The recent run on toilet paper by Australians in fear and panic of the coronavirus serves as a wonderful semiotic for understanding human decision making. We could call this the ‘Dunny paper Effect’. You can see here shoppers rushing for toilet paper stocks in Woolworths: https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/health-wellbeing/woolworths-shoppers-in-stampede-for-toilet-paper-as-pack-on-gumtree-for-1000-c-728696
There are hundreds and hundreds of ‘effects’ and cognitive biases (https://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/the-cognitive-bias-codex-a-visual-of-180-cognitive-biases/) that all humans enact without ‘thinking’. This is the nature of the individual and collective unconscious, things not studied anywhere in the safety world, certainly not in the AIHS BoK or in any WHS curriculum (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/). All semiotics work in and on the collective unconscious.
The Dunny Paper Effect is wonderful symbolic evidence of how people collectively and unconsciously enact beliefs irrationally. There’s nothing like collective anxiety and stress to drive decision making but in the safety STEM-only world such decision making can only be named as ‘stupid’. If you want to understand the nature of social psychological influences on the collective unconscious you might like to look here: https://safetyrisk.net/understanding-the-social-psychology-of-risk-and-safety/
When it comes to collective anxiety and fear there’s not a whole lot of logical sensemaking going on and we can learn from this because it helps explain many of the situations Safety gets concerned about and can’t explain. So what can we learn from this Dunny Paper Effect?
- The unconscious fear of death (https://www.booktopia.com.au/denial-of-death-ernest-becker/book/9780684832401.html?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI_f-VsNmB6AIVF6mWCh2pQg70EAAYASAAEgLA-PD_BwE) and related anxiety is a critical driver of decision making. A shame our regulators in the quest for zero (https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/construction/articles/zero-harm-at-work-leadership-program) don’t realize that most of their strategies on ‘blitzes’ (https://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/news/safework-media-releases/construction-industry-safety-blitz-underway and fear driven approaches (https://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/news/2019-03/safety-inspectors-blitz-construction-sites-both-sides-border) to safety don’t work. Such approaches under the pressure of social influences reap the reward of their opposite.
- Symbolic things like toilet paper, sanitizer and baked beans serve to give people psychological ‘control’ which is the greatest motivator of human decision making (see Higgins, Beyond Pleasure and Pain – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/13814859_Beyond_Pleasure_and_Pain). Behaviourist theory doesn’t come close to explaining why people do what they do (Deci , https://www.amazon.com/Why-We-What-Understanding-Self-Motivation/dp/0140255265 ) yet Safety remains in love with BBS under the ideological influence of zero and the section of measurement. Humans are NOT about the sum of inputs and outputs and the semiotics of symbols of control give people comfort in the face of death (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299803225_Cultural_Semiotics_of_Visual_Signs_of_Gravestones_Comb_on_the_gravestones_of_Takhte_Fulad_cemetery ). In the face of the fear of death people find great comfort knowing they have 200 rolls of toilet paper in the pantry. Safety would do well to study the power of semiotics and how symbols serve to direct culture. Of course, if you define culture as behaviours then you won’t learn much.
- The anxiety for control of hygiene symbolized by toilet paper and hand sanitizer also tells us much about the naïve power of the media, especially social media. In this age of remarkable disinformation (see Kakutani The Death of Truth or Nichols The Death of Expertise) by vested interests (usually those with the most capital such as Rupert Murdoch), we see such a lack of discernment of risk. When it comes to Real Risk (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/real-risk/) in the face of safety, there’s not a whole lot of critical thinking going on. Indeed, in the WHS curriculum and AIHS BoK there is again precious focus on critical thinking. Of all the testimonies we get at the Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk this is the most common response, that safety people are not taught how to thinking critically but rather the culture of conformity works the opposite. Why need to think when a checklist will do! If there was ever a skill needed in safety its that of discernment.
- There’s a factor in this run on toilet paper that also has to do with bodily functions. I think Freud was right about the actions of human orifices and the development of fixations (https://psychology.jrank.org/pages/248/Fixation.html). When we a taught to fear risk and love compliance, there are many symbolic things we run to in search of comfort. This also explains why WHS preoccupies itself with many meaningless processes in risk assessment that actually don’t manager risk but serve to help people think risk is being managed. A classic ineffective tool like the coloured risk matrix serves as nothing more than a psychological desensitization agent against risk.
- The funny thing is when we were kids, and when newspaper was quite hard, we had to use newspaper to wipe our bums out in the back ‘dunny’ (for OS people a drop pit toilet – https://www.writerscentre.com.au/blog/qa-why-is-it-called-a-dunny/ ), not the most sanitary options and yet we were resilient because of it.
- Of course, when you go to the supermarket the empty shelves serve as a powerful semiotic that everyone else is thinking in the same collective unconscious. Then the cyclic amplification process takes place as the media become preoccupied with the story. It’s hard to invoke calm when the risk is amplified. There is nothing more powerful than a visual semiotic for groupthink (https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/groupthink.asp). And when we know the zero harm regulator (https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/construction/articles/zero-harm-at-work-leadership-program) and zero harm manager (https://au.indeed.com/Zero-Harm-Safety-Manager-jobs) is on our tail, we know we are in the shit. There’s nothing quite like intolerance and the search for the infallible person to spark fear and groupthink. The ideology of zero is a powerful driver of irrational pressure, counting and insane metrics as if injury rates are a measure of safety.
- There is no shortage of toilet paper in Australia, shelves will be full in no time. Even in the event that one had to self-quarantine for 2 weeks, there are many alternatives to toilet paper that will do the job. So much evidence for the fact that people in the movement of the collective unconscious don’t ‘think’. Now in some places the price of toilet paper has risen and sparked a new focus in crime (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51527043). Again, just more evidence of the collective unconscious at work.
- The Dunny Paper Effect demonstrates also how risk is easily amplified (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1539-6924.1988.tb01168.x). The many factors that amplify risk (https://cllr.com.au/product/the-social-amplification-of-risk-unit-8-overseas-online/) should be known by all safety people.
If you are interested in learning about semiotics and how risk is amplified we are running workshops on An Introduction to Semiotics on 20,21 April in Canberra
The Social Amplification of Risk on 22, 23 April in Canberra
One can learn how to use tools that de-amplify risk and semiotics that communicate to the unconscious as part of these workshops.
contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details