I recently read a claim by a Safety Consultant that they could eliminate injuries and improve safety culture by stopping humans from making errors – WT? Reminds me of the saying “The floggings will continue until morale improves”. Ask any elite athlete what happens when they ignore their “muscle memory” and focus too much on technique – they “Choke”! I was once so focused on impressing the policeman driving behind me that I forgot to indicate when changing lanes – GONE!. Dr Rob Long explains the concept of neuropsychology in safety and why complex safety systems and controls just do not work!
Be Alert, Safety Needs More Lerts
by Dr Rob Long
There are a few programs out there claiming to teach people ‘how to be more alert’ or ‘how to pay attention’. The idea that attention can be ‘taught’ or that concentration can be ‘turned on’ is a fallacy. Even those who claim to be able to improve alertness or attention can’t actually tell you what happens neuropsychologically in the mind to achieve such a state. Using ‘mind tricks’ or checklist tools simply ignore the fundamental principles of how humans make judgments and decisions. The assumption behind such claims also ignores the problem of ‘maximizing’ and ‘satisficing’. ‘Maximizing’ supposes that decisions are better if all the concentration and focus possible can be applied to a task. ‘Satisficing’ supposes that most decisions humans make are based on sufficient information and attention to make a judgment. Isn’t it funny that some of the most important decisions in our life, such as choice of partner or a mortgage, are shaped by intuition and instinct, rather than rational thinking. (To read more about this read Gigerenzer’s book Risk Savvy, How to Make Good Decisions). If people want to become risk intelligent, they need to learn much more about the ‘social psychology of the unconscious’ than the ‘saturation of systems’.
Here is the problem. Most of our decision-making is based on rules of thumb (heuristics) and intuition. Most of the time our rules of thumb and intuition are more reliable that maximizing. Indeed, the more we ‘concentrate’ on what we do, the more we can over think what we do. Expertise is a form of unconscious intelligence and we use it all the time doing some very dangerous things – such as driving a car. In all the complexities of work and the world, humans develop ‘gut instinct’ about things and many decisions are made on ‘autopilot’. Studies of sports people show they ‘choke’ if they focus too much on what they do.
Performance actually decreases when experts ‘over think’ a task. The Greg Norman story is a classic example (further read Choke by Sian Beilock or Luck by Ed Smith). The process of maximizing is what happens when auditors and inspectors come on site and the relief that follows when they leave actually creates the delusion of increased safety. In sport, most experts know that if your start to ‘think’ about your game, you have already lost. This is not the case with beginners but for those with experience. The biggest problem with beginners is that they think they are experts and can ‘work with their gut’ on things. Reliable instinct and intuition are only developed over time, so beginners need to take the rational route to expertise. Then, there is also the problem that even over time people don’t develop expertise because their pathway to learning has been laced with risk aversion and resistance to change. I have met plenty of 40 year olds who have repeated the same year 20 times. Ten years under the fear and absolutes of zero don’t encourage risk intelligence but rather dumb down people to risk ignorance and risk schizophrenia. The fixation on minute things under the ideology of zero drives the myth of maximizing.
So, the idea of paying attention, concentration and being alert cannot be separated from the social psychology of risk. Risk perception and decision making cannot be separated from the social arrangements that affect judgment. Good decision making has more to do with faith than it has to do with accounting. If we take the accounting approach to decision making about risk and need all the facts before a decision, we wouldn’t make one. This is why we call it ‘risk’. When we make a decision, we most often step out in faith not knowing the outcome.
I recently leased a new car, I have been driving since I was 16 but despite 44 years of driving I am still no expert in cars. I have worked on cars, read about cars and fixed cars but wouldn’t call myself an expert. So, the first thing I do when getting a car is I have a conversation with a friend who has been a car salesman for 40 years. He tells me about the type and make of cars that keep showing up to be fixed. He tells me what cars are hard to sell and what the market judges about various cars. Then I throw him a suggestion and he thinks with his gut and tells me what car he would buy, I bought that car. The last time I bought a car through the mazimising method I bought ‘a lemon’.
When it comes to decision making about risk at work, most times the best process is not ‘maximizing for decision making’ but ‘conversations for decision making’. Whilst checklists have a place, they ought to be a tool for listening and conversations about what is not on the checklist as much as doing a ‘tick and flick’ on what is in it. Checklists are rigid and inflexible, listening and satisficing are adaptable and situational. The idea that mazimizing is best ignores all the forces in human nature that work against mazimizing for decision making. So, the simplistic idea that someone can teach you to pay attention may help organisations separate with their money for training but its more snake oil for the diff. The safety world has enough Lerts.