Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink – Improving Safety the SMART Way
By Dr Robert Long
The idea of improvement via a ‘nudge’ is now in popular discourse. The idea is based on the work of Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge. Sunstein’s work in particular is a valuable read for any safety person. The idea of ‘nudging’ is based on the Jungian idea that ‘everything matters’. Indirect and unconscious suggestion are effective and influence human decision making and thinking.
The nudge approach understands that all social psychological design is not neutral. It is because ‘everything matters’ that organisations need to be more cognisant of unconscious influences in language and design. This is why a proper understanding of cultural influence and the nonsense of zero is so important.
The best question any safety person can ask is: where is this taking us? If this question was asked more by safety people we might not be bogged down in so much ineffective junk. Understanding the trajectory of safety initiatives is so important and should be the main task of being safety focused. I heard the other day that on a large gas project safety people have to do a 2 hour induction on how to use a vacuum cleaner because it’s an electrical device. This is how we end up in so much wasting of time and petty safety ‘noise’, with no differentiation or discerning about what matters in safety significance. Safety people should stop telling and get better at asking this question.
Unfortunately, the current trend in safety non-improvement is the olde sledge hammer approach. The continued response of the regulator and lovers of systems is to invoke more systems, more punishment, larger fines and more bannings in response to everything. Rather than stop and consider why this approach doesn’t work, the regulator stays within the confines of their own thinking box and supposes more of the same will change the outcome. Yesterday, I read a regulatory suggestion that all waterways be fenced in response to a tragic drowning in Sydney Harbour. The myth of ‘dumb down’ continues to plague the anxieties of the regulator.
In good social psychology method Thaler and Sunstein start by showing how heuristics are used in human decision making. They focus on three main heuristics: anchoring, availability and representativeness. The little Handbook HB 327 (Communicating and Consulting about Risk) to the Risk Management Standard AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 is a great place to start in reading about the importance of heuristics in consultation and communication. If safety people really understood the nature of heuristics, they would be able to influence safety culture and decision making in a much more constructive and less negative way in their organisations. Further read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_theory.
Thaler and Sunstein show how overconfidence, perception of risk, framing bias and misattribution are constructed through anchoring, availability and representativeness. They show how language ‘primes’ thinking and decision making. The results of their experiments show that simple changes in language and design can strongly influence judgment. One example is the sticker of a fly in a men’s urinal. The experimenter places a fly on the men’s urinal and in so doing increases the accuracy of aim, radically reducing the cleaning bill for a company. Another experiment showed how tax compliance was improved in Minnesota through the way tax information was reported.
Obama and Cameron have both shown interest in using the nudge approach to culture change rather than more ineffective punitive approaches. Unfortunately, the popularization of the nudge approach takes the focus off it’s method and shifts the focus to the mechanics of its ‘techniques’.