The Köhler effect

August 12, 2012

Start of 4×100m relay, 2008 Olympics (photo: “Jmex60”)

In line with the current Olympic fever, a recent article in Wired magazine discusses the Köhler effect in relay races. The Köhler effect (see Hertel et al. 2000 and Kerr et al. 2005) is a phenomenon where less capable members of a team are motivated to perform at a higher level so as to “keep up” with their team-mates (some degree of feedback on performance is required).

A recent journal article cited by Wired studied collegiate swim and high-school track & field relays, and showed a significant Köhler effect, especially in finals. Kerr has also demonstrated the effect in other kinds of collaborative activity.

The lesson here is: to produce a truly stellar team, motivate the weaker members to “keep up,” show them how, and provide objective feedback on how well they are doing.

Members of Cassini spacecraft imaging team, crossing Abbey road (photo:

– Tony

Citius, Altius, Fortius

August 10, 2012

Given the current Olympic fever, it’s interesting to look at the rate at which countries win medals. Tiny Grenada managed a gold, while Jamaica and New Zealand managed more than 2 medals per million head of population:

Rank Country Medals Medals per million
1 Grenada (GRD) 1 9.5
2 Jamaica (JAM) 9 3.3
3 New Zealand (NZL) 10 2.3
4 Slovenia (SVN) 4 1.9
5 Denmark (DNK) 9 1.6
6 Estonia (EST) 2 1.5
7 Hungary (HUN) 15 1.5
8 Australia (AUS) 29 1.3

Some of those countries are too small to see on this map, but the “third rung” with between 1 and 2 medals per million – Slovenia (SVN), Denmark (DNK), Estonia (EST), Hungary (HUN), Australia (AUS), Cyprus (CYP), Qatar (QAT), Belarus (BLR), and Mongolia (MNG) – mostly stand out:

Medals per million at London, so far (click to zoom)

What makes those countries produce so many athletes running faster, jumping higher, and enduring longer? It’s not national wealth, as the graph below shows. Partly, it’s quality coaching. But most of all, “there is no gene for the human spirit.”

– Tony

Are Security Questions a Joke? Or is the way the Systems are Designed the Real Joke?

August 9, 2012
Security questions

Security questions (Photo credit: janetmck)

I read a great article the other day on the threat posed by the use of password security questions as a Computer security issue.

I too have been quite amused by the poorly designed questions which purport to help you if you forget your login information for a site.  Frank Voisin suggests a few ideas to make them more applicable.

However, the second item jarred with me – Applicable: the question should be possible to answer for as large a portion of users as possible (ideally, universal).


I would have thought that the primary (and only) function was to have something which was individual to the person involved.

Now I’m only a human factors scientist, but my training suggests that we ask the individual to design their own questions.  Sure, give them some advice and make the process as intuitive as possible, but give them the ability to make it as individual as they like – surely that‘s the whole point!  After all, this information is only kept in a secure database to be accessed as needs permit.

Is it more that the systems designer was trying to make his or her job easier?  Sort of fitting the human to the system rather than designing it to the individual’s explicit needs?  Did this save them a few lines of code?

Obviously some human science input into this area is sorely needed.  This raises the question of whether someone who is a computer scientist first and has cross-trained into the human interface is the best person for this role, or someone with a psychology or social science background.
My suggestion is that in this case, you really need some cross disciplinary interaction to arrive at an optimal solution.

Was Steve Jobs the Commercial Mesiah?

August 9, 2012

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

I recently viewed a Simon Sinek presentation on TED:

He used Apple as an example of a business which uses the why or underlying belief system as its primary corporate message which then leads into the how and what they do.

This brings to mind an article reflecting on the Steve Jobs legacy that I read after he passed away.  Steve insisted that the design of a product be the key factor.  This then informed the subsequent engineering process and marketing.  As Sinek notes, he did the opposite of what other technology companies typically do.

In doing so he not only made Apple a premier company but also made it a leader in its field.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the design of competition mobile phones, entertainment devices and tablets signal that Apple’s business method is the one to follow.This is a simple diagram known as a Business O...

How does all this relate to Human Factors Science and Human Science generally?

I believe that we provide the why based on our knowledge of the end user – the human.  Unfortunately, all too often the technical and marketing areas dictate what is produced without any input or thought of the human interface, reflecting some of Sinek’s assertions.  If the end user does not find the product intuitive or empowering to their human experience (informed by our scientific approach to this aspect) the product will probably fail as a commercial success.

So really the challenge is not a real challenge at all.  Get professionals to handle matters at each stage of the process.  However, start with the Human Factors Scientists to provide the why, then let the engineers and technicians loose to produce what they’re good at, the how and what.

Autonomous vehicles – a true step forward?

August 7, 2012

Movement within a roundabout in a country wher...
Movement within a roundabout in a country where traffic drives on the left. Note the clockwise circulation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading the August RACV Royalauto magazine article Smart Vehicle Safety, Removing the driver from a vehicle may be the smartest safety decision of all (Bruce Newton, page 66)..

As a human factors researcher in the automotive field I read this article with great interest.

Everyone acknowledges that human error is the major cause of accidents. However, there is a great deal of evidence that the final human error typically occurs as the result of a systemic problem – the ‘tip of the iceberg’ to coin a phrase.  Examples of this would be the design of vehicles with significant ‘blind spots’ or the design of roads with blind corners which make it difficult or even impossible for drivers to perceive and respond to a dangerous scenario.  The Safety Management System taxonomy currently being adopted by many industries recognises and illustrates this fact.

A philosophical aspect has been raised by the claim that automation would eliminate human error.  My contention is that automation itself, because it relies on hardware and software, will also have inherent human error – that of the designers and programmers of the system.

I’m sure many of us will have experienced the problems of using common computer software – I certainly would not relish having to reboot my automated vehicle whilst driving in heavy traffic.  The problems experienced by drivers using software menu systems to control vehicle functions also illustrate the human error inherent in poorly designed automated systems.

Cruise control has been a fantastic assistance for driver fatigue and vigilance management in long distance driving.  However, the new adaptive cruise control systems have been shown to induce human error as they can cause confusion when the driver is required to provide braking inputs especially when their cognitive state, workload and other factors are taken into account.

A salient case of highly automated systems is that of the aircraft which crashed into the Atlantic which caused headlines recently.  Whilst details are still being determined and investigated, it is suspected that icing of the pitot tubes, which the aircraft system uses to determine its correct altitude, was the primary cause.  In effect, the automation in the aircraft had a perception failure.  I’m wondering whether the passengers and crew of that aircraft felt safer because of the level of automation, which obviously hindered the pilots’ ability to manually resume control of the aircraft and possibly recover the situation.  This aspect of the crew being flight managers, rather than pilots, is a hot topic in the aviation industry at present and should inform where we go with regard to automation in the road environment.

In summary, I support automation, subject to it being designed with substantial human factors and human science input to ensure that one type of human error is not replaced with another.

What do you think?

Welcome to IGOR’s Human Science Explored

August 7, 2012

This post launches IGOR’s new blog exploring Human Science.  This is a space where IGOR employees will discuss aspects of Human Science for the worldwide community to engage with.

Follow us here to keep abreast of what IGOR is up to.