I Wasn’t Thinking Mr Spock
“We make thousands of decisions everyday in automatic mode without a mistake. Yet we don’t reflect and celebrate this wonderful mode of human decision making at work rather, we put the blow torch on the one moment when it doesn’t work and something goes wrong”
So much of what happens in the safety world is consumed by an exclusive focus on the rationalist and cognitive mind. This is why the industry targets systems, procedures, regulations and standards in a preoccupation with harm. And, when something goes wrong or someone makes a mistake, or is caught out ‘not thinking’ this worldview simply advocates more of the same (they don’t know anything else). The trouble is, most of our decisions are not undertaken in the rational space. Whilst rational thinking is entirely valid, it is slow, methodical and requires levels of concentration in humans that are extremely limited. I read a book recently on Human Factors in Safety that spent most of the time criticizing the failures of this Human Factors paradigm but towards the end of the book advocated a solution of ‘new’ Human Factors to address the problem. This is the Fodor Paradox, we can’t change things we know either by holding on to what we know and are hampered by thinking there is no more to know.
I am not a huge Star Trek fan but I do know that Mr Spock is the model of rational logical cognition and that Captain Kirk often follows his intuitions, gut instincts and heuristics against Mr Spock’s reasoning (see Spock Logic in Risk and Safety). Spock thinking is valid thinking but it is based on deduction and analysis. Kirk’s thinking is fast and frugal and is based on abductive reasoning that is able to make leaps to the best explanation given the limits of time, resources and human fallibility. We mostly live in Kirk’s world, we make most of our decisions by instinct, gut feeling, habit and experience. We do this so we can live life quickly, in automatic and so we can do things by not thinking. This is how most of us drive a car and go about our daily lives. We do most things in automatic so we don’t have to concentrate intensely and so we can make fast and frugal decisions.
We make thousands of decisions everyday in automatic mode without a mistake. Yet we don’t reflect and celebrate this wonderful mode of human decision making at work rather, we put the blow torch on the one moment when it doesn’t work and something goes wrong. Then we count those mistakes (injury data) and use those mistakes as a measure of reality. We then give ourselves (and others) a flogging for that moment ‘when we weren’t thinking’. This is how we tend to explain accidents in hindsight, when we don’t have an explanation we just say ‘ I wasn’t thinking’.
Of course we are not Spocks or robots, thank god. How lousy would life be if we were Spocks in our decision making. In many ways and as Ken Robinson makes clear, we make most of our decisions when we are Out Of Our Minds. This is why silly slogans like ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘safety is a choice you make’ are just so much nonsense. The thinking behind such slogans is simplistic, based on hindsight and requires everyone to not be human but a Vulcan. The trajectory of these silly slogans punishes people ‘for not thinking’. If you are a Vulcan, maybe zero makes sense, but for humans the absolutes and perfection of zero is pure nonsense.
The fear of the Vulcans reading this article is, that my approach excuses irresponsibility and fails to hold people to account. This is again the trap of binary opposition. Spock wants black and white when there isn’t any. It believes in the ‘pleasure and pain’ principle of motivation when we know that such a view of motivation doesn’t match reality. People are not motivated by just self, pain or pleasure but as Higgins (Beyond Pleasure and Pain) tells us humans are motivated by Value Effectiveness, Truth Effectiveness and Control Effectiveness. The simplistic view of motivation understands all of life as ‘carrot and stick’ and internal or external reward and punishment.
The Spock view of decision making seeks blame and has a neat and tidy explanation for mistakes. Spocks even use this worldview to self punish, yes I was an idiot because I wasn’t thinking. Ahh complacency, the cardinal sin. Ahh yes, you decided to be unsafe, because I make choices to be safe! I can think and you can’t. How convenient.
Unfortunately, this view of decision making is great at delusion, projection and repressing reporting and truth telling. You must be punished for ‘not thinking’. You were the one responsible for not achieving zero this month. Then the solution for your mistake is more paperwork, systems and procedures, totally disconnected from the way we really make decisions. The average worker knows this and this is why they reject excessive systems as irrelevant to how they make decisions. It’s only the blindsided Vulcans that don’t understand the power of creativity, imagination and the automaticity of the Kirks.
Are Vulcan’s really spud heads?