Learning Doesn’t Provide Immunity
Just because I’ve learnt a little about how I make decisions and judgments, it does not mean that I will always make better decisions. I know that I am vulnerable in my decision-making and that it is thick with bias.
Perhaps the best I can hope for is to recognise through reflection, sharing and good conversation the biases in the decisions and judgments I make and continue to learn from them as well as seek to understand ‘cues’ of when my biases may be at play.
Around this time four years ago I began a ‘learning adventure’ that would change my life in more ways than I could have imagined. I had been working in ‘safety’ for most of my life and I was at my wits end trying to understand why our focus was fixated predominately on systems, policing and ‘control’, with little understanding of people and how we make decisions. There seemed to be no place in the paradigm that I was working in that allowed for mistakes, and the groundswell in the industry was being driven by the seduction of ‘zero’.
Where there was talk of ‘people’, it inevitably turned to ‘human factors and human error’ that has at its heart an understanding of people as ‘factors’ within a system, rather than recognising we are fallible beings whose decisions are laden with bias and flaws that cannot be overcome simply by implementing better (or more) controls and systems.
To truly ‘live’ as a person means, in part, being free to make decisions, to make mistakes and live a life of our choosing (autonomy support, Deci). When we are considered as part of a system, mistakes tend to be understood with the intent of fixing and correcting, not learning and accepting. Of course, things are not as simple, straight forward or black and white as I describe here, living also means that we are part of a community that has it’s own standards, practices and expectations. Learning about the grey and messiness of understanding people and society is one of the most intriguing facets of the adventure of the last four years.
It was also four years ago that I received a copy of Risk Makes Sense, a book that helped me better understand people, to learn and think about risk in a different way, and ultimately lead to me to commencing the post-graduate program in The Psychology of Risk.
Surely this program would teach me all I needed to know about being a better decision maker? It would provide me with the tools that would mean that my decisions would be less prone to error and it would mean that I could be error free. Not on your life, that is not what this learning adventure is about.
So what have I learnt?
While there has been some great learning from attending the formal program of education in a University setting, it has been the informal learning, the interactions with others, the shared stories, the reading, the questions, the community and the exploring where most of the learning has occurred. There is so much that I’ve learnt from these experiences, most of all is how much I don’t know, and how much more I have to learn.
This ‘adventure’ has evolved over time too. While I started with the aim of better understanding people and others, I have also learnt so much about myself. One thing that constantly amazes me is that even though I’ve learnt so much about biases and things like ‘fundamental attribution error’ and how these often ‘disable’ my decision-making that, oddly enough, just because I know about them does not necessarily mean that I make better decisions.
Deniel Kahneman when discussing his book Thinking Fast and Slow on the topic of anchoring and the validity of numbers when it comes to assessing risk, makes the same observation:
“Kahneman confesses that he himself still experiences the illusion of validity, after fifty years of warning other people against it. He cannot escape the illusion that his own intuitive judgments are trustworthy.” (New York Review of Books)
So am I wasting my time with all this new learning if my decision making its still going to be filled with bias?
Of course the answer is no. However, I suspect that if I were to ‘assess’ this learning adventure like we often assess the ‘success’ of most workplace training programs, the answer would be different. You see I cannot even begin to assess my learning through a grade or mark, in fact what I have learnt is that I’m not even conscious of much of what I am learning.
Do we in risk and safety need to better understand the importance of the unconscious in communication?
I’m constantly learning that so many of my decisions are made in my non-conscious, most of which I am blissfully unaware of until I stop and take the time to reflect to make sense of them. I’ve come to realise, as the Nobel peace prize-winning author Kahneman has too, that just because I have all of this newfound knowledge about how we make decisions and judgements, that this learning does not provide immunity for the biases in my decision-making.
So what can I do about this?
One thing that I have found that helps me make sense of this is what you might consider ‘social sensemaking’ (thanks Dave Whitefield who ironically came up with this term in one of our reflection sessions). ‘Social sensemaking’ is sharing thoughts and ideas with others with the aim of making sense of things. Could this lead to better decision-making?
For instance, I am part of an ongoing discussion with a close friend at the moment where the decisions being discussed are significant. These are not decisions about what to have for lunch, what clothes to wear or any other trivial matter, these are life-changing decisions.
When my friend and I chat, one thing we both find ourselves doing is often stopping mid sentence when either of us identify that may be in ‘confirmation bias’. That is, we have ‘cues’ that we listen out for and if we hear ourselves easily slipping into responses of “me too”, or “yeah that’s just got to be the answer”, or “you’re absolutely right”, we do our best to stop and ‘entertain doubt’. We may ask each other if our biases are kicking in? We may explore what we know about the psychology of decision-making and consider just some of the almost 250 biases that, if we are not mindful of, will continue to ‘disable’ our thinking and learning, which may in turn stifle our development and living.
I’m conscious that I may have just made this sound rather simple, and that some may read this and think “Yeah right, like you do that all the time!” Of course the answer is that we don’t. I know that most of my conversations occur while I am in ‘flow’ and that is perfectly normal and ok most of the time. However, if I do want to make a conscious effort to consider the effectiveness of my decision making, being aware of biases, being considerate of my agenda and understanding how these factors impact on my decisions is important. It’s something I’m continuing to learn about, explore and improve on as my adventure continues.
Do you have ways to recognise the biases in your decision-making? How do you go about looking out for and listening for the cues that your biases may be kicking in? Do you take the time to reflect and consider how biases are a part of the decisions you make?
Does your learning provide you with immunity from making poor decisions or, are you like the rest of us fallible humans who continue the adventure of life, learning and understanding?
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.
Author: Robert Sams
Phone: 0424 037 112
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