Risk Ignorance and Risk Arrogance

Risk Ignorance and Risk Arrogance, Flip Sides of the Same Coin

Another guest post by Dr Robert Long – If you loved this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE

We spend a high level of energy in safety training under the assumption that the audience is ignorant.  This is what we might call ‘risk ignorance’. Most models of vocational training in safety follow the injection method in order to remedy this supposed ignorance.

Under this model workers become receptacles for data, just open up the lid and pour the data in. The injection method of knowledge transfer, places emphasis on the transmission of content more than the contributions of the learner.  This is what educators mean when they speak of ‘content-centred’ teaching.  Content-centred teaching on its own does not guarantee learning indeed, the injection model of teaching is more associated with indoctrination than learning.  There is also an associated assumption in content-centred teaching that information initiates change and learning.  This is not always the case.

The content-centred model of knowledge transfer tends to assume that safety incidents are caused by a lack of knowledge.  However, the assumption that content-knowledge leads to behavioural change is not supported by the evidence.  The emphasis on content is focused on the rational dimension of cognition.  The evidence shows that ownership, sensemaking and human decision making are energised from the arational (non-rational) mind.  It is important here to not confuse being arational with what is irrational (illogical and stupid).  It is in the arational mind that framing and priming of language has great effect.  This is why managers need to be more skilled in how they prime workers to sensemake about risk.

Under the injection model of information dumping, the best parrot wins.

Numerous failed education campaigns and especially information scare campaigns, have been shown to have limited short term effect.  Unless knowledge transfer connects and engages the arational mind, ideas may be comprehended but are unlikely to be ‘owned’.  Regurgitating comprehended words does not indicate learning.

When we trawl through incident and accident reports we find something interesting.  Risk ignorance is less the cause but rather ‘risk arrogance’ is the most significant issue.

Risk arrogance is about hubris.  Hubris denotes over confidence and a state of complacency, in this case risk complacency.  Hubris is associated with a lack of humility rather than a lack of knowledge. One can have expert knowledge in the face of risk but lack the capacity to doubt and listen.  This has been discovered through a range of well known incidents in the airline industry.  The temptation for the expert is not to entertain or take seriously, the doubts of the co-pilot, or for a doctor to entertain the doubts of a nurse.

Is it possible to be inoculated with so much information and checklist thinking that it creates a delusional mindset of risk competence?  The evidence shows that ‘flooding’ consciousness tends to drive default thinking rather than risk competence.  Therefore, risk competence is not really developed by information dumps and checklist thinking.  Checklist thinking provides the user with the idea that everything is covered off when indeed, checklist thinking is only as good as the design of the checklist. Checklist thinking is only as good as the mind that designed the checklist. Unfortunately, we soon get used to checklists and become desensitised to them.

What happens when checklists fail? The response is often the development of an additional checklist to check that the initial checklist was completed properly.  It’s a sad state of affairs when we create: systems and audits to check on systems and audits; audit checks to certify inspections and audits; inspections to certify inspections; multiple layers of regulations and authorities to validate procedures; procedures to authenticate checklists and tiers of governance to govern governance.

If the checklist designer has little knowledge of the psychology, culture or socialpsychology of risk, what is being checked off?  Most likely what is being checked off is content focused on physical risk.  Perhaps this is where the hubris comes from.


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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