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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Actor Observer Asymmetry

Regular readers of this blog know that I am an unabashed champion of the safety strategy know as Threat and Error Management (TEM).   Simply stated, TEM is a perspective that pursues a safe operation by identifying threats and errors then preparing for and correcting them to avoid negative consequences.  There is no procedure for TEM.  There is no recipe to follow.  It is a mindset.  It is a continual critical assessment of the situation.  To quote Gerry Bruggink (1917 – 2005), former Chief of Human Factors for the NTSB, “most accidents are caused by uncritical acceptance of easily verifiable assumptions.”  TEM calls for evaluating one’s assumptions and continual monitoring of the dynamic situation to be aware of changes.  In aviation, the dynamic situation always includes errors in human performance.


Human cognition is incredibly complex and very difficult to understand.  The results of free will can be hard to predict and can be easily subverted.  For decades Madison Ave. has used this fact to manipulate consumers.  Illusionists routinely convince people they see things that don’t exist or didn’t happen.  People still choose to stick their hands in a running lawnmower is spite of sophisticated “safety” devices.

What causes pilots and others in highly technical occupations to abandon or reject best practices and engage in risky behavior in spite of their training?  It starts with a conscious or an unconscious assumption that “it can’t/won’t happen to me”.

When facilitating human factors workshops I often show a picture of a man engaged in obviously risky behavior.  He is sitting under his truck, held precariously by a couple pieces of wood, welding on the gas tank.  I ask the participants to comment.  The response is universally quite judgmental.  A "Darwin Award" is usually suggested.  Next, I ask the class if they feel that driving while talking or texting on a smartphone can be dangerous.  They answer in the affirmative.  Finally, while raising my own hand, I ask who has driven while talking or texting.  “What is the difference between us and the man in the picture?”, I ask.

Evaluating the origins of our own behavior and that of others is one of the biggest obstacles to the adoption and integration of TEM into airline operations.  This difference between how we interpret the cause of our actions or errors and how we see it in others is known as Actor-Observer Asymmetry or Bias.  This was first proposed by social psychologists Edward E. Jones and Richard E. Nisbett in 1971.  They concluded, “The actor may simultaneously view his own personality as being more unique than it is and his own behavior being more appropriate to given situations than is the behavior of others.”   This trait is not a disorder.  It is a “normal” human characteristic.    However, like many human traits like distractibility, it is the classic Catch-22. “I'm only OK if I know I am not OK..”

TEM requires that we see ourselves as both actors and observers.  We need to see in ourselves our uniqueness as well as our sameness with those we observe.  If we actually thought we would crash our car while talking on our mobile phone we wouldn’t do it.  At the same time we absolutely accept the premise that others might crash and therefore consider it an unsafe practice for the general population.  We believe that when we arrive home safely after talking on our mobile phone it is because of our ability and not that we were perhaps lucky.  Things that may be seen as a threat in the abstract are not a threat for me practically. During the workshops we often do case studies on noteworthy accidents.  I am always intrigued by the "Actor Observer Bias" demonstrated by some participants in these case studies.   The "I would never do that." expression on their face is easy to recognize.  It is difficult for most pilots to put themselves in the position of the accident/incident crew. 

Actor Observer Asymmetry is a major obstacle to error recognition and avoidance.  As obvious as it sounds, it’s difficult to avoid errors you don’t think you’re likely to make.  All humans make errors.  Let me say that again, all humans make mistakes.  It is impossible to avoid all of them.  However, it is possible to recognize and correct errors before there is a consequence.  Therefore, it is also necessary in these workshops to demonstrate how easy it is to introduce errors into human cognition.  There are many simple “parlor tricks” to demonstrate, "to err is human".  These help to reduce the asymmetry between the class participant (observers) and the crew in the case study (actors).

Although aircraft have become more reliable through advanced technology, the human brain hasn't changed since Kitty Hawk in 1903.  There are many lessons that can be learned from 110 years of aviation, but only if we believe those lessons apply to ourselves, not just the other guy.


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