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Fundamental Attribution Error in Incident Investigations

Graham Marshall - Friday, January 04, 2013

When examining and explaining the behaviour of other people, there is sometimes a tendency for incident investigators to overestimate the effect of internal "attitudinal" factors, and underestimate the effect of external factors on that behaviour.

In psychology, this problem is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

You'll have seen the Fundamental Attribution Error at work when you hear someone say "the person involved in the incident was a bit stupid, or had a poor attitude."

But the problem with adopting a focus on attitudes as a key safety failure mechanism is that it ignores what Psychologists know about mechanisms of the brain.

Many psychological studies have shown that people will experience attention failures, memory lapses, slips of action and mistakes based on incorrect knowledge or experience.

None of these failures can be explained by attitudes alone.

And an attitudes-based focus to incident causation is unlikely to resolve most of these failure mechanisms.

And even deliberate and willful violations of safety rules which do have a strong "attitudinal componant" often occur in response to external pressures rather than just being driven by internal attitudes.

Good incident investigations avoid the fundamental attribution error by recognising the range of failure mechanisms of the brain and the role of external factors in those failures.

And organizations with mature safety culture design error-tolerant work arrangement based on identifying which errors are most likely to occur.

Moreover, mature organizations view incidents as an opportunity to learn something about their systems, assets, or culture, rather than blaming individual workers and their "negative" attitudes.

Finally, they recognise that safety attitudes are most effectively fostered through genuine leadership practices and leading by example at all levels of the organisation, every day.

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