Human Factors and Humanistic Psychology: Distant Cousins

Human factors and humanistic psychology are two human disciplines that emerged from adversity during the same era (1940s and 1950s). Both focus on the human, and should have a lot in common. In some fundamental ways they do, but the commonalities are in principle rather than practice. This post begins to explore some possible links.

Human factors (or ergonomics – the terms are ‘officially’ equivalent) is a discipline concerned with humans as part of sociotechnical systems. According to International Ergonomics Association (to which most other Societies, Associations and Institutes belong), human factors (or ergonomics) “is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theoretical principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well being and overall system performance.”

The definition does not say anything about the human per se, and seems to formalise how practitioners actually relate to the many and various stakeholders in the process of system (and I mean socio-technical system) design. For me, the definition makes human factors practice out to be rather more Newtonian than is (or should be) the case. One of the essential “methods” that I use is otherwise known as ‘talking to people’, relating to them, listening to them, trying to empathise with them and their unique situation and perspective. This is a very human activity.

This focus on people, and especially the person, can become blurred in an age of advanced technology, large organisations and complex systems and procedures. The focus is not made any clearer by the scientific paradigm in which human factors professionals often operate; it is officially seen as a “scientific discipline” by the IEA but is more properly described as a blend of elements of science (to explain and predict), engineering (to design for improved performance), and craft (to implement and evaluate) (Wilson, 2000).

The craft-side of human factors is often most relevant to how I work as a practitioner, and it is the craft-side of human factors that I perceive to be most instrumental in the outcome of the practice of human factors. It is probably the most familiar role to the very large, perhaps majority, group of ergonomists who provide internal or external consulting services, and yet little is written about it. The science and engineering sides of human factors are essential, but the craft side humanises what we do, and makes the difference between whether decision makers and other stakeholders take notice (in the right way).

Humanistic psychology is a more craft-oriented discipline that could help to rehumanise human factors. While typically associated with counsellors and psychotherapists, humanistic practitioners (or practitioners of anything, working humanistically) may work in fields such as medicine, education, management and social work, and humanistic principles may be applied to organisational functioning. It is harder to pin down in terms of a definition, but the Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain usefully summarise five basic postulates, which focus on a view of human beings rather than the discipline and profession (very human-centred!).

  1. Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components.
  2. Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
  3. Human beings are aware and aware of being aware – i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
  4. Human beings have some choice and, with that, responsibility.
  5. Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value and creativity.

What I see from the definition and postulates above is that both human factors and humanistic psychology are concerned with people, relationships and contexts. In principle, both also emphasise wholeness (e.g. the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and in the case of humanistic psychology, the transpersonal), awareness (e.g. situation, of oneself, of others), choice and responsibility (e.g. safety-related behaviour), intentionality/goal-orientation, meaning (e.g. in interactions and experiences), values (e.g. safety and productivity), and creativity.

In practice, several issues combine to fragment the human factors approach to the human (and the system), such as: the scientific paradigm of human factors research; the reward structures in academia; the funding mechanisms for research; the industry sector or application domain of practitioners; organisational structures, policies and processes; interdisciplinary divisions; regulatory requirements; and the tendency for specialism among human factors professionals.

This drift toward fractionalism is manifested in several ways. The person is reduced to a ‘user’ or an ‘operator’. Cognitivism often clouds out other attributes of the person. Human performance variability is transformed to numbers via human reliability assessment. We may ‘analyse tasks’ without understanding meaning and values. Qualitative or action research is harder to publish. Sometimes a reductionist approach may be the only way within the constraints that exist, but often we don’t look for alternatives. Humanistic psychology, which emerged partly in response to the reductionist (behaviourist and psychoanalytic) ‘forces’ in psychology, may be able to reorient us when we become lost in the detail.

Both human factors and humanistic psychology are about improving the human condition, but they go about this in very different ways. Perhaps we can become more humanistic in our approach to human factors in practice. In future posts, I will look at some aspects of how humanistic practice can be of value to human factors, along with other views on the state of human factors in research and practice.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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