The Complacency Delusion
You’ve got to hand it to Safety, it loves to talk about things it knows little about. Then it spruiks solutions based on ignorance and droves line up for snake oil and a feeding frenzy on dumb packaged as a solution.
A good example of this is a recent, ASSP endorsed publication on complacency (DOWNLOAD HERE) . Goodness me, if you want to feast your eyes on nonsense, just get your teeth into this. If ever there was an unprofessional publication about complacency and habit, this is it. No wonder Safety flocks to this stuff (https://ncc.assp.org/events/the-biological-basis-of-complacency-2/ ) it’s completely delusional and has no connection to reality.
Let’s look at a few basics:
- How can you possibly discuss the nature of complacency without defining it properly?
- How can you discuss complacency without any consideration for the human unconscious?
- How can you discuss the nature of habit without considering the fundamentals of heuristics?
- How can you separate off the body-mind problem using simplistic biological bias as if matter is the only reality?
- How can you gain a better understanding of complacency by shutting out 95% of research on the nature of complacency and habit?
- Why would you go to a safety source to seek understanding on the complexities of fallible human personhood?
- The report starts with the pooling of ignorance by asking 132 safety people what they think complacency is about? And this facile research comes up with classic dumb stuff like:
- Not paying attention (a favourite of Safety it never defines)
- Not taking risk seriously (only Safety knows best)
- Overconfidence (never defined)
- Habit (never defined)
- Poor training (the solution, more reprogramming)
What wonderful marketing for all the mythologies that plague safety. More simplistic fodder seeking simplistic answers that don’t work.
Then the ‘report’ states:
‘the strong support for different driving conditions reflects that complacency is not a well-defined, understood, or agreed upon problem in the OSH community.’
And what does it do? It defines safety by its undisclosed ethic founded in behaviourism. The whole report is based on an undeclared assumption of what complacency really is.
This is how Safety likes to tackle problems. Like publishing an unethical chapter on ethics (https://safetyrisk.net/the-aihs-bok-and-ethics-check-your-gut/ ) and then declaring it ethical! Oh good, let’s publish a body of non-knowledge on non-ethics, not declare its worldview and make sure we omit any discussion of power, politics, zero and personhood.
So, let’s start with a non-behaviourist definition. Complacency is: ‘the unconscious confidence humans feel through the amplification of heuristics’. Many definitions also use the pejorative word ‘smug’ but this only helps foster arrogance and blaming, foundational causes of fostering the complacency of safety arrogance.
The report sets out the nature of complacency as a ‘brain problem’ how convenient. Typical simplistic Safety, all we have to do now is reprogram that goddam computer and people will be safe. If you want to know anything about complacency the last place to go is consulting a group of safety non-professionals.
Let’s start with the nature of heuristics (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281232107_Heuristics_and_biases_The_science_of_decision-making ). The purpose of heuristics is to allow fallible persons to undertake rapid unconscious actions without thinking. Heuristics are good for social living because they enable efficient action at speed and most of the time they work. The by-product of the effectiveness of heuristics is a mismatch in heuristics that create mistakes, usually by a disconnect between context and action. Heuristics are the hotbed for complacency and yet this report discusses none of it! Then the report frames its discussion by the use of the word ‘scientific’!
The report defines habit as: ‘a physiological phenomenon that takes place inside the brain’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Habits are: ‘embodied heuristics built into a person’s being to facilitate action without thinking’.
When Safety gets concerned about complacency it needs to investigate the way human persons create ecological efficiency in social order. Unless Safety gets beyond this silly materialist/behaviourist stuff and engages in a sophisticated understanding of human Socialitie, it will never understand complacency.
I know, I’ve got a good idea. Let’s imagine there is no human Mind, there is no ‘mental state’. Let’s make the brain a behaviourist machine and fix the inputs to get the right outputs!
Anyone with an ounce of knowledge in neuroscience knows that the whole body is a neurological system. If you want to know about complacency, start with a few of these:
- Claxton Intelligence in the Flesh
- Varela The Embodied Mind
- Fuchs ecology of the brain
- Ginot The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious
- Noe Out of our Heads
- Robinson Out of Our Mind
- Panksepp Affective Neuroscience
- Tversky Mind in Motion
- Durt Embodiment, Enaction and Culture
Hey, but let’s not research get in the way of a good Safety myth.
Of course, we know that it’s not about the brain. When your world falls apart, when relationships crumble, when things go wrong ‘Your Body Keeps the Score’ (Van Der Kolk). How strange that when you see the doctor under stress they don’t put an instrument on your brain, they want to look at your heart and your diet. The integration of head, heart and gut are essential for understanding human persons, interaffectivity and intercorporeality.
The reason why Safety wants such a myth that complacency is a computer problem, is that it enables easy blaming and easy solutions. It also enables systems that maintain a myth that doesn’t work. Safety never talks about worldviews, ethos or ethic, that’s the last thing that needs questioning.
So, in this report we eventually get to a definition of complacency (p.9) that suits the undisclosed non-ethic of the report: ‘complacency is a state of decreased external awareness and sensitivity to hazards caused by the brain’s ability to activate neural pathways that require less PFC activity and executive function’. Of course, complacency is framed by a lack of perception about hazards. Why didn’t I think of that? The report makes no mention of such critical factors as: perception, vision, motivation, risk, learning, social psychology or fallibility.
Just think for a few seconds about how the politics of workplaces shape social habit and form cultural habit. Please don’t discuss reality, just reprogram that brain.
By the time you get to the end of this report you have entered fairy tale land and it all moves to cognitive engagement (not defined). All of this packed as ‘professional’.
The proposed solutions in this report based on a mis-definition of habit and complacency, lead to the old safety favourites, nothing new, nothing different. Nothing essential to managing the nature of heuristics or the challenge of embodied nature of habit is in this report. In the end, it slips back to the old favourite, behaviourism.
So, if you want to know about the wicked problem of complacency, heuristics and habit, don’t read this report, it offers no help for safety.
Here’s a good idea. Why not stop going to safety to seek thinking about problems it knows little about. The last place you are going to find any help on complacency is by asking a safety engineer. Perhaps start reading and researching those with expertise on complacency, habit and the human unconscious, now there’s a good idea. Why not start with the list above?
I’m familiar with the paper that you review here. My take from it and what little I have read about heuristics is that complacency is a completely normal thing. The realization that it is so normal should make it less of a factor for an accident/incident. In stead of blaming a worker for not caring enough to pay attention (essentially how complacency is coded for safety), why not design safeguards, systems and procedures so that if a normal thing like complacency happens there will be no ill effects?
Rob Long says
Yes, the real problem with all of this is that Safety has no interest in tackling the mysteries of the human unconscious. and you can’t use traditional safety thinking of behaviourism and engineering (or Biology) to develop an understanding of human judgement and decision making. You can’t respond to the mysteries of the human unconscious with design of systems and procedures as if a method or formula will do the trick. Promising Nirvana (zero) through biology, behaviourism etc is simply fraudulent. There is globally no Ethic of Personhood in Safety, says it all really.
Just do a search for any of the associations or safety organisations and look for a discussion on the human or collective unconscious, its not there. Look at the AIHS BoK, there is simply no interest or discussion of it and so its all mechanical, its all brain-centrism, its all behaviourism, all measurement. The last thing Safety wants to discuss is the uncertainty of risk.
Great review Rob – so apparently we must encourage repetition but reduce repetitive tasks??? I love the attribution based on a really bad survey of 500 Safety “Professionionals”
Rob Long says
Admin, there is no such thing as a safety professional. This stuff is evidence of that as is the nonsense non-ethics of the AIHS and its ideology of zero.