Human Errors – Person or System

Human Errors – Person or System?

How often have you come across individuals in your organization inferring on the cause of incident or a failure as the “Person Problem”? Without much thoughts, you would say “Quite often”, right? It can be thought of that this way, it’s easier to get to a conclusion rather than considering the innumerable possibilities of the error in question. But the reason for this behaviour lies deep inside the way human brains work.

Attribution theory is concerned with how ordinary people explain the causes of behaviour and events. The concept deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment. The causes for the events/ behaviour can be either:

1. Dispositional (Internal):

Dispositional attribution assigns the cause of behavior to some internal characteristic of a person, rather than to outside forces.

2. Situational (External):

The process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some situation or event outside a person’s control rather than to some internal characteristic. For example, if someone is angry, why is he angry? Is it because he is bad-tempered (dispositional) or because something bad happened to him (Situational)? So, you see, people are naive psychologists trying to make sense of the social world!

Interestingly, as per the fundamental attribution error, which is a well-known concept in social psychology, when it comes to other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. Even though situational/ external variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics. The fundamental attribution error explains why people often blame other people for things over which they usually have no control.

As a simple example of the behaviour which attribution error theory seeks to explain, consider the situation where a driver A, is cut off in traffic by driver B. A attributes B’s behaviour to his fundamental personality, e.g. he is selfish, he is a jerk, he is an unskilled driver; he does not think it is situational, e.g., he is going to miss his flight, his wife is giving birth at the hospital, his daughter is ill at school. On the other hand, consider the situation where driver A makes the same mistake and excuses himself by saying he was influenced by external situational causes, e.g., I am late for my job interview, I must pick up my son for his doctor’s appointment; he does not think he has a character flaw, e.g., I am such a jerk, I treat others in contempt, I am bad at driving.

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is a hurdle in identifying the actual root cause in case of human errors. It tends to bias us in thinking that the error is attributable to the person making it, not considering the external influencing factors. In the next part of this blog, we shall look into how we can avoid the FAE and identify the actual root cause using the System approach of human error cause identification.