Devices that emit sounds to track medical status or pinpoint military targets may cause mistakes

WASHINGTON From the classroom to the cockpit, a burgeoning number of devices use sound -- whether in the form of beeps, clicks, alarms or tones -- to tell people whats happening in bodies, structures and machines. These devices translate data changes into corresponding sound changes, guiding everyone from nurses and surgeons to jet pilots -- sometimes in critical or life-threatening situations. However, new research reveals that people misperceive how sounds change when both their pitch and loudness change, as often happens with these devices. Listeners cant accurately judge how the sounds changes reflect changes in the underlying data -- and may, as a result, make serious mistakes. The research appears in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Devices that sonify data have expanded beyond the well-known Geiger counter, which warns about radioactivity by clicking more rapidly as it gets closer to nuclear material. These devices appear in an array of settings, warning fighter pilots of target and threat locations, evaluating the structural integrity of large bridges, guiding the manipulation of surgical instruments during brain surgery, and more. Say authors John Neuhoff, Ph.D., Gregory Kramer, Ph.D., and Joseph Wayand, M.A. (a Ph.D. candidate), sonification devices appear everywhere from anesthesiology stations (for one, a heart monitor might beep more quickly or emit a constant tone when a patient is in danger) to factory production-controls, stock-market trading floors and data displays for visually impaired people.

However, despite their proliferation, the effectiveness of these devices has not been fully evaluated. Neuhoff et al., concerned about the growing suspicion that, changes in one variable may influence the perception of changes in another variable, leading to distorted perception of the underlying data, conducted three experiments.

Participants listened to a tone that got either higher or

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American Psychological Association

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