Dissertation Defense - University of Houston
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Dissertation Defense

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Malcolm Dcosta

will defend his dissertation

Sympathetic Loading in Critical Tasks


In this dissertation I developed or perfected unobtrusive methods to quantify sympathetic arousals. Furthermore, I used these methods to study the sympathetic system’s role on critical activities, arriving at intriguing conclusions.

Sympathetic arousals occur during states of mental, emotional, and/or sensorimotor strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. They are key elements of human physiology’s coping mechanism, shoring up resources to a good effect. When the intensity and duration of these arousals are overwhelming, however, then they may block memory and disrupt rational thought or actions at the moment they are needed the most.

Arousals abound in three types of critical activities: high stakes situations, challenging tasks, and critical multitasking. Accordingly, my research was based on three studies representative of these three activity types: `Subject Screening', `Educational Exam’, and `Distracted Driving'. In the first study I investigated the association of sympathetic arousals with deceptive behavior in interrogations. In the second study, I investigated the relationship between sympathetic arousals and exam performance. In the third study, I investigated the interaction between sympathetic arousals and driving performance under cognitive, emotional, and sensorimotor distractions.

In the interrogation study, I used for the first time a contact free electrodermal activity measurement method to quantify arousals. The method detected deceptive behavior based on differential sympathetic responses in well-structured interviews. In the exam study, I documented that sympathetic arousals positively correlate with students’ exam performance, dispelling the myth of `easy going’ super achievers. Finally, in the driving study, my results revealed that not only apparent sensorimotor stressors (texting while driving) but also hidden stressors (cognitive or emotional) could have a significant effect on driving performance.

Date: Thursday, November 19, 2015
Time: 12:00 PM
Place: HBS 315
Advisor: Prof. Ioannis Pavlidis

Faculty, students, and the general public are invited.