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PSIWORLD 2011

Human attitudes toward error: a quest in search of scientific


evidence
Bogdan Tudor Tulbure*
Babes-Bolyai University, Mihail Kogalniceanu Nr. 1, Cluj-Napoca 400084, Romania

Abstract
Unlike the usual research paper where answers to specific questions are sketched, the aim of this article is rather to
device some worth answering questions. Could it be that embracing our errors (i.e., accepting the possibility to err)
represents a protective factor in the effort to prevent them? A new research program intended to investigate the role
of attitudes and their relationship with the frequency and amplitude of human errors is proposed. In the context where
errors are not associated with serious negative consequences, the research program contains both correlation and
experimental designs. In the end, the risks associated with novel approaches are briefly mentioned.

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Open access under CC BY-NC-ND license.
Keywords: human error; being wrong; (implicit) attitude; priming; research program.

1. Introduction
An error is the state or condition of being wrong in conduct or judgment (The Oxford Dictionary).
Errors are deviations from external reality, accuracy or correctness. Generally, errors spring from the gap
between the human mental representation of the world and the world as it really is. This gap between the
objective reality and the way we perceive it can be about every aspect of reality (i.e., from verifiable facts
to unverifiable memories or beliefs; Schulz, 2010). This unavoidable and profoundly human experience is
spontaneous, unexpected, and undesired (Peters & Peters, 2006). Moreover, the errors we enact show that
the content of our mind can be as convincing as reality itself (Schulz, 2010). Otherwise, we would not be
surprised when comparing the two inconsistent perceptions.

Corresponding author. Tel.: +04 0745 753061.


E-mail address: bogdan.tulbure@ubbcluj.ro; btulbure@gmail.com.

1877-0428 2012 Published by Elsevier B.V. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of PSIWORLD2011
Open access under CC BY-NC-ND license. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.01.127

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1.1. Models of error


Schulz (2010) proposed two distinct models of error displayed symmetrically on the pessimistic
optimistic continuum. According to traditional wisdom, Schultz suggests, error is considered dangerous,
humiliating and/or harmful. The assumption underlying this pessimistic model of error states that humans
should always strive for the truth. Any deviation from accuracy is considered abnormal, a perversion of
the real order of things (Schulz, 2010). The mistakes people made (including our own) can be irritating,
distasteful, deplorable and not funny at all. The pessimistic model of error tells us that errors are
unpleasant, and to dismiss that fact would be insincere. However, this model reveals nothing about
situations when making an error does not turn out to be harmful or disagreeable. Therefore, Schulz (2010)
adequately argues that to account for the diversity of real-life experiences, we need another model.
According to this optimistic model of error, realizing that we were wrong is not necessarily associated
with embarrassment or irreversible negative consequences. In some circumstances, recognizing our errors
can be surprisingly funny and/or illuminating, facilitating a rich learning experience. This category of
errors (i.e., without serious negative consequences) should be perceived from a different perspective, and
embracing them seems a better option compared to fighting against their inevitability. In support of this
optimistic model, Schultz quotes William James assertion: Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn
things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of
heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. (William James, 1896, p. 19). In
this context, Schultz suggests that by considering errors as an unavoidable human experience we could
better anticipate, prevent and respond appropriately to them.
2. Problem statement
Although these two models of error seem appealing and intuitive, to date no research studies tested
whether they represent scientific facts or mere philosophical speculation. These models might contribute
to a certain understanding of error, but in the absence of a solid scientific support to prove their reality,
researchers could only hypothesize about their existence and possible implications. Therefore, the main
purpose of this article is to make one-step further, in an attempt to advance the scientific understanding
about human error. To test whether and under what conditions embracing (i.e., accepting) our errors
makes us less prone to enact them, a novel research program is proposed. Previous research efforts were
directed towards clarifying the condition under which post-completion errors occur (Li, Blandford,
Cairns, & Young, 2005), and whether interrupting the participants immediately after completing a task
makes them more likely to produce post-completion errors (Li, Cox, Blandford, Cairns, & Abeles, 2006).
To the best of our knowledge, no previous study looked at the relationship between human attitudes and
the frequency or amplitude of error. Before sketching the details of the proposed research program, let us
spend a few moments on another important topic: if it is impossible to be error free, what strategies are at
our disposal to mitigate the occurrence of error?
2.1. Attempts to control errors
If errors are not only unavoidable, but also difficult to foresee, what strategies can we use to control
their occurrence? To date, many techniques and intervention procedures have been designed to prevent,
reduce or minimize the human propensity to err (Larson, 2003; Peters & Peters, 2008; Truscott, 2003;
Whittingham, 2004; Woods, Dekker, Cook, Johannesen, Sarter, 2010). Two main strategies for error
control (i.e., the retrospective and prospective strategies) will be briefly presented. Within the
retrospective approach, the causes of error are investigated after the event occurred. By a detailed analysis

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of the situation at hand, some insights about human errors can be gained, and adequate procedures to
prevent future incidents are proposed. Within the prospective approach, anticipating the occurrence of
errors and eliminating them constitutes the key elements. Among the prospective approach, the quality
control process called Six Sigma (Larson, 2003; Truscott, 2003) is worth mentioning. Its aim is to make
product that satisfies the customer and minimizes supplier losses to the point that it is not cost effective to
pursue tighter quality. By implementing this methodology, producers aim to reduce unacceptable
products to no more than three defects per million parts, by constant feedback (Truscott, 2003).
Summarizing, these are just a two of the many existing strategies for error control. However, besides
the deliberate effort to mitigate error, it would be interesting to know whether certain personality traits
and/or implicit attitudes predispose us to, or on the contrary, protect us from making errors. More
precisely, it would be worth investigating the spontaneous or automatic processes that might influence the
human propensity toward error. To sketch an answer, scientists have to systematically investigate this
question in different contexts and with different populations. This by now classical scientific approach
called program of research is detailed elsewhere (McGuire, 1989).
3. The proposed research program
Unlike the usual research paper that struggle to sketch an answer to a specific question, the purpose of
this article is rather to device some questions that are worth answering. Inspired by Schultzs (2010)
work, we ventured into a novel approach of human error, proposing a new research program to
investigate the possible impact of human attitude on error.
Before spelling out the details of the proposed program, it is important to briefly mention the main
factors that give raise to human errors. Lack of knowledge, lack of skills, divided attention or cognitive
resources, reliance on false information, emotional imbalance (Piattelli-Palmarini, 1994), and possibly
peoples explicit and implicit attitudes toward errors are among the most causes of human error. Besides
these endogenous causes of error, the context in which the human activity is carried out might predispose
or protect people from making system-induced errors (Whittingham, 2004). For example, the general
work environment, the human/machine interface, and even non-physical elements like the company
organizational structure, and working culture all contribute to the likelihood of human error.
In the present article we decided to focus on the endogenous or psychological causes of error not only
because system-induced errors are comprehensively presented elsewhere (Peters, & Peters, 2008;
Whittingham, 2004 Woods, Dekker, Cook, Johansen, Sarter, 2010), but also because, errors are the
ultimate inside job (Schultz, 2010, p. 21). From among the endogenous causes of error, we selected the
automatic or spontaneous ones (e.g., implicit attitudes) as they tend to reveal the way people behave in
their daily life. Moreover, we would like to investigate the possible impact of attitudes on error in a
context where errors are not associated with serious negative consequences. The main reason for selecting
this context is that when serious damage are associated with certain behaviors, people tend to spare no
effort to minimize the negative consequences. Although the role of voluntary efforts to minimize human
error represents an important research topic, it might not be revealing for the spontaneity of our daily life.
Therefore, in an attempt to disentangle the factors that contribute to human error, the role of attitudes
and their relationship with the frequency and amplitude of error is to be investigated. To do so, a
correlation design is proposed. Within this design, peoples attitude toward error, their train anxiety level,
and their actual behavior is assessed. The attitude towards error is measured by asking participants how
much they accept that errors represent a normal part of life, how surprised they are when recognizing an
error they made, how fearful they feel when thinking about the possibility of erring etc. After completing
such a self-report, participants are ask to complete a subsequent behavioral task (e.g., a computer game)
recording the number of committed errors (study one). With such a design we could test whether

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participants attitudes are related with the actual number of errors recorded during the behavioral task. It
could be that, the more participants accept the possibility of erring, the fewer errors they make. In a
similar correlation design (study two), we could advance our investigation by including both explicit and
implicit measures of attitudes. One of the most frequently used implicit measures of attitudes is the
Implicit Association Test (IAT, Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwartz, 1998). The IAT indirectly measures
the strengths of memory associations. In the second study we could use an IAT with the categories self,
error, others, and success to assess participants memory associations between self and error as compared
to the associations between self and success (i.e., the IAT effect). As a result, we could test whether
participants explicit and implicit attitudes predict the amount of errors recorded during the behavioral
task.
Moreover, we could investigate whether priming peoples attitudes (e.g., for error or for success)
affects their error rate in a subsequent behavioral task. This would be interesting because it might reveal
the relationship between cognition (activated at the explicit or implicit level) and participants behavioral
performance. As a priming procedure, either subliminal stimuli (study three), or the scrambled sentences
task (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Srull &Wyer, 1979) (study four) is used. By presenting stimuli at
the subliminal level, the primed concept is activated, although participants are unaware of the presence of
the stimulus. For one experimental condition, the concept of error will be subliminally activated, while
for the other experimental condition the concept of success will be subliminally activated. Then the
behavioral performance of the two conditions will be compared. With such a design we could investigate
whether activating the concept of success represent a protective factor for erring while activating the
concept of error represents a risk factor.
The same hypothesis could be tested using an alternative priming procedure: the scrambled sentence
task (study four). Participants are presented with strings of scrambled words and asked to create a
grammatically correct sentence using a subset of the words in each string (Bargh Chen, & Burrows, 1996;
Srull &Wyer, 1979). The majority of the word strings will either contain words related to the concept of
error (for one experimental condition) or to the concept of success (for the other experimental condition).
Previous studies demonstrated that, although participants are aware of the individual words, they do not
know how this task affects their behavior (Chartrand, & Bargh, 1996, Bargh & Chartland, 1999; Tulbure,
2004). After the priming procedure, participants will be asked to complete a behavioral task (e.g., a
computer game) and the number of errors will be recorded. It could be that, activating the concept of
success before an unrelated behavioral task would motivate participants to allocate more resources to the
task, and be more confident about their own abilities.
If our hypotheses are confirmed by the data, we wondered what are the possible underlying
mechanisms? For instance, if we find that participants who accept the possibility of erring make fewer
errors during a behavioral task, how can we explain their results? One possible explanation is that once
people accept the possibility to err, they became less anxious, and consequently are able to better process
the task at hand. Another explanation is related to the fact that accepting the possibility of erring makes
people less surprised when confronted with their own errors, and consequently more willing to work hard
at correcting them. In the same realm, priming the concept of success could activate participants schemas
related to previous successes, increasing their self-confidence. However, to ensure that we have the
correct explanation, we should imagine all or at least some possible motives for which our explanation
could be wrong (Schultz, 2010). That is why elaborating alternative explanations represents such a crucial
step for every scientist. It could be that not accepting but fearing errors actually represents a protective,
motivational factor in error reduction. Alternatively, accepting the possibility to err could actually lead
participant to expect them at some point during the task, and/or to refrain any corrective or preventive
efforts. Nevertheless, until scientific data are at our disposal, few conclusions regarding the relationship
between human attitudes and the frequency or amplitude of error could be reliably drawn.

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4. Final thoughts
The proposed research program investigates whether thinking of success and accepting the possibility
to err could represent protective factors in our effort to prevent human errors, when no serious negative
consequences are involved. If the implementation of such a program will bear fruits, scientists will be
able to skilfully craft a theory of error out of sound empirical arguments. However, considering the risks
associated with novel approaches, the present research program might be proven terrible off the mark,
leaving behind a minimal set of solid facts (possibly, about how things are not). Nevertheless, for the
overall advancement of social sciences, this might be crucial when a creative future scientist is directed
toward a more promising alley.
Acknowledgements
This work was possible with the financial support of the Sectoral Operational Programme for Human
Resources Development 2007-2013, co-financed by the European Social Fund, under the project number
POSDRU 89/1.5/S/60189 entitled Postdoctoral Programs for Sustainable Development in a Knowledge
Based Society.
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