
Since jobs are a predominant source of stress in people's
lives, he came up with the idea of utilizing the workload
research and simulating the kinds of fundamental factors that
relate to stress in the work environment. Then, he could observe
the way people reacted, instead of just asking.
"We can re-create those dynamics in the lab," Gilliland said.
"We have more control, and we can measure the response more
"The value is, we can begin to learn more general ways people
respond to stress and adapt _ that may be applicable to a lot of
The research also could help psychologists understand some
unique ways that individuals respond that might not be typical,
In one task, a group of 12 people was faced with a computer
program where they were instructed to keep the machine's cursor
in the center of the screen. Four or five of the subjects handled
the task very well, while two were almost indistinguishable for
performing at a low level, Gilliland said.
"Two were very overwhelmed, and they had great difficulty in
the course of 18 minutes, trying to deal with that problem," he
said. The research can help psychologists "begin to understand
what it is about these situations that allows some people to
respond and recruit their skills and abilities, while others have
great difficulty," he said.
In addition, the physiological responses of selected subjects
are monitored as they take the tests in a soundproof room
equipped to inject such additional stressors as noises into the
Sophisticated computer programs allow the OU researchers to
retrieve data showing exactly what a subject was doing when his
or her heartbeat was elevated, eyes were blinking rapidly or
respirations had increased.
A subject might be called upon to monitor simultaneously on a
computer screen numerous simulated situations, including
fluctuating dials and the flow of liquid through storage tanks. …