Speaking of the public response to the deaths of children at the Bristol Royal Infirmary before 2001, the BMJ commented that the NHS would be ‘all changed, changed utterly’. Today, two inquiries into the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust suggest nothing changed at all. Many patients died as a result of their care and the stories of indifference and neglect there are harrowing. Yet Bristol and Mid Staffordshire are not isolated reports. In 2011, the Health Services Ombudsman reported on the care of elderly and frail patients in the NHS and found a failure to recognise their humanity and individuality and to respond to them with sensitivity, compassion and professionalism. Likewise, the Care Quality Commission and Healthcare Commission received complaints from patients and relatives about the quality of nursing care. These included patients not being fed, patients left in soiled bedding, poor hygiene practices, and general disregard for privacy and dignity. Why is there such tolerance of poor clinical standards? We need a better understanding of the circumstances that can lead to these outcomes and how best to respond to them. We discuss the findings of these and other reports and consider whether attention should be devoted to managing individual behaviour, or focus on the systemic influences which predispose hospital staff to behave in this way. Lastly, we consider whether we should look further afield to cognitive psychology to better understand how clinicians and managers make decisions?