Just over 60 years ago, Spearman (1928) grumbled that “crammed as psychological writings are, and must needs be, with allusions to errors in an incidental manner, they hardly ever arrive at considering these profoundly, or even systematically.” Even at the time, Spearman's lament was not altogether justified (see Chapter 2); but if he were around today, he would find still less cause for complaint. The past decade has seen a rapid increase in what might loosely be called ‘studies of errors for their own sake’.
The most obvious impetus for this renewed interest has been a growing public concern over the terrible cost of human error: the Tenerife runway collision in 1977, Three Mile Island two years later, the Bhopal methyl isocyanate tragedy in 1984, the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters of 1986, the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the King's Cross tube station fire in 1987 and the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion in 1988. There is nothing new about tragic accidents caused by human error; but in the past, the injurious consequences were usually confined to the immediate vicinity of the disaster. Now, the nature and the scale of certain potentially hazardous technologies, especially nuclear power plants, means that human errors can have adverse effects upon whole continents over several generations.
Aside from these world events, from the mid-1970s onwards theoretical and methodological developments within cognitive psychology have also acted to make errors a proper study in their own right.
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