Information Processing

Information Processing

There are many jobs within the aviation industry, such as pilots and air traffic controllers, which require the individual to process information quickly and efficiently. It is important to be aware of how we process information, and what factors affect our ability to process information effectivly. The human brain is extremely complex, and cannot be broken down into seperate areas. Functional models have been developed however, to help explain how information is percieved, processed and used to make decisions.

Information Processing Model

Image embedded from Avia141 28th Sept 2009


Information first enters via our sensory system. This includes sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and feel. This information is temporarily stored but decays very rapidly. Each sensory type has its own temporary memory store, and this information lasts between 0.2s and 2s.


Infomation is then selected by our central processing unit. The information is sorted and given meaning. "The conclusion reached about the nature and meaning of the sensory information is called perception." (Avia141, 2009[1]) Alot of errors can occur during this process. This is affected by:

  • Motivation
  • Arousal/ Stress
  • Lack of Information/ Incomplete information
  • Ambiguous Information
  • Expectation
  • Experience/Knowledge


Attention refers to the amount of information that can be focused on at any one time by the central processing unit. According to Green et al. (2003[2]): "…we are not able to devote conscious thought or 'attend' to all of the stimuli that impinge upon us…Some form of mechanism is require at an early stage in the system to allow us to select the stimuli that will percieved consciously and used as the basis for thoughts and decisions."

Two different aspects of attention are that it can be selective, and can also be divided.

Selective Attention

Selective Attention describes the process where only inputs relating to the specific task at hand are processed in detail by the central processing unit.
It is interesting to note that even when we are focused on a specific task, humans are relativly good at picking up other information relevent to them, such as their name or their aircraft callsign. This is called the 'cocktail party' effect.
Green et al. (2003[2]) describe other stimuli which are helpful in drawing the users attention. These include loud noises and flashing red lights. This is important to consider in the design of warning systems.

Divided Attention

A pilot or air traffic controller is often required to undertake and monitor more than one task at a time. Divided attention means that altough there will be a focus on a main task, attention is also paid to secondary tasks. For example a pilots primary task may be to fly an instrument approach, but attention is also required for radio calls, checklists etc. This type of attention ability is often tested in pilot selection testing and air traffic controller recruitment.


Information can be stored over the short term in the short term memory, or long term in the long term memory.

Decision Making

After interpreting the information, we then make decisions based on this information. Decisions can be affected by:

Action and Feedback

Once a decision is made, the appropriate action will be taken. There can also be errors at this stage, as the individual may intend to do one thing but do something else insteed, e.g. selecting the gear lever insteed of the flap lever. This is usually influenced by system design. See ICAO - Ergonomics.

1. Avia141 (2009) Human Error in Aviation Retrieved 28/09/09 from the World Wide Web: Avia141
2. Green, R.G., Muir, H., James, M., Gradwell, D. & Green, R.L. (2003) Human Factors for Pilots. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Want to know more?

Wikidot - Motivation
Information on Motivation, and the effects it has on all areas of human performance.
Wikidot - Pilot Fatigue
More information on Pilot Fatigue and all the effects it can have on an individual
Wikidot - Memory
Information on how the memory works.
ICAO - Ergonomics
Recommendations by ICAO as to why ergonomics is an important focus of Human Factors study.
Decision Making in Aviation
An explaination about the decision making process, with a focus on aviation.
Wikiofscience - Aeronautical Decision Making
Decision making theory relating to aviation, with a more scientific approach.

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