Bounded Rationality–How Can Too Much Safety Be Bad For You?

Bounded Rationality – How Can Too Much Safety Be Bad For You?

bounded rationalitySomeone just sent me a safety slogan: “Safety – It’s Never Enough”, normally I would just brush it off as another meaningless, demoralising aphorism but it got me thinking……Join me in reflecting back over the last few serious incidents you have been involved in…. was one of the common issues uncovered that there wasn’t enough paperwork or procedures in place? Or, is it more the case that what was supposed to happen just didn’t? Information overload is one of the major causes of incidents but you wont ever see that in an investigation report!

A recent incident I was investigating involved a serious injury to a labour hire employee just an hour into his first day on the job. The task he was performing was potentially very high risk, if not done right, and hence it was well covered in extremely comprehensive procedures and inductions – but, the induction process was so complicated and time consuming that, due to production demands and the safety guy not working Saturdays, this poor guy was put straight to work. Interestingly, his supervisor turned up at hospital with induction paperwork to sign and was eaten alive by an angry mother!

A recent debate on LinkedIn indicated that many realise and lament that safety is convoluted and overly bureaucratic, yet the sunk cost and fear of non-compliance over-ride any thoughts about rationalisation.  We’ve all heard that the paperwork is necessary to “cover your arse” but that same paperwork could actually be detrimental to your case in court where judgements are usually decided on cultural issues rather than systems – its not about what you say you do but about what you actually do.

This all started making sense to me when I learned about the concept of “Bounded Rationality”. (If you would like to extend your thinking even further then type “Exformation” or “Satisficing” into our search box!)

On our resource page “Understanding the Social Psychology of Risk and Safety”,  Dr Rob Long describes Bounded Rationality as:

First by Herbert Simon (1978) bounded rationality is the idea that in decision-making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision. The truth is humans are limited by what our mind and social constructs can manage. Humans have to make decisions without all possible information available.

A quote by Rob Sams:

We need to be aware that people have ‘bounded rationality’ and that ‘flooding’ people with information is one of the greatest causes of incident because they become distracted with so much detail. We need to think about how people ‘sift’ through all of the information that is provided to them and consider how they ‘discern’ what knowledge is valuable and what is not?

I have a lot more to learn about Bounded Rationality but a few of our recent articles explain the effects of it very well:


Flooding is Dangerous, and I don’t Mean the Water….

Parts of the east coast of Australia have experienced heavy rain over recent weeks and it has become common to read headlines of flash flooding causing road closures, cars washed away and sadly a man in Sydney was killed when he was swept into a drain. The …… Read the rest of the article

Is Safety a Choice You Make?


Is Safety a Choice You Make? One of the things safety seems good at doing is developing illogical slogans and sayings. Some examples are: ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘safety is no accident’. The trouble is what we say affects the thinking of others and sets cultural agenda. Half of this silly stuff comes from people …… Read the rest of the article

Its All In The Sign


Its All In The Sign A brilliant essay by Max Geyer, submitted as part of his study for the Graduate Certificate in the Psychology of Risk – published here with his permission: Norretranders (1998) provides ample evidence that the unconscious plays a major role in communication. This paper looks at the critical nature of unconscious communication in relation …… Read the rest of the article


Understanding The Social Psychology of Risk And Safety


In response to a number of emails I have received and conversations I’ve been having (and sadly some very ignorant comments posted on LinkedIn) I thought it would be a great idea to republish this excellent summary of the principles by Dr Rob Long. Understandably, given how the same …… Read the rest of the article

This Toaster is Hot


Warning, please stop and “Take Five”! Guest Post by Rob Sams – inspired by this “Hot Toaster” page  Before you read any further, I feel compelled to warn you that reading this article may be harmful for your health, it may even cause an injury. I have no idea how or why, but …… Read the rest of the article

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