Just Tell Your Mind to Stop It

Just Tell Your Mind to Stop It

safety design I saw a classic this week that was posted on Linkedin from a safety ‘thought leader’. It was a model that proposed how one could ‘control’ the unconscious by consciousness. The assumption of the model was that ‘not thinking’ was the ‘first cause’ of the safety problem. That is, the reason we have so many incidents and accidents is because people ‘don’t think’. Amazing how so much ill-founded and misleading material makes it into social media space from safety people who have little expertise in the areas into which they venture, yet feel entitled to go there. The model was essentially a denial and contradiction of the last 10 years of research into neuroscience and social psychology. The trouble with this stuff is that it gets about social media and is fundamentally dangerous, the opposite of thought leadership. Here is what safety people need to know about the unconscious.

  1. We need to understand that ‘not thinking’ is called automaticity and that this is not bad. The whole purpose of the fallible human condition is to do as many things ‘without thinking’ as possible, this is what makes us efficient at work, at home and in life. This is why humans develop habits and do things by routine, so they can do things ‘without thinking’. We want that apprentice that first starts on an excavator digging a trench to eventually be able to dig it faster and more efficiently, like the mentor/coach. All work is like this. The way of developing an efficient worker is by creating a larger set of heuristics and ways of working in auto-pilot. This is how all of us can drive and manage all the complexities of city traffic. When we first learn how to drive everything is overwhelming, it seems like we have to be slow and rational with everything. After some time, we drive so well in automatic, we think we can drive and text on the phone at the same time.

Heuristics enable ‘fast and frugal’ (Gigerenzer) decision making and this is what it is to be human. The idea that one can consciously influence the unconscious is nothing short of pure nonsense. That is why it is called it the ‘un-conscious’. In this model paraded on social media, the first assumption was that non-thinking ‘leads to poor decisions’ – ah wrong! Most of our decision making is unconsciously automatic and we live safely most of the time. The unconscious is not the enemy of Safety.

  1. The second assumption of the model is that humans can rational ‘focus’ in concentration and maintain it – ah wrong! Humans simply cannot stay in a concentrating state for very long at all, maybe 30 minutes. What is more, we don’t want people to stay in that state. Slow rational thought (10-40 bits a second) is not how we live life, we need multiple decisions in milliseconds constantly because rational conscious thinking is way too slow. (further, see my video on One Brain Three Minds (https://vimeo.com/106770292. https://vimeo.com/156926212) or Book 1. Risk Makes Sense (http://www.humandymensions.com/books). We live in a highly complex society and we need to do most tasks in automaticity than ever before. Otherwise the world would slow to a halt. The kind of thinking we use to complete a checklist is Mind 1 thinking, there is nothing wrong with Mind 1 thinking but it is not the kind of thinking that is ‘fast and frugal’ out on the job. We don’t consult a SWMS every time we make a decision in the field, we would never get anything done.
  2. The third assumption of this model is that when we don’t think we are not in control. Yes we are in control, our unconscious is a critical part of us, it is critical to human fallibility. Our unconscious never sleeps and even processes all night whilst our consciousness is resting. Moreover, our dreams and non-thinking work overnight fuels most of what we love in life: creativity, music, art, invention, innovation and so on. The unconscious is not the enemy, only dumb down Safety thinks it is. The assumption of this model is that one can only be on the task if one is rationally and consciously thinking yet, so much research demonstrates that this proposition is utter nonsense. Even if you don’t have much time for research, have a look at a few videos of what the research says: http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/638842947932/secrets-of-the-brain-whos-in-control



Until Safety gets some level of sophistication in critical thinking and moves beyond the emotionalist nonsense of ‘this is just your opinion’. It will end up in the world of gobbledygook as demonstrated by this model. Or end up speaking nonsense language denying the fallibility of humanness, ‘all accidents are preventable’.

  1. The fourth assumption of this model is that ‘watching’ is a mode of thinking. Unfortunately, this is not true. Our senses all run at very slow speed and any study in the psychology of perception will demonstrate this. Everyone by now knows about selective attention, we don’t see the gorilla.


Our eyes runs at 16-40 bits a second (our unconscious runs at 10 billion bits a second), watching is not reliable, neither is it a form of conscious thinking. Neither is the speed of our senses a problem. Similarly, awareness is not control, yet this model proposes that it is.

  1. ‘Change not-thinking to thinking’, this is the statement of the model. Fascinating and how will you do this? By will? By some method? The model states by ‘working on your self-awareness – stop day dreaming’ Day dreaming is lucid dreaming (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream) and it is good for you but this models wants to deny this. Yet, in lucid dreaming one is aware they are dreaming yet this model proposes that day dreaming is a lack of awareness. Apparently one can break this terrible state by ‘doing regular self check-ins’ or ‘10 second resets’. Amazing, this must be some special form of cognitive override that experts know nothing about.

In the end the model talks about ‘regaining control’ because this is what prevents ‘the unwanted event’. Goodness me, when will Safety get away from the delusion of simplistic binary dumb down stuff and get some credibility in critical thought? Nothing in the model suggests that critical thinking is of value, there is no mention of it. Yet, every work site I go to and 10 years of MiProfile research yells out that people are sick to death of checklist thinking, they are overwhelmed it so much so that new safety by-products develop such as ‘tick and flick’ and hubris. Recent research by Deloitte (http://www.theajmonline.com.au/mining_news/news/2014/october-2014/october-30-2014/other-news/deloitte-miners-201cdrowning-in-their-own-rules201d) ) shows that people are ‘drowning’ in dumb down checklist thinking. This is because Safety thinks that Mind-one-only thinking is where all the decisions are made. This is because non-thinking is the enemy and so the best workforce is one that doesn’t think critically. Checklist thinking is king!

Unfortunately, the model also assumes a reductionist notion of training (repeat new routines to fight old routines???). Rote training (checklist training) is the creator of a robotic form of function (automaticity), safety wants this checklist thinking because it makes a safe human. Yet, the opposite is the case, a workforce in ‘tick and flick’ is at risk. The model essentially contradicts itself. One thing the model did get right is that non-thinking (critically thinking) is a problem)

So, if you want to know some more about the unconscious and would like to operate on evidence rather than emotionalism, perhaps the following books might help.

Research Suggestions (Listed in Order of Difficulty)

Gigerenzer, G., (2007) Gut Feelings, The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Viking, New York.

Mlodinow, L., (2012) Subliminal, How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour. Pantheon Books, New York.

Ramachandran, V. S., (2004) A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness. Pi Press, New York.

Norretranders, T., (1998) The User Illusion, Cutting Conscious Down to Size. Penguin. New York.

Wilson, T., (2002) Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Belknap Press, London.

Wegner, D., (1989) White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of mental Control. Guilford Press, New York.

Wegner, D., (2002) The Illusion of the Conscious Will. Bradford Books, Cambridge.

Ginot, E., (2015) The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious. Norton Co., New York.

Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (eds.) (2005) The New Unconscious. Oxford, London.

Hull, R. F. C., (ed) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious C. G. Jung. Princeton University Press. (1969)

Hill, S., (2013) Confrontation with the Unconscious, Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience. Muswell Hill Press, London.

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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