Intuitional Ways of Knowing in Safety
One of the miracles/mysteries of human decision making is the way we embody knowledge through heuristics. Some of the many heuristics humans use for fast and efficient decision making are listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuristic. However, this list is not intended to be comprehensive but more an example of the ways we create mental shortcuts to enact unconscious decisions. In our day to day living 95% of our decisions are made this way.
One of the great myths of the safety industry is that decision making is conscious.
When thinking of heuristics, it is important to get away from the nonsense idea that the brain is a computer and that memory is like computer recall, nothing could be further from reality (https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228601612.pdf ).
Heuristics are embodied and when we speak of the human Mind we don’t mean the brain. Many of the decisions we enact through heuristics are triggered by emotions, feelings and situations and these by themselves create the enactment of a heuristic. We should think more of heuristics as embodied reflexes than the myth of the human brain as computer.
Heuristics are not ‘stored’ in the brain and recalled as data. In many ways, heuristics are embodied in the environment just as much as in us. Polanyi calls this ‘tacit knowing’ (https://monoskop.org/File:Polanyi_Michael_The_Tacit_Dimension.pdf). Tacit knowing or intuition is a way of knowing beyond the metaphor of the brain as computer often used in safety. If that’s your metaphor for human decision making, get rid of it, it isn’t helping.
In many ways, we don’t know what heuristic we will enact until the moment of decision. Heuristics are enacted unconsciously not consciously, this is why they enable such fast decision making. Such situational knowing and decision making is trigged by experience and recognition of situations from the past. 95% of all our decisions are made this way (https://www.uzh.ch/cmsssl/suz/dam/jcr:00000000-64a0-5b1c-0000-0000036e5750/10.12-gigerenzer-08.pdf ; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49653132_Heuristic_Decision_Making ).
For those who watch Netflix you will know that the series The Queen’s Gambit was the most watched mini-series of 2020. The series won many awards and fuelled the most amazing flood of interest in chess. As a result there are various online coaches in chess that have become celebrities with millions of followers and subscribers eg. Gotham Chess, Eric Rosen etc. So if you have taken an interest in chess you will soon know that the world champion of chess is Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen is the world champion and in many ways unique in the history of chess (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnus_Carlsen). He has been world champion since 2013.
One of the reasons for discussing Carlsen is to highlight the nature of intuition and this was well documented in a 60 minute report that sought to explain how Carlsen’s Mind works (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZFS0kewLRQ). Again, it is critical to remember that when we refer to Mind we don’t mean just brain. Carlsen ‘feels’ his way to decision making and in many ways affirms Gladwell’s thesis in Blink (https://jtnthebe.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Blink-The-Power-of-Thinking-Without-Thinking.pdf).
Carlsen is a great example of intuitional decision making. It is impossible for a human to remember 17,000 combinations of play in chess. We know from bounded rationality (https://medcraveonline.com/MOJCRR/MOJCRR-02-00047.pdf) that the human brain is very limited and this of course confirms that human recall and memory is embodied . So how does Carlsen do it? Tacit knowing. Even Carlsen himself can’t explain how he does what he does (https://vimeo.com/471823469) because he ‘feels’ his decision making heuristically. This is how we all make decisions.
We all make decisions heuristically in our experience similar to Carlsen. Whatever our field of expertise we mostly make decisions quickly and efficiently through heuristics. Gladwell reminds us that expertise comes with 10,000 hours of learning/ experience . This is how intuitional knowledge develops.
One of the great delusions in the safety industry is the idea that decision making is rational, logical, linear and brain-centric, nothing could be further from reality. We see in many incident investigations on the market and nonsense models like swiss-cheese that this is the primary assumption Safety makes about decision making, and it is completely wrong.
So, whenever we are in the field and walk the job and have conversations with people who are expert in their trade, we are listening to thousands of collective heuristics that explain why they do what they do. Yes that’s right, the assumptions of behaviourism are completely wacky (https://safetyrisk.net/kicking-the-behaviourism-habit/; https://safetyrisk.net/the-curse-of-behaviourism/). When we think of how workers make decisions most of the assumptions of the Safety are wrong. The human Mind is not a computer and the enactment of the body is not a behavioural machine.
How strange then that Safety waltzes into workplaces and dares to tell experts how to do their job! All under the erroneous assumption that decision making is brain-centric, linear and rational.
In comes Safety armed with a pre-ordained checklist and a sprinkling of knowledge about the regulation yearning to wield power over the expert whose decision making 95% of the time is unconscious and tacit. No wonder Safety has such a bad name in the workplace.
This is why the beginning of being a helper in safety is listening and conversation NOT telling. Helping is the first characteristic of an ethic of professionalism. Telling doesn’t work because decisions in the field are not made on the basis of cognitive information. If you want to know what really works perhaps look here: https://www.humandymensions.com/product/it-works-a-new-approach-to-risk-and-safety/