There is no way I would do that! – Part Two

There is no way I would do that! – Part Two

People are just idiots (that makes things easier for me to deal with……)

set self on fireIn my last piece I wrote about the impact that our social arrangements can have on how we make decisions and judgments, even in ways that we may not be consciously aware of. I titled the piece ‘there is no way that I would do that’, and outlined the social psychological experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961, where he set about understanding how seemingly good people could cause harm to others if the social circumstances were right.

Last week, I was caused to think of this topic again when news broke of a Sydney teenager who set himself on fire to impress his mates. There is no way that ‘normal’ people would do that, right? People who behave like this are just fools and don’t have any care for others, right?

When we take a simplistic approach to understanding human motivation, thinking it is as simple as right and wrong, or as safe or unsafe, we fail to recognise that people are complex, and can fall into the trap of thinking that we can control people to do things that we deem are ‘right’.

I spoke with a few of people about the ‘fire incident’ and the initial response of most was that the guy was either an ‘idiot’, ‘dickhead’, ‘loser’, ‘selfish’, ‘tosser’ or ‘weirdo’.

This response is understandable……….., only if you are not interested in understanding human motivation, only if you are not interested in really understanding why we do what we do, and only if you think about risk in a binary way where there can only be right and wrong, or a safe or unsafe way of doing things. I do understand how we can be quick to jump to this conclusion, and of course, I’ve done the same thing myself. It’s what happens when we want quick answers to complex problems that don’t immediately make sense to us. But does thinking like this really help us to understand risk?

The risk and safety industry is full of examples where we attempt to simplify and reduce things to ‘safe and unsafe’. We have ‘Golden Rules’, ‘Sensible Standards’, and ‘Minimum Guidelines’. All these usually assume that people are working ‘rationally’ most of the time, and that all of our decisions are made only in our conscious mind. Of course, through our study of social psychology and human decision-making, we know that most of our decisions are not made in our rational, analytical and systematic ‘mind one’, they are made in our non-conscious mind and based on things like ‘heuristics’ and ‘automaticity’.

If we are seduced into thinking that all of our decisions are rational and logical, we are going to find it very tough to understand just why it is we do what we do. So how can this play out in real life?

Take another example of people doing something that on first glance looks ‘crazy’, the phenomena that is Ghost ride da whip. This is where young kids take great risk to operate their vehicles from outside of the drivers seat. In this video, it shows some examples where things didn’t quite go to plan. On first review, I’m guessing most people will have the same view as those who see the video of the young fella who set himself alight, I mean ‘there is no way I would do that!’, right?

There will also be people who think these kids are selfish and ask questions such as “why don’t they think of others, of their family, or the emergency services, of people who love them?”. Again, I can understand how we can move to this type of thinking, it’s easy when we want to assign a simple answer to a complex matter. But what if we were really interested in what is going on for these people, what approach could we take?

Well if we made all of our decisions in a rational, logical, systematic way with the benefit of hindsight and of all the time in the world to consider the consequences of our decisions, then sure, setting yourself alight or riding on the outside of your car may not make sense (in retrospect of course!). But things are not this easy. To the dismay of many in risk and safety, we are not always motivated by being ‘safe’, or by not suffering injury or by not making mistakes. So what do we need to do to better understand motivation?

As Deci notes in relation to motivating people “the proper question is not, ‘how can people motivate others? But rather, how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?” (Deci. 1995, p. 10).

I wonder if the case of the guy setting himself alight and of those ‘silly young teenagers’ in ‘Ghost Ride Da Whip’, can be a good reminder to those of us who work in risk and safety that our focus should be on critically thinking about the conditions that we create in the workplace, rather than focusing on simplistic approaches to dealing with risk. Should we be more interested in ‘seeking’ to understand’ rather than ‘finding solutions’?

It’s damn hard work this whole concept of understanding human motivation, this is especially the case when it comes to risk. It’s the easy option to consider people as ‘dumb’ and a lack of critical thinking can lead us to believe that ‘people just need to think more about their own safety’ and all will be good. Unfortunately, it is more of the hard thinking that we need to do in risk and safety. When we take a simplistic view of how we make decisions and judgments, are we setting ourselves up for thinking that safety is easy, which leads us to believe that there is a ‘silver bullet’?


Perhaps we need to stop thinking in a way that Higgins, in his book titled Beyond Pleasure and Pain, describes as a hedonic approach to understanding human motivation. Higgins (2014, p. 14) describes that, “people want to be effective at having desired outcomes (value), but they want to be effective at establishing what’s real (truth) and at managing what happens (control).

Higgins’ understanding of human motivation being about ‘value’, ‘truth’ and ‘control’ requires significantly more critical thinking than the simple approach of ‘pleasure and pain’. If we continue down the path of thinking we just need to get people to ‘think safer’, of ‘marketing dumb down safety’ messages by ‘telling’ people simple and basic messages’ and of ‘we just need to ‘choose safety’, all will be good, right?

We need to get serious as an industry. We need more critical thinking, considering trade-offs and by-products instead of ‘making safety sexy’. When we dumb down safety thinking, it can’t be a surprise that people will operate more and more on automatic. We will believe that safety is as simple as ‘pleasure and pain’.

If you think the kid who set himself alight in the aim of impressing his mates is a ‘dickhead’, a ‘tosser’ or ‘dumb’, I wonder if you do a lot of critical thinking yourself, or are just quick to jump to conclusion and popular opinion?

I look forward to more and more critical thinking, of more understanding and of appreciating what it means to be human. When we reach this level of analysis and understanding, we will reach maturity as an industry. Bring it on I say.

Are you willing to take the time out to consider why we do what we do? Or……. Will you stick with the simplistic solutions that flood our industry?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments as sharing our learning is a good way to embed it.

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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