The Domino Delusion in Safety

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

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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/

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

21 Replies to “The Domino Delusion in Safety”

  1. What stands out for me is how the simple symbol of the domino had so much political and persuasive power. Everyone thought in the USA that it simply made sense and any criticism of it made you a Commie sympathiser. This is how symbology works politically and why the love of pyramids, swiss cheese and a host of other delusions in safety space have been infused with religious conviction. OMG, and to question and criticise safety and compliance is to want people killed. For the love of Zero!

  2. The lesson for me is that all domino falls are ‘constructed’ and ‘artificial’, they only work when laid out perfectly. If you actually play the game of dominoes its all about randomness, luck and unpredictability.

  3. The following link provides access to an interesting article from former Tory MP Matthew Parris, which appeared in a 2006 edition of The Spectator:

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/2010/06/when-several-things-go-wrong-at-once-we-rarely-consider-that-it-may-be-a-coincidence/

    David Hume was also pretty vocal about the topic and the alleged safety professionals merely dig a deeper and deeper hole.

    It would take a very bold engineer or psychologist who claims that our self-understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Montaigne or Shakespeare.

  4. The deeper in STEM it goes the more religious it becomes. In the end through mis-education the industry has no capability with which to reflect upon itself. In confirmation bias and compliance lust it deems all criticism as the enemy and demonsises dissent. Then there can be no learning.

  5. Rob, it is possible that Heinrich popularized the theory and then Eisenhower got it from him? Or, was at least aware of it as a result. It is perhaps pervasive because it is simple and as with other scientific notions is taken without reference to the context of the situation, much like many scientific laws are proven when the environment is excluded or at least discounted. As an aside the first domino in the sad and numbing tragedy that was Vietnam could have been that during WWII the Viet Mihn thought the Americans were revolutionary republicans and that Ho Chi Min referenced Thomas Jefferson when declaring independence from the French but for whatever reason the Americans failed to provide support and so the invidious international communists provided the necessary support.
    But back to dominoes in safety. As an analogy it provides a simplistic cause and effect model that allows those investigating the event to trace back culpability and assign blame to the lowest level of acceptable responsibility.

  6. Whenever there is conflict in the world you can rely on the US to show up six months late and bomb the crap out of neighbouring countries – P J O’Rourke

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