Jul 282010

Human Element is a term often bandied about in safety circles, sometimes wrongly as a synonym for human error. Less bandied is cognitive psychology, the study of how we perceive, or do not perceive, the world around us. What it often shows is that our intuitions are dangerously flawed and the need to mitigate those hazards.

An absorbing new book, The Invisible Gorilla, by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel J. Simons, is a valuable basic primer that waves big red flags for those like to believe we live in a What You See Is What You Get world. If it’ not on your bookshelf, it should be.

Chabris and Simons carried out a series of classic experiments that asked fundamental questions and got some unexpected answers.

For instance, we intuitively feel that if something outrageously obvious suddenly popped up where it shouldn’t be we would instantly see it. Let’s say it’s a video o a basketball game and your job is to count the number of times players in white pass the ball while ignoring passes made by players in black you’d obviously spot a gorilla walking among the players.

Your intuition is wrong.

Half the subjects asked to carry out the counting task failed to see the gorilla, obvious though it was. Intelligence, education, rank and social standing did not affect the results.

You can try it out for yourself; Watch the following video and count the number of passes made by the players in white.

Did you see the gorilla? Of course you did but did you see the curtain change colour and one of the players in black leave the field?

This obviously has application in bridge team management and the importance of avoiding having a single watchkeeper.

It certainly explains those incidents that leave one scratching one’s head and muttering “How the hell could they miss that?”

Here’s a great presentation by Daniel Simons that should be watched by anyone dealing with the human element/human factors:

So, should you ignore your inuition? There is one you shouldalways listen to and interrogate: The intuition that something is wrong.

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