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Twenty years of load theory—Where are we now, and where should we go next?

Murphy, Gillian; Groeger, John A.; Greene, Ciara M.


Gillian Murphy

John A. Groeger

Ciara M. Greene


Selective attention allows us to ignore what is task-irrelevant and focus on what is task-relevant. The cognitive and neural mechanisms that underlie this process are key topics of investigation in cognitive psychology. One of the more prominent theories of attention is perceptual load theory, which suggests that the efficiency of selective attention is dependent on both perceptual and cognitive load. It is now more than 20 years since the proposal of load theory, and it is a good time to evaluate the evidence in support of this influential model. The present article supplements and extends previous reviews (Lavie, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 75–82. doi:10.​1016/​j.​tics.​2004.​12.​004, 2005, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 143–148. doi:10.​1177/​0963721410370295​, 2010) by examining more recent research in what appears to be a rapidly expanding area. The article comprises five parts, examining (1) evidence for the effects of perceptual load on attention, (2) cognitive load, (3) individual differences under load, (4) alternative theories and criticisms, and (5) the future of load theory. We argue that the key next step for load theory will be the application of the model to real-world tasks. The potential benefits of applied attention research are numerous, and there is tentative evidence that applied research would provide strong support for the theory itself, as well as real-world benefits related to activities in which attention is crucial, such as driving and education.


Murphy, G., Groeger, J. A., & Greene, C. M. (2016). Twenty years of load theory—Where are we now, and where should we go next?. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 23(5), 1316-1340.

Acceptance Date Oct 5, 2015
Online Publication Date Jan 4, 2016
Publication Date 2016-10
Deposit Date Feb 4, 2016
Publicly Available Date Nov 23, 2017
Journal Psychonomic bulletin & review
Print ISSN 1069-9384
Electronic ISSN 1531-5320
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 23
Issue 5
Pages 1316-1340
Keywords Selective attention, Perception, Perceptual load, Load theory, Distraction, Visual attention
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Authors' accepted manuscript of article published in: Psychonomic bulletin & review, 2016, v,23, issue 5. The final publication is available at Springer via


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