U of T Remembers: Former professor Neville Moray published seminal paper on 'cocktail party effect'

Neville Moray was a pioneer in exploring the interaction between humans and machines by combining the disciplines of psychology and engineering. His work is still influential today in the development of technologies such as self-driving cars and social network algorithms.  

Moray had two stints at the University of Toronto – from 1970 to 1974, when he was professor of psychology, and from 1981 to 1988, when he was a professor of industrial engineering. He died in December at his home in the south of France, at the age of 82, after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis.  

Aside from his academic achievements, Moray had a broad intellectual curiosity, a playful sense of humour, and in later years became an accomplished artist.

Moray’s love of parties may have helped inspire some of his early research into what is known as the “cocktail party effect,” where people tune out crowd noise to concentrate on one conversation. He published a seminal paper on the subject in 1959, which showed that usually the only thing that will break this concentration barrier is if a person hears their own name said somewhere else in the room. 
While Moray spent two decades focusing on cognitive psychology and auditory attention, he shifted direction after spending a sabbatical at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he met engineers working on human-machine interaction and transferred his focus to that topic, known as human factors or ergonomics.  From then on he deftly combined the two disciplines of engineering and psychology.

John Lee, one of his former graduate students who is now an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, says Moray’s attitude had a huge impact on people who worked with him. “He had a curiosity and passion for doing interesting stuff,” Lee says. “He had fun doing research, and that has really stuck with me. Sometimes that gets lost in the worry about publication and grant dollars and funding students, but in the end it’s really important.” 

One of Moray’s central areas of research concerned the trust that people place in automated systems, and what level of trust is appropriate to ensure automation is supervised and applied effectively. 

While Moray’s work focused on automation in manufacturing plants, Lee says, his findings set the foundation for later studies of issues that are top-of-mind today, such as the reliability of self-driving cars. It even influences work on social networks that make use of automated algorithms to send advertising to users.

Moray also did visionary analysis of mental workload – a field that examines how many simultaneous tasks people can perform effectively. This, too, is a subject that is more relevant than ever, particularly with current concerns over distracted driving. “His work still informs that area of research,” Lee says. 

Moray liked to work on practical problems in the real world.  In a profile he wrote about himself for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, he says the two consulting projects he was most proud of concerned safety in the nuclear industry, and the human factors that needed to be taken into account when destroying stocks of chemical weapons.

Moray always had a broad, interdisciplinary view of human factors. In 1994 he gave a seminal lecture on the subject, where he insisted that ergonomics should foster a better quality of life, not just make workplaces tolerable and productive.

Peter Hancock, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, says Moray was working on a toxic waste handling issue when he had to shave off his beard to fulfill the safety requirements of an on-site breathing apparatus. That was a big sacrifice for someone who loved his facial hair, Hancock says. “It took some time for Neville to become Neville again.”

Hancock said Moray had an “unquenchable intellectual curiosity about all that was around him.” Talking to him was energizing “not simply about science but about life.” Moray was particularly good at helping graduate students “whose trepidation was calmed…by his genuine interest and his virtually unparalleled mentoring skills,” Hancock says. 

Neville Peter Moray was born on May 27, 1935 in London, England, but he spent four of his early years as a child evacuee in Toronto during the Second World War. In a personal memoir he wrote about his fond memories of that period, from 1940-1944 when he lived with a family in Forest Hill. In Canada “there is a freedom and an encouragement to make the most of one's talents in everyday life that is very different from middle-class life in England,” he wrote. “I ended up very self-confident, certain that I could tackle anything I wanted to, and full of enthusiasm and willing to try anything. Had I stayed in England I would have had a very different personality.”

Back in England, at age 13 Moray began studying physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics at Ampleforth College, a boarding school in North Yorkshire. In 1953 he won a scholarship to Worcester College at Oxford University, where he initially planned to study medicine, focusing on virology. But his interest was piqued by courses in philosophy, psychology and physiology, and he eventually got a graduate degree in experimental psychology.  In 1959 he took one of Oxford’s earliest courses in computer programming, and he was a pioneer in using computers in psychology research.

For 10 years, Moray taught psychology at the University of Sheffield, and in 1965 he married his first wife, art historian Gerta Glasser. They moved to Toronto in 1970, where he joined U of T and worked on issues related to attention and skills, influenced by Professor Emeritus John Senders, who was a pioneer in engineering psychology.

Senders, now 98, says Moray “found his calling” at U of T, where it became clear to colleagues he had a “inquisitive and fecund mind.” The two became lifelong friends who spent decades “talking and thinking together

"We drank, ate, and sang songs together, and made clever puns and insulting jokes about one another – the mark of a genuine friendship of equals.”

Moray returned to Britain in 1974 to work at the University of Stirling in Scotland, but he was back at U of T in 1981, this time in the industrial engineering department rather than the psychology department.

In 1988, he began a seven-year stint at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then taught for a couple of years in France, and finished off his career as a professor of applied cognitive psychology at the University of Surrey.

A truly international academic, Moray lectured in China, collaborated with researchers in Japan, and taught applied engineering subjects in French at the Université de Valenciennes et du Hainaut-Cambrésis in France.

As well as being fluent in French, he could read Greek and Latin, says his daughter Nerissa.

She described her father as “really a renaissance man” who was interested in art and loved to compose songs, in addition to his science work. “He had such a fierce intellectual curiosity about everything,” she says, and was “incredibly gentle and fun and warm.”

One of his great outside interests was sailing, and in 1983 he and three friends accomplished the feat of navigating a 31-foot yacht across the Atlantic Ocean. “It was a kind of crazy idea,” Nerissa says, accomplished before the days of satellite phones or GPS.

After he retired in 2001, Moray moved to the south of France with his third wife Angela Rhodes James. There, he took up painting, working every day in his studio in what he called a “neo-pop-art style.” 

He leaves his wife Angela, his sister Francesca, two daughters Nerissa and Clea, four grandchildren, two previous wives and several step-children and step-grandchildren.



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