Variability in Human Performance: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Variability in Human Performance

1st Edition

By Thomas J. Smith, Robert A. Henning, Michael G. Wade, Thomas Fisher

CRC Press

389 pages | 61 B/W Illus.

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Understanding the conditions under which variability in performance may arise, and the processes related to its emergence, gives us insight into the development of techniques for improving the quality of performance. Variability in Human Performance details the scientific and the practical implications of human performance variability by providing a broad perspective on how and why such variability occurs across a number of disciplinary domains. The text takes an approach that rests upon the idea of context, or design, specificity in performance, namely that variability in performance is closely referenced to design factors in the environment in which performance is occurring.

An exploration of the link between variability and related processes, the book introduces a comprehensive framework for understanding human performance variability, presented in terms of how human control of behavior is closely tied to design factors in the performance environment. The authors introduce empirical evidence, as well as practical examples and application areas, in support of this framework. The book begins with coverage of neurobiological and biomechanical basis of movement variability, then examines rich and extensive empirical evidence available for context specificity in cognitive performance and learning, as a basis for cognitive performance variability. The book then reviews the evidence for context specificity in:

  • Student learning
  • Displaced feedback conditions
  • Human error behavior
  • Affective performance
  • Social and team performance

The authors also explore work performance as influenced by complex sociotechnical systems and as a basis for performance variability, applying control systems concepts to an interpretation of the nature and basis of performance variability in all of these domains. They conclude by taking an evolutionary perspective on the origins and behavioral significance of human performance variability. The book then provides strategies on how individuals, groups, and organizations can significantly reduce variability in human performance that often leads to systems failures.


"Throughout, the book focuses on the sources of variability in human performance, including the design of work systems. The book will therefore be of interest to a wide range of HFE specialists."

—RS Bridger, Institute of Naval Medicine

"This is a truly excellent book that increases awareness of the study of variability in movement performance. … Importantly, this book provides exciting discussions on theoretical problems on movement variability such as what are the sources of this variability."

—DR. Nick Stergiou, University of Nebraska Omaha and University of Nebraska Medical Center

Table of Contents




Purpose and Scope

Key Principles of HF/E Science

Key Issues Bearing on the Properties and Purpose of Performance Variability

Individual Differences

Performance Prediction

A Control Systems Perspective on Performance Variability

Historical Perspective

Control Systems Concepts

Behavioral Cybernetics of Adaptive Systems Behavior

Behavioral Cybernetics of Cognition


Variability in Human Motor and Sport Performance


The Role of Variability in Behavioral Control

Methods for Analyzing Performance Variability

Linear Methods

Nonlinear Methods

Time Series Analysis

Fourier Transform Analysis.

Theoretical Perspectives on Variability and Sport Skill Learning

Schema Theory

Dynamical Systems Theory

Variability in Learning and Performing Skills

Variability between Expert and Novice Performers

Variability in Rehabilitation Settings


Variability in Cognitive and Psychomotor Performance


Historical Perspective

Variability in Cognitive Performance

Early Transfer of Training Example

Differential Learning Research: Early Studies

Differential Learning Research: Analytical Innovations

Critical Analyses of Ackerman


Variability in Psychomotor Performance

Transfer of Training among Different Balance Tests

Fitts’ Law: Context Specificity in Movement Time Performance.

Hick-Hyman Law: Context Specificity in Choice Reaction Time Performance.

The Law of Practice: Context Specificity in Learning.


Qualitative Observations about Task Performance Variability


Situation Awareness.

Context Specific Observations of Gladwell



Educational Ergonomics: Context Specificity in Student Learning



The Nature of Student Learning from the Perspective of Educational Psychology

The Nature of Student Learning from the Perspective of HF/E

Origins and Scope of Learning Ergonomics

The Influence of HF/E Design Factors on Student Performance and Learning.

Impact of Classroom and School Building Design Factors on Student Performance and Learning.

Impact of Educational System Design Factors on Student Performance and Learning

Impact of Learning Strategy Design Factors on Student Performance and Learning.

Impact of Student Character and Emotional Status on Student Performance and Learning.

Impact of Student Health on Student Performance and Learning

Impact of Community System Design Factors on Student Performance and Learning


Influence of Nondesign-Related Factors on Student Learning

Analysis Offers Nothing New

Some Design Factors Not Considered


Variability in Human Performance Under Displaced Sensory Feedback


Historical Perspective

Early History of Spatially Displaced Visual Feedback Research

Early History of Delayed Feedback Research


Behavioral Control Systems Analysis of Displaced Visual Feedback Effects

Examples of Spatially Displaced Visual Feedback

Example of Delayed Visual Feedback

Compilation of Performance Effects of Spatially Displaced and Delayed Sensory Feedback


Displaced Sensory Feedback Effects on Teleoperation

Human Factors Issues with Workstation Telepresence

Performance Variability during Teleoperation


Human Error and Performance Variability


Historical Perspective

Context Specificity in Human Error

Management Responsibility for Human Error

Human Error as an Inherent Attribute of Human Performance Variability

A Control Systems Perspective on Error Performance

There are Evident Limitations to the Term "Human Error" as a Meaningful Scientific and Operational Concept

Principles of Hazard Management

Definitions, Scope, and Historical Perspective

Rationale and Background

Behavioral Cybernetic Model of Hazard Management

Key Principles of Hazard Management


Variability in Affective Performance


Historical Perspective

Personality and Performance Variability

Emotion and Performance Variability


Social Cybernetics of Team Performance Variability


Cybernetic Fundamentals of Feedback and Feedforward Control

Longstanding Scientific Reservations about Cybernetic Psychology

Social Cybernetics and Teamwork

Modes of Social Tracking

Feedback Perturbation of Social Tracking

Social Cybernetic Studies of Social Interaction and Teamwork Through .

Design Factors and Variability in Social Tracking.

Sensory Feedback Modality and Social Tracking Skill

Learning of Social Tracking Skills

Physiological Feedback Effects in Social Tracking

Effects of Sensory Feedback Perturbations on Social Tracking

Social Tracking in Group Interaction

Social Cybernetic Basis of Cognitive Behavior and Communication

Social Cybernetic Research Since

Feedback Control Compliance During Parallel-Linked Social Tracking

Delayed Feedback in Serial-Linked and Mutual Social Tracking

Augmented Team Cognition.

Social Cybernetics in Participatory Ergonomics Programs.

Design Imperatives for Homeokinesis at the Team Level

Assessment of Homeokinesis at the Team Level.


Variability in Human Work Performance: Interaction with Complex Sociotechnical Systems


Historical Perspective

The Nature and Significance of Work

Introduction: Human Control of the Behavioral Environment through Work

Theories of Work

General Laws and Customs of Work

The Future of Work

Work Performance Variability and Interaction with Complex Sociotechnical Systems.

Work Performance Variability and the Design and Management of Organizational Systems

Macroergonomic Perspectives on Organizational Performance Variability

Synergism of Ergonomics with Safety, Quality, and Productivity of Organizational and Work Performance

Operational Synergism between Safety and Quality

A Control Systems Perspective on Organizational Design and Management: Role of Ergonomics.


Work Performance Variability and Performance Variability of Economies and Nation States

A Control Systems Perspective on Variability in Economic Performance

Work Performance Variability and Variability in Economic Performance

Work Performance Variability and Variability in Nation-State Performance

A Control Systems Perspective on Variability in Nation-State Performance


Variability in Fracture- Critical Systems.


Fracture-Critical System Failures

Why Fracture-Critical Failures Happen

Jeopardizing the Future.

The Futility of Massive Scale

The Perversity of Unintended Consequences.

Creating a More Resilient Future for Ourselves

Human Performance Variability: An Evolutionary Perspective.


Mechanisms of Evolution

Nature Versus Nurture

Heritability of Intelligence.


Implications for Context Specificity

Phylogenetic Origins of Human Performance Variability

Human Self-Selection through Work.

Landmarks in the Evolution of Human Work


Summary and Conclusions


Conclusions: The Purpose of Human Performance Variability



About the Authors

Thomas J. Smith has research and teaching experience and funding support encompassing many areas of human factors/ergonomics, including human performance variability, educational ergonomics, human error and hazard management, occupational ergonomics, occupational health and safety, surface transportation, occupancy quality, patient safety, work physiology, kinesiology, and ergonomics certification systems. He is a research associate with the School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota. He is a Certified Human Factors Professional with over 100 publications.

His honors include serving as senior editor for a recent special issue of Ergonomics in Design dealing with the topic of globalization of ergonomics, serving as chair of the Professional Standards and Education Standing Committee for the International Ergonomics Association (IEA), originator and committee member for the IEA K.U. Smith Student Award, editorial board member for the journal Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, director and past president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) Upper Midwest Chapter, general chair for the 2001 HFES Annual Meeting, member of the 2002 State of Minnesota Ergonomics Task Force, and member of the Dakota County (Minnesota) University of Minnesota Extension Committee.

Robert A. Henning is an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of Connecticut. He holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in psychology (BS), biomedical engineering (MS), and industrial engineering (PhD). He also received three years of postdoctoral training at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in a fellowship program administered by the National Research Council. He is a board-certified professional ergonomist. Since 2006, he has been an active researcher in the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace where he conducts research on programs that integrate workplace health protection and promotion through the participatory design of workplace interventions by front-line employees. Other research areas include social psychophysiology of teamwork, work and rest patterns in computer-mediated work, augmented team cognition, and behavioral toxicology.

Dr. Henning has served as a NORA panel reviewer for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, as a human factors reviewer on the Soldier Systems Panel of the National Research Council/NAS, as panel reviewer for the Information Technology Research Program, Collaborative Systems, Division of Information and Intelligent Systems, Directorate of Computer and Information Science and Engineering of the National Science Foundation, and on the NIOSH Peer Review Panel for the National Center for Construction Safety and Health Research and Translation. He also served as the secretary/treasurer and president of Psychophysiology in Ergonomics (PIE), a technical group of the International Ergonomics Association, and as a founding member on the Executive Committee of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. He has codirected a NIOSH-supported graduate training program in occupational health psychology since 2005.

Michael Wade is professor of kinesiology and a faculty member in the University of Minnesota Center for Cognitive Science He is an internationally recognized scholar who has published extensively in two areas of movement science: developmental change across the lifespan, with an emphasis on individuals with motor difficulties, and a second focus on the effects of aging on motor skill performance. Dr. Wade holds Fellow status in the National Academy of Kinesiology, the American Academy of Mental Retardation, and the Research Consortium of the American Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. He is a past president of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity, and holds the Distinguished Scholar Award from NASPSPA.

Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, having previously served as the editorial director of Progressive Architecture magazine. With degrees in architecture from Cornell and intellectual history from Case Western Reserve, Dr. Fisher was recognized in 2005 as the fifth most published architecture writer in the United States, with 7 books, 47 book chapters or introductions, and over 325 articles.

About the Series

Human Factors and Ergonomics

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Industrial Health & Safety