Safety through understanding of human factors

This question is based on https://aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/27814/ and related to:

Aviation industry safety has improved as much through better understanding of human factors in the cockpit as it has through advances in science, technology and engineering, to the extent that practitioners in other sectors (from software development to surgery) are interested in how its principles might apply to their own disciplines.

Aviation practices of this kind that aim to manage or mitigate human factors include:

  • extensive use of checklists
  • strict rule-following
  • extensive cross-checking
  • health-checking
  • blameless incident analysis
  • eliminating authority gradients that make it hard for junior crew to question decisions

Aviation practices across different cultures

These practices and the ideas behind them have largely emerged from western social cultures, and largely in the civilian post-WWII industry, and to a certain extent exemplify aspects of western politics and culture.

Examples of incidents related to cultural human factors

There are many stories (and some are no doubt apocryphal) of how cultural human factors have been involved in incidents. In recent years:

  • steep cultural authority gradients:
    • a junior first officer reluctant to question an overbearing captain's decisions
    • a timid first officer who failed to realise his remote and taciturn captain had actually died
  • attitudes to regulation, and attitudes of family/VIP exceptionalism:
    • the pilot who allowed a teenaged family member to touch controls in the cockpit
    • the pilots who ignored ATC advice to divert in fog because the president and other VIPs were anxious to attend a ceremony

How does cultural difference impinge upon human factors in aviation industry safety?

For example:

  • How well have they worked (adoption, implementation, outcome) in very different cultures?
  • Has it been particularly hard for them to find acceptance in other cultures (this applies not just to non-western cultures, but also for example to military culture in the west, where levels of authority and hierarchy are very significant)?
  • Have different approaches been used or tried with better results, in different cultures?
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Also, you didn't really reduce the scope of the question. It is still many questions at once and that does not work here. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 8:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I have broken the original question into three new and separate questions, covering: cultural difference and how the industry deals with it (this question); how a particular matter has been dealt with in east Asian; and how race/gender/class attitudes as human factors. They are three independent but related questions. This question significantly reduces the scope of the original, removing two-thirds of it. @JanHudec $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2016 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico I was specifically advised to break up the original question into new and more specific questions. $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2016 at 8:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you for breaking up the question on this very interesting and complex topic. The original was well written but too broad, this one is still broad but I think it is answerable. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ Since the question of which this was supposedly an exact duplicate (aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/27814) has been deleted, perhaps this can have the duplicate flag removed. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31, 2016 at 5:49

2 Answers 2


What you are asking looks like a university assignment on Interface design and sociology. It is a very complex area and your question does not suggest a simple answer but here goes:

These cultural factors are covered by Hofstead's theory of Cultural dimensions. Specifically the Cultural factors of Power Distance, Individualism and Uncertainty Avoidance. I have studied Hofstead (and others) and its relation to Interaction Design and Interface Design for a computing degree.

Power Distance (PD). The higher the score then the more likely the culture is to vest power in an elite and accept that their decisions. The lower the score the more power is devolved and people are more likely to question leaders.

Individualism (IND). The higher the score the the more loose the societal structure. The lower it is then the society tend to collectivism and rigid structure.

Uncertainty Avoidance (UA). The higher the score then the more the society prefers rigid rules and procedures for all events. The lower then the more relaxed the society is to rules unexpected events.

Note that these overlap considerably.

What this means is that cultures with high PD, UA or Low IND are more likely to follow instruction or even crave instruction and rule. Checklists and instructions are more likely to be followed. Cultures with the opposite may be inclined to be a little more relaxed and may be more of a risk to safety due to a laissez-faire attitude to checks.

However a high PD, low IND and high UA may result in a subordinate unquestioningly accepting instruction from the captain despite knowing that the order was wrong even to the point of crashing.

It is a massively complex subject and to get an answer you really need to be specific with scenarios and cultures.

To see the scores for various cultures then go to geert-hofstede.com/countries.html and try some countries

  • $\begingroup$ "What you are asking looks like a university assignment on Interface design and sociology" - not at all. $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2016 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ It was not an accusation, just an observation. I suspect most Universities are shutting down for the summer. Had this been posted months ago I may have suspected a homework question. $\endgroup$
    – AndyW
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyW It's not summer in the Southern Hemisphere ;) $\endgroup$
    – Tim Malone
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 5:37
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for this answer, which covers two of the factors I'm interested in (authority gradients; resistance to regulation). Do you know whether research from the social sciences has anything relevant to say about any of the others (e.g. health and privacy - certainly an issue in the Germanwings/Andreas Lubitz case, or blameless incident analysis - potentially threatened by the prospect of criminal/civil actions following incidents)? $\endgroup$ Commented May 28, 2016 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim... I live in Scotland. You know it is summer here when the rain warms up a few degrees. $\endgroup$
    – AndyW
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 6:44

In addition to the above,you might also enjoy the work of Prof.Batteau, an aviator and anthropologist. Here is a link to an abstract of his arguing for anthropology's role in aviation safety. https://trid.trb.org/view.aspx?id=644343

Also Prof. Sydney Dekker has a lot of interesting things to say on culture and safety- an (ex?) 737 pilot turned safety guru. He is behind the Just Culture framework that encourages the kind of Blameless error reporting mentioned above. My favorite of his articles is titled: Let's Get Rid of the Bad Pilots - http://www.skybrary.aero/bookshelf/books/1232.pdf More of Dr. Dekker's papers can be found here, http://sidneydekker.com/papers/

You may also be interested in a book chapter by Nicklas Dahlström1 and Lex R. Heemstra that discusses aviation safety in a large multi cultural airline. They argue that the diversity actually dissolves differences and that a shared culture of aviation(aviation safety) transcends these differences in the crew well before they reach the airline. It can be found here: https://www.thelibrarybook.net/pdf-emirates-nicklas-dahlstrom.html


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