Error Trajectories and Risk

Error Trajectories and Risk

In 1650 heathen cultures were regarded at best as examples of human error, whilst at worst they were devices of Satan, devised to keep damned souls securely in his net. In either case it was thought that the duty of Christians was to either save them or destroy them. (Thomas Brooks Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices)

It is very easy to attribute error to those whose beliefs and backgrounds differ from ours. This is one reason why the absurdity of ‘common sense’ language about risk should be avoided. The language of ‘common sense’ is used in pop safety culture to discriminate against those who don’t make sense of risk as we do. The ‘common sense’ view of risk deems freely (in hindsight) why ‘failed’ risk doesn’t make sense. ‘Common sense’ language ‘primes’ listeners to think that only the speaker makes true sense of risk. Those who lack this special form of sensemaking are by implication deemed stupid. When risk is deemed to be bad and non-sensical the ‘common sense’ solutions are often the 5 Bs: bans, barricades, bollards, bureaucracy and beltings. None of these engender ownership, learning or dialogue.

Those who set a trajectory for zero harm have the ultimate aim of eliminating all error because error is viewed negatively. In this view, the notion of ‘error’ is associated with danger, humiliation and death. Let’s call this ‘pessimistic error’.

However, some of our greatest discoveries in human history have been made through mistakes and error. For example: Rontgen was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery of x-rays but he discovered them via error in experiments with cathode rays. The list of world changing inventions and discoveries is a list of learning through error, discovery through error and experimentation. Let’s call this ‘optimistic error’.

‘Optimistic error’ understands that something is learned and gained through error. ‘Optimistic error’ humanizes us on a trajectory of learning which accepts human fallibility as something positive to be managed. ‘Pessimistic error’ understands all error as bad and unknowingly dehumanizes us because it accepts the proposition that humans can be infallible, hence the nonsense of absolutist zero-type goals.

The truth is, all error is not bad, all risk is not bad. We need some sense of balance in our psychology of error and risk. Error and risk are essential to human learning. ‘Pessimistic error’ is anti-learning. We do our sums at school not in order to be punished for getting some things wrong and making mistakes, but to learn. If schooling has its focus on ‘pessimistic error’ rather than ‘optimistic error’ it promotes indoctrination not education. Its not the kind of school I want for my grandchildren.

Why do I use the word trajectory? Well, sometimes we start out with what seems like innocent goals like ‘zero harm’, without understanding where such language take us or what it ‘primes’ in us. Often it is not the intention of the goal that is realized over time but its hidden counterintuitive intention that is realized.

The trajectory which seeks to eliminate all error and risk, is a soul destroying, regressive trajectory against learning. Leaders need to have some telescopic vision if they are going to lead people to ownership and management in risk and safety. When it comes to the language leaders in safety use, there needs to be some sophisticated understanding about the way language ‘primes’ people. Leaders in safety need to think telescopically. The key question is: where does such language take us?

It is important here to realize that trajectory and the human journey in safety needs to always lead to ownership. Any totalizing ideology must ultimately be on a trajectory to absolute control and the elimination of freedom. The trajectory of ownership is a pathway of learning, managed risk and choice. If one is not free for mistakes and error, one is not free nor human. The total elimination of mistakes and error is a quest for absolute control and can only lead to fear for those who do not comply. Fear drives non-confession and non-learning.

For those who think graphically perhaps Figure 1 will help, for those who want to read more, tow helpful book titles are attached.

error trajectory

Figure 1. Pessimistic and Optimistic Error Trajectories


Hallinan, J., (2009) Why we make mistakes: How e we look without seeing, forget things in seconds, and are all pretty sure we are way above average. Broadway Books, New York.

Schulz, K., (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. HarperCollins New York.


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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