Is Complacency Evil?

Republished by request……

Is Complacency Evil?

Depositphotos_14577415_xsLots of words are thrown around the safety sector with little definition. Everyone seems to know what everyone else is thinking and yet there is little clarification. The word ‘culture’ is perhaps the best example of an overused but under-defined word in safety. Most people when they talk about culture end up talking about systems, leadership and behaviour yet, these are only parts of the culture equation. Another word that is thrown about is ‘complacency’. The word is often equated with carelessness, lack of attention and indifference to danger. There are spruikers about promising to teach people how to pay attention, how to make people more aware and how to ‘fix’ complacency, some with no expertise in social psychology but lots of business nous. There are plenty of organisations that seem to buy this snake oil but rarely question things below the surface. For example, what is complacency?

Humans have very limited perceptive capability as simple visual and spacial illusions demonstrate. The rational, slow mind really runs quite slowly, about 16-40 bits a second taking in data through the senses. The unconscious mind on the other hand processes data at approx. 40 billion bits a second and does millions of things while the rational mind is still ‘thinking’ about it. Checklist thinking (mind 1) is slow thinking and intuitive or ‘gut’ thinking as Gigerenzer states, is ‘fast and frugal’ thinking (mind 2). Except when one is in mind 2, we often state that the person wasn’t ‘thinking’. Then, there is also a mind that is in between these two states (mind 3). This mind 3 is developmentally fast and slow. So humans have one brain but three mind states. What does this all mean for complacency?

In the complexity of life and because of the limitations of rational (slow) thought, humans manage life by making many decisions in the unconscious. We develop fast and frugal ways of decision making (called ‘heuristics’) so we don’t have to ‘think’. It is often in this state of ‘flow’ that we are at our most creative, innovative and imaginative. I am working with a company at the moment that calls this ‘nimblicity’.

Humans do many things ‘without thinking’, this is what it is to be human (not gods). We do many things by habit and repetition and the by-product of this is desensitization. Making decisions by heuristics is very human and there is nothing ‘wrong’ with it. The crazy thing about all this talk about error prevention or making people ‘think’ is that it moves people from ‘fast and frugal’ thinking to slow thinking. Imagine all the slow things one would have to do to manage the driving of a car in slow thinking, you wouldn’t get out of the driveway. No, people just get on with life and drive using heuristics. Most of the time we don’t need to drive in an intense concentrated state and we do fine. And if we make an error, that usually means that the heuristic we used for judgment at the time was a bad fit. This doesn’t happen very often considering the many 1000s of hours we undertake this risky and dangerous task.

When we make fast and frugal decisions we are often in a state of ‘not thinking’, we sometimes call this ‘autopilot’. This is where complacency sits. Complacency is not some evil lack of care but rather the human state of ‘not thinking’ and, the only way to trade off the risk of such ‘non-thinking’ is to move into slow mind 1. Moving into Mind 1 we then try to gather data to its optimum so as to make the best decision but even then there are limits of time and resources. Optimized decision making is slow and impractical, in the end humans make the best decisions they can within the limits of all that is available to them under the constrains of being human. This is called ‘satisficing’ that is, humans make the best decision possible under the constraints of time and resources.

So, humans live in a state of tension between the complexities of living (fast and frugal decision making) and the limitations of time and resources (optimizing). The truth is humans are mostly complacent and ‘not thinking’ (fast and frugal), most of the time. Even after completing a slow Safe Work Method process, humans then go on the job and use heuristics for most of their decisions. It’s only when something goes wrong that we turn complacency into an evil when in fact, we have been doing well on complacency for the last 100 days.

The idea that humans are only safe below the line is a denial of the fact that the majority of the time we function quite well and efficiently above the line. Then when something goes wrong or an error (not a blunder) is made everyone hits the panic button and tries to draw everything back under the line.

The tension between operating in Mind 1 or 2&3 can be represented in the following equation.


Complacency is not an evil but a fact of human living (tension between satisficing and optimizing). One of the most effective ways to stay in the safest ‘fast and frugal’ space is to lift workplace skills in observation, communication and listening. This can be maintained best in a non-defensive community that understands the nature of risk and humanness.

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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