Social Psychology Applied to the Discernment of Risk

Social Psychology Applied to the Discernment of Risk

During April 2015, good mates and study buddies (and authors on this blog) Gab Carlton, Max Geyer, Rob Sams and James Ellis attended the Society of Australasian Social Psychologist (SASP) Conference held in Newcastle. While Rob Sams has provided his reflections on this conference, hearing from academics presenting their research, the guys also participated in another way by presenting a poster on what they have learnt about applying the social psychology of risk in their workplaces. You can see a copy of the poster below:


The poster included many of the tools developed by Dr Rob Long from Human Dymensions and aimed to share with the attendees (mostly academics or students) the practical tools that the guys use to apply the social psychology of risk in the real world.

The guys put a lot of thought into the design of the poster, considering semiotics and symbols, although at the same time had to fit in with the Conference conventions, hence the text boxes.

A short paper explaining the poster and each of the components is included below which they would like to share with our great community.

Title: Social Psychology Applied to the Discernment of Risk

Authors: Ellis, J., Carlton, G., Geyer, M. D., & Sams, R. A.


Organisations, despite their apparent preoccupation with facts, numbers, objectivity, concreteness, and accountability, are in fact saturated with subjectivity, abstraction, guesses, making do, invention and arbitrariness… just like the rest of us. (Weick, 1979, p. 5)

Weick reminds us that all organisations and people have to deal with, and make sense of risk, equivocality and subjectivity, despite a desire for certainty, clarity and objectivity. Organisations and people who accept the ‘messiness’ of equivocality and the subjectiveness of risk and are able to better deal with the unexpected when it occurs. This is not the traditional approach taken in the risk and safety industry, which is focused on mechanistic systems, techniques and methods.

The four case study summaries presented here demonstrate the utility of using principles of social psychology to support people, and organisations, to better discern and understand human decision making in relation to risk.

Case Study 1 – the Collective Mindfulness construct is helpful in understanding risk: by James Ellis

By closely examining the characteristics of High Reliability Organisations (HROs), Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld (1999) developed the ‘collective mindfulness’ construct. They articulated the five characteristics of collective mindfulness as preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience and deference to expertise.

The construct facilitates an organisation’s reliable operations, despite exposure to unpredictable events and circumstances. Risk is about coping with uncertainty Hansson (2011), and Weick’s mindfulness construct provides a prism through which an organisation can view and learn from their interactions with uncertainty.

Collective mindfulness is intrinsically helpful in understanding risk because it defines, explains and embeds a process that ‘… enacts alertness, broadens attention, reduces distractions, forestalls misleading simplifications … accelerates recovery and facilitates learning.’ (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007, pp. 3-4).

Risk, or interaction with uncertainty, is unavoidable. Without collective mindfulness, opportunities for people and organisations to learn from risk, may pass by unnoticed.

This case study provides a representation of the collective mindfulness construct which aims to demonstrate its utility.

Case Study 2 – How do we discern risk? Consciously or Unconsciously? by Gabrielle Carlton

To better understand risk, consideration must be given to how people make decisions, judgements and perceive risk at any given time.

Claxton (2005, p. 198) postulates that our memories are held in our unconscious and our current thoughts determine which memory comes to the forefront. Plous (1993, p. 21) highlights the need to understand the level of uncertainty with human judgment and decision-making because our perceptions are selective and depend critically on cognitive and motivational factors.

Long’s ‘One Brain, Three Minds’ model (Long, 2012, p96) builds on Bargh’s research (2005, 2007) and Kahneman’s (2011) ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ model. Long explores the complexity of the unconscious mind with respect to the ‘arational ways humans make judgments and decisions’ (2012, p96). Long postulates that many of our thoughts, decisions and judgments come from ‘mind two’ (e.g. experience & heuristics) and ‘mind three’ (e.g. intuition, automaticity) which operate fast with little or no conscious awareness of the mind’s existence or influencers.

Long’s model of ‘One Brain, Three Minds’ is presented here to describe the conscious mind’s limited capacity to hold information and that the unconscious mind is the critical factor in how people perceive risk, and make judgments and decisions.

Case Study 3 – Unconscious communication in understanding and managing risk: by Max Geyer

When dealing with risk, it is critical that we are ‘fast and frugal’ in our decision making Gigerenzer (1999, p. 7). Miller (cited in Charvet 1995, p. 4) tells us that it is virtually impossible to keep more than seven items in our conscious mind. Semiotics (images, sounds, words, smells, tastes, symbols, etc.) are the signs which enable us to think (Chandler, 2007, p. 13). Symbols can be used to bundle information as a smart way to remember things (Norretranders 1998, p. 132). Signs as symbols help us discern risk by helping us to avoid being ‘flooded’ (Long & Long, 2012, p. Xi) with information.

A road sign is a symbol of the hazards related to the road ahead. The message is conveyed through information which has not been included on the sign; the ‘exformation’ (Norretranders, 1999, p. 92). Our unconscious mind plays a critical role in managing our understanding of the symbol and also in managing our unconscious (Bargh & Chartrand 1999, p, 463) and often, automatic (Bargh cited in Kazdin, 2000, p.348), response to it. The unconscious communication in the sign demonstrates the critical nature of unconscious communication in the understanding and management of risk.

Case Study 4 – “Effective conversations are essential in supporting people to effectively discern risk: by Robert Sams

To effectively discern risk[1], we must make decisions and judgements about uncertainty without the benefit of limited time or without using the rational and logical thinking of our conscious mind. Most decisions and judgements we make, and hence our understanding of risk[2], are made in the unconscious mind, or as Klein (2004) refers to it ‘… largely through a process based on intuition.’ (Klein 2004, p. 21) Long (2012) recognises this and goes on to note that ‘Knowing how to influence the unconscious is a critical aspect to making sense of risk.’ (Long 2012, p. 89)

In referring to how to influence the unconscious, Long (2012), proposes that ‘The effective conversation is the most powerful instrument we have to manage risk. It is our greatest tool to help influence others and increase perception.’ (Long 2012, p. 145)

If we accept Long’s proposition, then the application of effective conversations are essential in supporting people to better discern risk. Long (2012, p.145) provides a list of 20 tips for ‘skilled conversations’. In our poster presentation, I will provide a summary of these tips by presenting Dr Long’s ‘Your Talk Matters Conversation Tool’ (Long 2012, p. 144).



Weick, K. E., (1979) The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd Ed. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts, USA.

Case Study 1

Hansson, S. O., (2011) "Risk", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Viewed 9th May 2014 <>.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D., (1999). Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness. In B. M. Staw & L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 21, pp. 81-123). JAI Press, Inc. Greenwich, CT

Weick, K. E., and Sutcliffe, K. M., (2007) Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, USA.

Case Study 2

AS/NZS ISO 3100:2009 Risk management – Principles and Guidelines. Standards Australia, Sydney.

Bargh, J.A., (2005) Bypassing the Will: Toward Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior. In Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., Eds (2005) The New Unconscious. Oxford University Press, London

Claxton, G., (1999) The Wayward Mind. Abacus Press, London.

Glaser, J. & Kihlstrom, J.F., (2005) Compensatory Automaticity: Unconscious Volition is Not an Oxymoron. In Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., Eds (2005) The New Unconscious. Oxford University Press, London

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

Kahneman, D., (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Long, R., (2012) Risk Makes Sense Human Judgement and Risk. Scotoma Press, Kambah, ACT, Australia.

Norretranders, T., (1999) The User Illusion Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Penguin Books, New York.

Plous, S., (1993) The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. McGraw-Hill, Inc, New York.

Case Study 3

Bargh, J. A., (2000) Automaticity, in Kazdin, A. E., (ed) Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 1. Pp. 347-348, American Psychology Association, Oxford University Press, New York, viewed 1st September 2014, <>

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999) The Unbearable Automaticity of Being, in American Psychologist, the American Psychology Association, Vol. 54, No. 7, viewed 29th August 2014, <> (the complete URL to this article is too long to insert here)

Chandler, D., (2007) Semiotics: The Basics, 2nd ed. Routledge, London and New York.

Charvet, S. R., (1995) Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, Iowa.

Gigerenzer, G., Todd, P., and the ABC Research Group. (1999) Simple Heuristics That Make us Smart, Oxford. London.

Long, R., & Long, J., (2012) Risk Makes Sense: Human Judgement and Risk, Scotoma Press, Kambah ACT.

Norretranders, T., (1999) The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, Penguin Books, New York.

Case Study 4

Klein, G., (2003) Intuition at work : why developing your gut instincts will make you better at what you do. Doubleday, a Division of Random House, New York, USA.

Long, R., (2013) Real Risk : Human Discerning and risk. Scotoma, Press Kambah, ACT.

Standards Australia (2009) Australian Standard AS/NZS ISO 31 000: Risk Management – Principles and Guidelines. SAI Global, Sydney, Australia.

[1] The Australian Standard AS/NZS ISO 31 000: Risk Management – Principles and Guidelines, defines risk as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives”

[2] Long (2013, p.xiii) notes that “All risk is attributed, subjective, human and personal”

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