The Curse of Cognitivism
There are a range of ideologies that plague the safety industry that retard the ability to help and care for people. These ideologies drive the focus towards objects so common in the iconography of the industry (https://safetyrisk.net/the-iconography-of-safety/ ). How strange that an industry that should be dedicated to the care of people’s well being should represent itself by PPE? What an indictment of an industry that should be committed to tackling risk, that it should promote the least form of hazard management? How strange that an industry focused on the nature of fallible people in tackling risk should promote an absolute number as its goal?
In my previous discussion about behaviourism I put forward the idea that humans are ‘embodied’ not just a computer on top of a body. We think with our whole being and there is no little cognitivist computer in our heads directing everything. As Claxton notes: ‘the brain does not issue commands, it hosts conversations’ (Intelligence in the Flesh). Unless Safety understands human judgment and decision making holistically it will always look at error, mistakes and odd behaviour as ‘wrong programming’. It is from the computational metaphor that many problems in safety originate including the addiction to blame and eugenics. Nothing is likely to improve in safety from an erroneous assumption about the nature of human being. This is why safety needs an ‘ethic of risk’.
I saw yesterday some language in the current EHS Conference (so called leadership) in the US that was titled ‘From Safety Culture to a Safe Machine’. The place of machine, technique, objects and military metaphors should have no place in the language of safety. No wonder the safety industry struggles with the challenges of mental health and bullying when its primary language and iconography is about objects! Surely it can’t be that hard to think of people when thinking of safety? Surely if we are promoting equity, relationships, trust, care and helping we don’t need to anchor people to a witches hat? (https://safetyrisk.net/anchoring-safety-to-objects/)
The study of cognitivism emerged from the cybernetics movement in the 1950s. The central idea behind cognitivism is that human thinking is computational. Unfortunately, cognitivism like behaviourism cannot explain such fundamental things such as the experience of ‘the self’ or the nature of the unconscious. Never mind, Safety loves it because like behaviourism, everything must be observable and measurable otherwise it must be not real. Some of this ideology comes from Lockean assumptions of humans born as a ‘blank slate’. Tell that to the millions of Buddhists in the world. One of the best things about yoga is the shift from head to body and understanding the mind as much more than the brain.
Varela in his book The Embodied Mind demonstrates just how out of touch the West has become in its despising of the body and the privileging of the brain in human thinking. This is reflected in the various school of thought that dominate the safety industry too (https://safetyrisk.net/a-great-comparison-of-risk-and-safety-schools-of-thought/ ). When one looks at the dominance of behaviourist and cognitivist ideologies in safety it is no wonder that the average punter in the street thinks of safety as an embuggerance.
If an holistic approach to human being is understood that includes social, environmental, context, insitu and social psychological influences then, we move from the computer in the head idea and the observation of objects to a better understanding of human ecology and decision making that is not computational. Once we understand human being ecologically (https://monoskop.org/images/b/bf/Bateson_Gregory_Steps_to_an_Ecology_of_Mind.pdf; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304422422_Bateson_-_Consciousness_Mind_and_Nature) then we can better tackle risk in its unpredictable, messy and emergent state.
Much of human decision making is not irrational as Ariely suggests (Predictably Irrational) but is arational/non-rational and, cannot be understood through a brain-focused anthropology. Safety should be far more focused on decisions of the gut and decision by the heart just as much as the idea that all poor decisions are the result of wrong programming.