Counterfactual Thinking About Accidents and the Human Error Fallacy: How Undoing Accidents Leads Decison Makers to Futile Human-Focused Remedies

By Paul C. MooreMichael W. MorrisDamien L.H. Sim
1998| Working Paper No. 1499

A widely deplored bias in organizational decision-making is attributing an accident simply to “human error” and them attempting to correct the problem through changing employees rather than changing the technological or organizational environment. One source of the fallacy, we argue, are counterfactual thoughts tha “undo” the accident by simulating how the accident could have been averted if only some antecedent event had been slightly different. Three studies support the following hypotheses: 1) A social heuristic guides counterfactual thoughts about accidents to human actions; 2) Human-focused counterfactual thoughts engender remedy decisions that are flawed in their narrow focus on changing human behavior rather than other factors. We discuss implications for research on the relation between counterfactual thinking and adaptive learning.