The Domino Delusion in Safety
Domino theory was popular political mythology of the 1950s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domino_theory ). The theory was used by President Eisenhower in 1954 to explain the threat of communism and how Nation states would fall if not defended. Domino theory is built on the symbology of a chain reaction, a cumulative affect that invokes the image of dominoes falling without restraint. The symbology became known as ‘the domino effect’ and has been popularized using videos displaying the uncontrolled fall of millions of dominoes triggered by one action ((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0jeohWnmAQ).
But is the domino effect real? Do events occur in a rational sequenced linear way in human life or are things much more messy and unpredictable? Is ‘domino theory’ an imposed construct used to interpret and attributed to events, even though there is no evidence of sequence or ‘chain’ causality? Why is domino theory so attractive?
‘Domino theory’ provided a wonderfully simplistic metaphor and symbol to explain justification for US intervention in Vietnam. If anyone doubts the power of symbols and metaphors in life just watch Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War on Netflix. What a disaster that symbol fuelled as a country fell hook, line and sinker into war, seduced by the simplistic linear symbol of the domino. Everyone believed it, but it wasn’t true nor real. The trouble is, the mythology of the domino lead to 58,000 dead Americans and 1.3 million Vietnamese dead, all for nothing. Ah, the unconscious power of symbols/myths (Genosko, G., (2016) Critical Semiotics, Theory. From Information to Effect)
The idea that all these countries (see Figure One. The Domino Effect) would fall to communism didn’t happen. Simplistic binary models of attribution to human living are not real. The disaster of the domino theory and the Vietnam War is out in the open for all to study (https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/ande13480). Those who are wise, discerning and can think critically know that any theory that seems too good to be true, is. What a tough lesson to learn.
Figure One. The Domino Effect
It is no coincidence that the notion of domino theory in safety also appeared in the 1950s. Heinrich (yes same one), Petersen and Roos in Industrial Accident Prevention (1959) put forward the theory as a principle in accident causation (pp. 20ff). The trouble is, domino theory is just as unreal in safety as it is in history. Unfortunately, this theory is still taught in safety along with other simplistic behaviourist (triangles/pyramids) non-sense (https://safetyrisk.net/the-curse-of-behaviourism/) and attributed as real. Unfortunately too, this mythology/symbology once in a curriculum is nearly impossible to remove.
All symbols take on religious significance in themselves (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bae3/aee8c51b3ea2ede4bbc306c464e0833bd877.pdf) and are attributed as efficacious despite the fact that all the evidence proves to the contrary. So, if you were trained in linear causation in safety you will undertake incident investigations, finding the attributions you want to confirm. The trouble is they are not real.
Look up any safety curriculum anywhere and you will find this mythical linear/binary symbology used to justify the most absurd nonsense masked as safety thinking. Nearly every incident investigation package on the market is based upon the domino/swiss cheese delusion of linear causation. All these are wonderful examples of Fundamental Attribution Error (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error) and Confirmation Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias).
This is the challenge of Real Risk (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/real-risk/), attributing value to risk where there is none and falling for symbols in risk that create a false consciousness about risk (https://safetyrisk.net/false-consciousness-and-perception-in-risk-and-safety/).
If you want to invoke any change in safety in your organization, start with the symbols/myths and language that creates such delusions as the domino delusion. Getting rid of any of pyramids, zeros, matrices, dominoes or bow-ties will be hard enough, but if you can shift a symbol/myth and replace it with a better more humanizing symbol, the rest will follow. Symbols/myths are the litmus test of power.
The next SEEK Investigations Workshop is on 6,7 March in Canberra. You can register for SEEK here: https://cllr.com.au/product/seek-the-social-psyvhology-of-event-investigations-unit-2/