Some Basics on Social Psychology & Risk

Some Basics on Social Psychology & Risk

group of friends jumps on sand, rear viewI’ve been on a cracker of a journey for about two years now since I discovered social psychology and all that it brings to the area of risk and safety. I’ve discovered how much I don’t know, how much I thought I knew but didn’t, and most wonderfully, how much more I have to learn. I find this liberating!

When we better understand people and how our social environment can impact the decisions we make, we can then better support them to learn, understand and discern risk.

The study of social psychology and risk has opened my eyes, my mind and my life up to a different way of thinking. Prior to discovering social psychology, I had worked in risk and safety for over 20 years (most of my life in fact) and I thought I knew a thing or two about managing risk and safety. I’d been in some pretty senior roles with large and diverse organisations. I’d had success (that’s a topic for another Blog!) and felt pretty good about my career. The reality is that I knew very little about how to discern risk, about what motivates people and about how people make decisions and judgments. This is not to say I was wrong, in fact, not right either.

Something I’ve done a lot of reflecting on over the past two years is about how often we jump to thinking in a binary way. That is right or wrong, black or white, yes or no. What I love is that dealing with risk is about understanding and working in the delightful world of ‘grey’. First lesson in social psychology – grey is cool!

I’ve also learnt about non-conscious thinking and how important this is in how we make decisions and judgments about risk. I’ve read more books than I could have imagined. I’ve taken time out to think, consider, challenge, debate, discuss, listen and think some more. Second lesson in social psychology – there really is no substitute for taking the time out to read and think. There is no silver bullet that can give you all the answers in five minutes. If you want to ‘get’ all this social psychology ‘stuff’, you have to challenge your current thinking and be prepared to unlearn. A list of great books is available here ( If you have limited time and are looking for three good books to start with, I recommend number 12 (Plous), 15 (Shein) and 20 (Weick). All of these are reasonable easy to read (i.e. not full of too much academic/technical content) and will challenge you if you have grown up in the world of ‘traditional safety’ like I have.

There is a lot written on about social psychology and risk. There are the very insightful articles with lots of great theory and references to support our learning. Dr Robert Long particularly provokes learning and thinking, and if you’re anything like me, Rob challenges almost everything that I’ve learnt for over 20 years (I’m only a youngin’ J). At times, I find this difficult, I question things, I have to think things through, and I have to take time to reflect on what things mean and how they could be applied. However, I’m very fortunate to be part of a number of great supportive communities where I can share my learning, my questions and experiences in a safe environment. This Blog is just one of those communities, our study group is another, and the ‘Thinking Groups’ we have set up around the place (currently in Newcastle, Sydney, Central Coast and Melbourne) are another. Third lesson in social psychology – find a supportive community to support you as you learn. You can jump on and comment here on the Blog or if you’re interested in joining one of our ‘Thinking Groups’, drop us a line ( We are always looking to set up new groups, so if there is not one in your area, let us know and we will see if we can get one happening.

Challenging what we know and what we have done for years can be tough. There are times when I said ‘no way!’ that can’t be true. But these have been outweighed in recent times with feelings of ‘oh yeah!’ that makes sense. I now feel like I understand people better. I am starting to have a better understanding of how complex people are, about how a lot of our decisions are not rational, but that doesn’t mean they are irrational (see point about binary thinking), because I now understand what a-rational means! Next lesson in social psychology – people are complex, how we make decisions and how we make sense of things is not often known until after we’ve done something and we reflect on them. This can be frustrating for people who want to control others. Human motivation (and by this I mean true motivation of the person, not superficial motivation, e.g. money, that we may see on the surface) is far more complex than ‘carrot and stick’. When we can start to get our head around this, it can be really helpful in dealing with others, especially if we’d like them to do things differently.

I suspect that there are many out there in our community that might find things challenging at times. After all, there is a lot to learn and at times a lot so much to ‘unlearn’. I wonder if there are some out there who find these challenges difficult to deal with? I’m pretty sure you aren’t alone. If you every want to talk through something, share an idea, check in, ask a question, challenge something because it’s really bugging you, then I encourage you to write in, either by commenting on the Blog, or send me an e-mail. There are some wonderful people on this forum, and part of this community who would love to support you on this journey.

My top five tips to support a learning journey into the world of social psychology and risk:

1. Take some time out to consider binary thinking and how often this occurs in risk

2. Expand your reading list beyond LinkedIn articles and books about safety systems

3. Learn more about the importance of the non-conscious and decision making

4. Find a supportive community to support you in your journey

5. People are complex and don’t like being controlled by others

In my next Blog, I’ll share some tips for putting all this ‘stuff’ into practice.

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112



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See also: Understanding The Social Psychology of Risk And Safety

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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