Four Kinds of ‘Human Factors’: 1. The Human Factor

Over the last decade or so, the term ‘human factors’ has gained currency with an increasing range of people, professions, organisations and industries. It is a significant development, bringing what might seem like a niche discipline into the open, to a wider set of stakeholders. But as with any such development, there are inevitable differences in the meanings that people attach to the term, the mindsets that they bring or develop, and their communication with others.  It is useful to know, then, what kind of ‘human factors’ we are talking about? At least four kinds seem to exist in our minds, each with somewhat different meanings and – perhaps – implications. These will be outlined in this short blog post series, beginning with the first: The Human Factor.



Steph Kelly, Air Traffic Controller at Heathrow Airport. NATS UK Air Traffic Control            CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

What is it?

The first kind of human factors is the most colloquial: ‘the human factor’. Human-factors-as-the-human-factor seems enters discussions about human and system performance, usually in relation to unwanted events such as accidents and – increasingly – cybersecurity risks and breaches. It is rarely defined explicitly.

Who uses it?

As a colloquial term, ‘the human factor’ seems to be most often used by those with an applied interest in (their own or others’) performance. The term was the title of an early text on human factors in aviation (see David Beaty’s ‘The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents’, originally published in 1969, now ‘The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents‘). It can be found in magazine articles concerning human performance by aviators (e.g., this series by Jay Hopkins in Flying magazine) and information security specialists (e.g., Kaspersky, Proofpoint). Journalists tend to use the term in a vague way to refer to any adverse human involvement. Aside from occasional books and reports on human factors (e.g., Kim Vicente’s excellent ‘The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology‘), the term is rarely used by human factors specialists.

The Good

In a sense, ‘the human factor’ is more intuitively appealing than the term ‘human factors’, which implies plurality. It seems to point to something concrete – a person, a human being with intention and agency. And yet it also hints at something vague – mystery, ‘human nature’. Human-factors-as-the-human-factor might therefore be seen in the frame of humanistic psychology, reminding us that:

  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. (Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain)

The individual, and her life and experience, is something that cannot be reduced to ‘factors’ the same way as a machine can be reduced to its parts, nor isolated from her context. The individual cannot be fully generalised, explained or predicted, since every person is quite different, even if we have broadly similar capabilities, limitations, and needs. Importantly, we also have responsibility, borne out our goals, intentions and choices. This responsibility is something that professional human factors scientists and practitioners are often nervous about approaching, and may deploy reductionism, externalisation or obfuscation to put responsibility ‘in context’ (this is sometimes at odds with others such as front-line practitioners, patients and their families, management and the judiciary, who perceive these narratives as absolving or sidestepping individual responsibility; see also just culture regulation).

Unfortunately, these possible upsides to human-factors-as-the-human-factor are more imaginary than real, since the term itself is rarely used in this way in practice.

The Bad

In use, ‘the human factor’ is loaded with simplistic and negative connotations about people, almost always people at the sharp end. ‘The human factor’ usually frames the person as a source of trouble – an unreliable and unpredictable element of an otherwise (imagined to be) well-designed and well-managed system. It comes with a suggestion that safety problems – and causes of accidents – can be located in individuals; safety (or rather, unsafety) is an individual behaviour issue. By example, Kaspersky’s blogpost ‘The Human Factor in IT Security: How Employees are Making Businesses Vulnerable from Within’ repeatedly uses adjectives such as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘careless’ to describe users. That is not to say that people are never careless or irresponsible, since we observe countless examples in everyday life, and the courts deal with many in judicial proceedings, but the question is whether this is a useful way to frame human interaction with systems in a work context. In the press, ‘the human factor’ is often used as a catch-all ‘explanation’ for accidents and breaches. It is a throwaway cause.

The human-factors-as-the-human-factor mindset tends to generate a behaviour modification solution to reduce mistakes – psychology, not ergonomics – via fear (threats of punishment or sanctions), monitoring (monitoring and supervision), or awareness raising and training (information campaigns, posters, training).  The mindset may lead to sacking perceived ‘bad apples’, or removing people altogether (by automating particular functions). In some cases, each of these is an appropriate response (especially training, for issues requiring knowledge and skill), but they will tend not to be effective (or fair) without considering the system as a whole, including the design of artefacts, equipment, tasks, jobs and environments.



About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. 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
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