Behaviour malfunction

  Are we on the right page when we are trying to prevent misuse in the public / consumer environment? You can’t hang a picture with a toaster, and you […]


Are we on the right page when we are trying to prevent misuse in the public / consumer environment?

You can’t hang a picture with a toaster, and you can’t make breakfast with a hammer. Identifying what you really need to do is the key to achieving it.

Statistics consistently show that amusement ride injury investigators identify human behaviour as antecedents to failure, including the omission of actions that were required, actions performed which should not have been, and actions that were not performed with sufficient speed and accuracy.

This is what investigators find, not necessarily a unanimous interpretation of the chain of events. Causal explanation research has shown a tendency for investigation intensity to fade out when encountering human actions that in hindsight should have been different, and many of the injuries could have been avoided with different actions. As a result, we systemically learn little about the circumstances that produced the actions.

That said, these events are documented as injuries with “human factors” cause. Prevention programming then treats them as “misbehaviour”. When dysfunctional actions are presumed to be misbehaviour, horseplay, and risk-taking, remedies tend to focus on supplementing informational warnings with messaging aimed at persuading participants to make different choices.

This post was inspired by recent analysis of two datasets in which investigation narratives were (inconsistently) recorded. It was apparent that many of the events that would be classified as “human factors” and likely characterized as misbehaviour were not horseplay or intentional risk taking or even lack of knowledge. In many cases, there was no evidence that the patron made a behaviour choice. Instead, they behaviour that is effectively a human malfunction in the situation, but which lacks the intent to deviate from acceptable behaviour that is implicit in misbehaviour. We might call this “malbehaviour”.

With malbehaviour, persuasive messaging may have limited effectiveness, for various reasons.

  • The person may be unable to apply the messaging in real time due to insufficient cognitive development to remember and recall instructions or to apply a general instructions to a specific situation. Many amusement ride patrons are children, some very young.
  • Typical instructions often require people to apply system knowledge to infer unstated actions. For instance, the instruction “remain seated at all times” does not address the obvious requirement that, at the end of the activity, the patron should stand up and leave. It is problematic to expect the public to reliably differentiate situations when improvisation is required from situations when it is prohibited, particularly for young patrons in unfamiliar and exciting situations.
  • Among adult patrons, some injuries seem to involve perceptual and cognitive interference with correctly identifying the situation or recalling required actions due to intoxication or other ongoing or transient health conditions. Under these circumstances, it is a perception and information processing problem, not a choice to take a risk.
  • Patrons may require glasses but need to remove them to avoid loss or breakage on the amusement device. Reduced visual acuity can reduce a patron’s ability to recognize and avoid hazards.
  • Some injuries result from inadequate strength or coordination to avoid a slip, trip, or fall, or to maintain a position against external forces, whether in a waterslide or mechanical ride. Even some collisions of bumper cars and go-karts that appear to be horseplay may be issues of reaction time and coordination on the part of the vehicle that impacted the injured rider.
  • Many actions occur quickly in a highly dynamic environment, many being reactions to sub-cognitive perceptions of the environment, rather than chosen courses of action. For example, we instinctively duck oncoming projectiles and reach out to steady ourselves when losing balance. When we recognize a familiar situation, we automatically perform the practiced response. When we mis-recognize a situation as a familiar one, the automatic response may be inappropriate.

If we were to engage with malbehaviour with the same enthusiasm as we do with misbehaviour, we would likely generate additional remedies which would complement persuasive messaging and deliver a more effective prevention safety net.

About Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.