Autopilot, Habit, Perception and Risk

Another thought provoking article by Dr Robert Long. I highly recommend his other Articles HERE and his new book: For The Love of Zero


How many have driven home on automatic, not even remembering much of the trip until they park in the driveway?

Autopilot, Habit, Perception and Risk

auto pilotHumans are creatures of habit. We habituate things so that we don’t have to think about them, they become ‘automatic’. Social psychologists call this automaticity.

When I first learned to drive a car, I remember how anxious I was and how intense and ‘uneasy’ I was, in trying to concentrate on so much; the controls, changing gears, keeping vision on the road, the speedo, mirrors, covering the brake and accelerator, watching out for pedestrians, the glare of the sun and listening for noises and cues about all aspects of traffic. It was so easy to ‘crunch’ the gears, stall the car and miss something despite the intensity of concentration. This is the condition of the novice.

Humans learn and habituate over time through repetition, trial and error. Eventually, when we do things by habit, we reach a certain level of comfort and ease in performing a task. We mentor people into driving and other complex activities so they can perform tasks with such ease and comfort. Whilst we are developing proficiency, the mentor is the ‘fail safe’. In time however, the mentor let’s you go and soon you are able to drive on your own with confidence and in the case of some teenagers, overconfidence. After a few months, many of the things that previously required concentration are done automatically, without thinking about them.

Habits are not neutral; we have either good habits or bad habits depending on the by-products of the activity. Understanding habit formation or habituation is important for those who wish to lead in the management of risk and safety. Habits work on the process of a loop made up of a cue, reward and a routine. As the loop develops so too, does the power of the emotion attached to the loop, in the case of substance or gambling addiction, the habit becomes a ‘craving’. It take some work to develop a habit but it seems to take much more work to ‘break’ a habit, particularly if an ancillary dependency is developed in the reward of the loop. This is how it is with nicotine habit, one doesn’t need to think about a smoke, one just lights up without thinking. To understand the dynamics of habituation, Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit’ is helpful.

When it comes to workplace routines and repetition, we often develop work habits. We develop skills to manage complex tasks without thinking. This automaticity has an up side – the completion of complex tasks with pace and a down side – reduced perception and the non-thinking state of autopilot. Teams and individuals working in autopilot can become so habituated that they lose perception and perspective, it is easy to overlook things. This is when the presence of skilled observation, conversations and reflection steps in. You don’t know if someone is entranced in autopilot without a conversation, a checklist simply won’t do. It’s pretty dangerous when someone is so habituated in a routine that they don’t notice changes due to turbulence in workflow. Autopilot can be trance-like at times, perspective can be lost, somewhat like day dreaming or dropping out of consciousness. How many have driven home on automatic, not even remembering much of the trip until they park in the driveway?

Here are few questions that will help challenge you in your workplace to see how well you attend to issues of automaticity and risk:

1. If you are in a process of supervision or observation what are the key indicators that someone is running on autopilot?

2. What would you be listening and looking for? Has your organisation mastered the culture of ‘chronic unease’ (Hudson), when it comes to high risk?

3. How do you know if someone was not alert in a complex, high risk task?

4. What questions would you ask and what would you be listening for?

5. Has your workplace normalized the observation and conversation process so that cross-checking is accepted and undertaken with skill, positivity, non-defensiveness and sensitivity?

6. What tools do you turn to if you sense someone is running on autopilot, particularly if perception regarding hazards and risks has diminished?

7. Or does your workplace culture punish and blame people for overlooking things?

8. Is a lack of perception attributed to ‘stupidity’ in your workplace?

9. Is reporting and observation understood as ‘learning’?

10. Are people trained in how to look for psychological and cultural hazards and risks in the workplace?

How you respond to these questions will give you some idea of whether your organisation is capable of managing habit-blindness and automaticity.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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