Why Safety Isn’t a Choice You Make

imageWe know from child development that everything that is learned by doing becomes committed to body memory. From as young as three months children commit actions to muscle memory and this makes actions fast and efficient. When an action becomes a ritual, repetitive, routine and habitual, consciousness in that action is withdrawn because it is no longer needed. Habits, routines and rituals are mostly unconscious actions that have been learned over time that no longer require direct reflective, rational thought.

The idea that the human brain drives behaviour like a computer driving decisions/directions, is simply not supported by the evidence. Much of what humans need to remember to do is not stored representationally in the brain but rather in the body. Remembering becomes enacted by in context not by memory recall from the brain but by social affordances and prompts. If every action required slow methodical rationality (see further One Brain Three Minds – https://vimeo.com/106770292 ) human life would indeed be snail slow.

All human moments offer their own unique ‘affordance’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affordance ). Once positioned in a familiar context, the body simply knows what to do without any brain ‘recall’ required. Thank god we don’t have to relearn how to sit in a chair every time we see a chair. When we pick up a toothbrush we know what to do, we don’t need to ‘think’ about it. Body/muscle memory relies on what is known as tacit or implicit knowledge, such knowledge is felt not recalled or triggered by brain representation.

Before my dear Mum died she was in a dementia ward for over 10 years, it was very sad. If you visited her, despite the photos on the wardrobe, she didn’t know who I was. Indeed, sometimes she would call out for this stranger to be removed from her room. Everything in the ward was done by routine-habit so that brain-type memory was not required.

There is a huge difference between knowing ‘how’ as opposed to knowing ‘that’.

Brain recall memory is extremely limited in humans, which is why we perform at our best and most efficient with body/muscle memory. It was always interesting to walk Mum down to the common room where there was a piano and the moment Mum was positioned at the keys she could play for hours without a mistake. No music in front of her face, her fingers just worked according to life-long muscle memory.

My two youngest grandchildren have quite limited language and comprehension at this stage of their lives. Most of what they learn is though mimetics, miming the behaviour of others (especially those they love) and making actions routine. Once these actions become habits, life becomes much easier. It will be only much later that any form of reasoning or language will accompany these actions. All of these heuristic actions are confirmed via repetition by what is called ‘social reproduction’. Humans become fast and efficient in what they do when consciousness retreats and things are done unconsciously, without ‘thinking’. 95% of what humans do is learned and enacted this way.

Here are a few important things to remember about how humans make decisions and enact what needs to be done in living:

1. Most of what humans do does not involve cognitive rational choice.

2. Once any action is committed to routine, habit or ritual cognitive, rational consciousness is withdrawn.

3. The idea that human decisions and actions are like computer memory recall is a fallacy and a STEM assumption attributed to human functioning.

4. The human mind is not synonymous with the human brain. Mental capability is embodied – it is not about the body just enacting the commands of a brain. Therefore mental health, is about the whole person as a social and embodied community. Any solutions to mental health therefore must be social and situational.

5. The idea that every human action is about rational choice and brain recall is nonsense.

I started playing guitar when I was 12. Back then everything needed to be a conscious effort, a grind. I have two guitars in my study that I pick up occasionally, nothing like 40 years ago when I virtually played the guitar 20 hours a week and performed in several bands. The moment I pick up the guitar and get into the ‘feel’ of it, I just play. I don’t look at my hands, I don’t need to ‘concentrate’ on fingering or recall shapes and patterns. The music and guitar becomes my affordance and my fingers simply know what to do, much like my Mum played the piano. This is how all human activity is undertaken. When I started playing the guitar the knowledge was in my brain, later my knowledge became implicit and moved to my fingers.

Most of what keeps humans safe is learned by routine, repetition and habit in a social context. As long as the social context is the same, humans can keep perfectly safe without any need for rational thought. We can perform complex tasks through body memory. Humans can perform complex tasks as if in a daze or daydream simply because something that has been learned consciously now can be done unconsciously. This is how we do everything from driving a car to dancing with others at a festival. This has huge implications for the idea that safety is a conscious choice. How can someone be making a conscious choice when they are enacting through routine, habit, ritual or learned rhythm?

Our bodies enact what we do according to rhythms and resonances learned over time. If we have to learn something new we retreat back to slow methodical (Mind One) brain-focused thinking and in time consciousness retreats so that we can become fast and efficient by habit and routine (in Minds Two and Three).

So, this idea that safety is a choice you make, only make sense if one accepts the STEM worldview that the brain is a computer that directs the body what to do. Of course none of this matches how people learn and undertake work. So this idea that safety is some cognitive rational choice can only be true if the task is new or the action has not yet been committed to body memory. If the task is repetitive and habitual, then any idea that safety is a choice is nonsense.

What are the implications of this for safety?

  1. This means that Safety should spend much more time thinking about learned habits, rituals, routines and the social context that ‘affords’ the way decisions are made.
  2. Humans are more at risk when social context changes and routines change than when social context is stable and humans are on full auto-pilot.

  3. This does not mean that humans are absolved from guilt or blame when they make a mistake or mismatch a routine with a changing social context. The idea that judgment and responsibility can only come with rational choice is a construct of the STEM worldview.

  4. The goal of safety ought not to focus on paperwork removed from context but rather on how safety is lived and enacted through routine, habit and ritual.

  5. If safety could step outside of STEM for just a few seconds it might learn something about how human decisions are made and influenced by social context.

  6. This changes the whole way we should approach safety, which is what the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) does. SPoR totally reframes the focus of work and provides tools to help understand, detect and influence decision making in-situ. There are many International and National organisations who have been enacting an SPoR worldview at work and they could easily testify to how paperwork diminishes by 50% and how safety improves.

  7. Of course it goes with out saying that the dumb down slogan of ‘safety is a choice you make’ should disappear into oblivion, along with the punitive culture that it promotes.

One Brain Three Minds from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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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.

2 Replies to “Why Safety Isn’t a Choice You Make”

  1. This is a great article that hits the essential question of free agency. We want to quell that primordial fear of death and injury with control, but full control is an illusion. Occupational health and safety practitioners tell us to try harder, be more careful, as if this can help us progress. To get beyond the improvements in safety that advancements in working conditions has achieved we need a more holistic approach to people.

    1. Unfortunately, until Safety drops the delusions of STEM-only thinking, materialism and the myths of empiricism, it will remain in denial about the body-mind problem, choice-determinism problem and the physics-metaphysics problem. The implications are extensive and extend to how Safety understands mental health, resilience, holistic ergonomics and wellbeing. Until it can step outside of its limited discipline to a transdisciplinary approach it will never listen to the voices it condems and doesn’t want to hear. Zero indeed!

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