Processing capacity under perceptual and cognitive load: A closer look at load theory

Daniel Fitousi, Michael J. Wenger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Variations in perceptual and cognitive demands (load) play a major role in determining the efficiency of selective attention. According to load theory (Lavie, Hirst, Fockert, & Viding, 2004) these factors (a) improve or hamper selectivity by altering the way resources (e.g., processing capacity) are allocated, and (b) tap resources rather than data limitations (Norman & Bobrow, 1975). Here we provide an extensive and rigorous set of tests of these assumptions. Predictions regarding changes in processing capacity are tested using the hazard function of the response time (RT) distribution (Townsend & Ashby, 1978; Wenger & Gibson, 2004). The assumption that load taps resource rather than data limitations is examined using measures of sensitivity and bias drawn from signal detection theory (Swets, 1964). All analyses were performed at two levels: the individual and the aggregate. Hypotheses regarding changes in processing capacity were confirmed at the level of the aggregate. Hypotheses regarding resource and data limitations were not completely supported at either level of analysis. And in all of the analyses, we observed substantial individual differences. In sum, the results suggest a need to expand the theoretical vocabulary of load theory, rather than a need to discard it.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)781-798
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive load
  • Hazard functions
  • Perceptual load
  • Processing capacity
  • Selective attention


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