There is no way I would do that!
The impact of social arrangements on our decisions and judgments
I had the privilege last week of meeting a new group of people as they commenced their adventure into the world of better understanding people and how we make decisions and judgments about risk. I felt especially privileged to be able to present a short story to the group on my own ‘learning adventure’ in risk and safety. To be welcomed into a small community as it is forming is a treat. I look forward to staying in touch and continuing our relationship as the learning continues for us all.
As I reflect on my own learning over the past two years, I recognise the change in my thinking around risk, safety and people. I have ‘unlearned’ as much as I have learned, as I continue on the ‘adventure’. I’ve changed the way I think, the way I work, and most importantly the way that I relate to others.
If you’re thinking this sounds a little evangelical, as though I have been ‘converted’ from one way of thinking to another, as if I have adopted a new religion and become a ‘born again risk and safety consultant’, you’re probably right. By beginning this adventure, by being open to learning and unlearning, I have been converted, I do think differently, and I love it!
So, what was the ‘tipping point’ for me in this conversion? Why do I now see the world through the lens of social psychology, (that is, thinking about the impact of our social arrangements on our decisions and judgments)? What caused this change in thinking for me?
A clue to the answer lays in the title of this piece, “There is no way that I would do that!” One of the most challenging aspects from a learning perspective from my study has been to understand the incredible impact that our social arrangements can have on decisions and judgments taken by individuals.
Before I commenced on this course of study, I had not been exposed to social psychology experiments that explore the significant impact that our social environment has on what we do. So what are these studies and what can we learn from them?
One of the best known (except to me, before I began this course!) is Milgram’s Experiment conducted in 1961 by social psychologist Stanley Milgram. He was interested in understanding why the people from Nazi Germany, where able to carry out such atrocious acts during World War Two. Milgram was curious to understand how ‘good people’ could do bad things to others, so he designed his experiment to test this.
While you can watch the video clip yourself to get a better understanding of the detail of Milgram’s studies, the thing that struck me most when I first learned of Milgram’s work, was the answer is yes, seemingly ‘good people’, when put in the right social construct, can inflict harm onto others. But surely this is just one experiment and Milgram may have got it wrong?
Maybe you argue that this wasn’t in real life, it was an experiment and if that had been in real life, there is no way ‘good’ or ‘normal’ people (as opposed to monsters!) could have imposed harm onto others. This is why I found this learning challenging, it seemed counter intuitive. My instincts told me that ‘good people’ would fight the urge created by the social conditions, because good people don’t do bad things, they can only be done by people who are crazy, who are monsters, who are evil. Can’t they?
Well, I’ve also been introduced to other experiments and real life situations that prove that ‘good people’ can be as bad as those who are evil if the circumstances are right.
Two further examples include the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo and of course the real life case of Abu Grab. In these examples, people who initially appear ‘good’ are placed in social arrangements where their behaviour changes so badly that they reach the point where they are able to harm others.
As I was talking with some of the guys from Cohort three over dinner, I was reminded of a similar conversation I had two years prior with my study Cohort, in particular the discussion about how we felt we would respond if placed in the same situations. Almost unanimously, people said “there is no way I would do that!”. This is the point of these experiments, we don’t believe that we would do the same, there is no way that the act of dressing me in a prison warden’s uniform, kitting me out with sunglasses to hide my identity and issuing me with a baton would cause me to do ‘bad things’.
Similarly, there is no way that if I was faced with actors playing the role of ‘prisoners’ (remembering Zimbardo’s experiment involved actors who were not following a script, they were just following their instincts), who had been ‘dehumanised’ by swapping names with numbers, I would be able to treat them more like cattle than human beings. ‘Good people’ just don’t do those things, somehow they are stronger willed and can resist the power that plays on our unconscious through our social environment. Aren’t they?
Of course, there are many others who have done this before in real life. Take for example those in Nazi Germany who, if asked prior to World War 2 and the oppression created by Hitler, if asked whether they would do what they did would also have answered, “there is no way I would do that!”.
While there is a lot we can learn from these experiments, in particular about obedience, control and the influence of leaders, I thought in this piece I would focus on understanding the significance of the learning from these experiments, on the risk and safety industry. So how has the learning from Milgram and others played out in my career in risk and safety?
To start, for those people who don’t know me personally, most people who do know me would probably describe me as a ‘good person’. I’m a reasonably passive person, a ‘lover rather than fighter’ you might say. In fact, feedback I have been given throughout my career is that I am at times ‘too nice’ and could benefit from being firmer on occasions. So with this as background, could I too, as a ‘good person’ be influenced by my social environment?
In my presentation to the new Cohort of students, I shared with them my experiences working with one of the worlds largest FMCG companies (see slide 6 and 7). I told them about how, as part of the management team I developed the organisations ‘Zero Injuries’ strategy. As a management team we wanted to demonstrate that we were serious about safety and we wanted others to be serious too. In addition to our ‘Zero’ strategy, we developed ‘core beliefs’, trained people to do ‘observations on others’ and kept score and a tally of these observations and interactions. We even had a white board in the office area where our ‘safety villains’ (that’s the actual phrase we used) were listed so we could all be reminded of those who we thought ‘chose to work unsafely’. Milgram would have had a field day studying our organisation at the time!
So what has this behaviour in risk and safety got to do with Milgram’s experiment? We weren’t connecting people to an electric shock machine and punishing them if they got things wrong, but we may as well have been!
I look back now and realise that the social environment that we created as a management team drove us (‘good people’) to create a culture that was about control, obedience and process. We didn’t have much room in that culture for learning, understanding and empathy (although, as individuals we would often question what we, as a group were doing), we needed people to do as we expected. That was safety, that was looking after people, that was ‘Zero Injuries, Everyday, Everyone. Because we Care’
I also now recognise that wherever you try to put in place a regime of strict controls, of absolutes and perfectionism (i.e. ‘zero injury strategy’), in a world that is made up of people who are fallible, you are destined to fail.
So what does this mean for us that work in risk and safety? Do we just try harder to be ‘good people’? Do we build some sort of magical resistance where we can’t be influenced by the environment that we work and live in? Well, I’m not sure about a magical answer, but here are some tips that have served me well over the past few years:
- Take time out to learn more about how our social environment impacts on decisions and judgments. Many of the articles published on Safetyrisk.net are a great start. There are also some great books, and I’d be happy to share a reading list with anyone who is interested in learning more.
- If you’re interested in learning and development, at Dolphyn, we also have a range of learning programs that can support you and people in your organisation to better understand people and how we make decisions about risk.
- Attend our conference where you can hear from people who have studied social psychology and risk, and also have experience putting the learning into practice in the real world.
- Become part of a community where feedback, learning and trust are valued. While on it’s own this may not protect against the social influences on our unconscious mind, getting feedback from those who care about us and being asked questions, and participating in discussion with people whose agenda is about ‘others’ rather than ‘self’ will support you in being more aware of the impact of your environment.
- Seek out and value feedback from others. While easy to see feedback as criticism, if it comes from a place of ‘care’ and ‘love’ value it as a gift.
- Take time out to reflect. As I wrote about in my recent piece, when we take time out to reflect it can help us make sense of, and see the things that are going on around us.
I wonder if you have thought about how the social arrangements in your workplace affect how you go about things? When you reflect on what you do, what impact do you think your actions have on others?
Are you one of those ‘good people’ in risk and safety who may be affected by the social arrangements in which you live in?
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments as sharing our learning is a good way to embed it.
Author: Robert Sams
Phone: 0424 037 112