I would put a picture here, but it would just distract you!

This may be a slightly off topic subject for Operational Excellence, but hopefully you will see that although this article is written from a Safety Professional’s point of view, that there are many areas within operations that this subject could influence and be applied as well.

As you are no doubt aware, traditional safety has been about rules, discipline and pyramids of power (the higher up the ladder, the more you know) and pyramids of data (Heinrich’s Pyramid). The new, (well it’s not really new – safety has always been about behavior) Behavior Based Safety (BBS) is about pretty much the same, with added personal responsibility, risk, expectations and a two way flow of communication.

Is SAFETY 3.0 going to be Social Psychological Safety, taking Behavior Based Safety to next level?

No, for a couple of reasons! Firstly, some may consider that Behavior Based Safety has its roots in Taylorism, which is control based. Social psychology is about understanding people and our fallibility, and how the social environment and construct has heavy influences on what we do, particularly the decision and judgments we make as well as our unconscious. I am not suggesting that Social Psychology will ever replace any part of existing safety practices, only potentially enhance them. In this litigious world, the paperwork trail is only going to continue to increase. What I am suggesting is that maybe Social Psychology will become another facet of safety, much the same as BBS is to Process Safety.

We know that psychology has been used in advertising for a long while but the use of psychological principles and theories are also commonly used to overcome problems in real life situations. Here are just a few of the areas that have been influenced by the application of psychological principles and findings: mental health, organizational psychology, business management, education, industrial and organizational psychology, legal psychology, neuropsychology, occupational health psychology, human factors, forensic psychology, engineering psychology, school psychology, sports psychology, traffic psychology, community psychology, product design, ergonomics, and law. The one that I find particularly interesting in the context of safety is Social Psychology.

Social Psychology; “Branch of psychology concerned with the personality, attitudes, motivations, and behavior of the individual or group in the context of social interaction. The field emerged in the U.S. in the 1920s. Topics include the attribution of social status based on perceptual cues, the influence of social factors (such as peers) on a person’s attitudes and beliefs, the functioning of small groups and large organizations, and the dynamics of face-to-face interactions.” (Source http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary).

You only have to conduct a brief study of some of the forming principles of Social Psychology. For example, study Conformity (Asch, Bystander effect); Obedience (Milgram’s experiment); Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger); Power & Authority (Stanford prison experiment); Heuristics (Scott Plous and Kehneman, availability, representativeness, anchoring) and Priming (Bargh) to see how these could be influencing or undermining safety in your workplace. Note: YouTube is a good and easy source of information on the above principles. I mention this only because you may need to spend a little of your own time viewing some of the above before you start to understand the importance of the unconscious in decision making.

Personally, I was amazed by some of these early social psychology experiments carried out in the 1950’s and 60’s. These type of experiments would never be allowed to be conducted in today’s world, and rightly so! That said, Derren Brown still conducts some pretty amazing demonstrations on the power of the mind (both conscious and unconsciously). I expect many of you reading this may have heard of, or remember some of the above principles from a semester of Psychology at college, but then it was buried by a lot more information you were supposed to learn.

In an ever increasingly diverse and complex workplace (and home life, because we are talking about risk, and the line is often blurred). Social psychology can provide some answers to increase our understanding of how people make decisions and judgments. With an increasing number of Generation Y (“Millennials”) joining the existing Generation X and Baby Boomers within the workplace; all these groups have their own set of attitudes and work habits that need to be incorporated within the company culture. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an underlying common denominator shared by all these groups? Well, there is.

In a recent paper by Hayden Collins, submitted as part of his study for the Graduate Certificate in the Psychology of Risk.

Hayden states that, “Experiments show that consciousness’ capacity is smaller than that of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness processes 11 million bits of information per second. In contrast, consciousness processes 40 bits per second. Consciousness is limited to the amount of information it can process, meaning actions are determined by information of which we have not been consciously aware. The decision is made before we can consciously rationalise it. Without unconscious processing, swift decision making would be difficult. If consciousness initiated action, it would take approximately 4 years to process information that unconsciousness could process in 10 minutes.

The full article can be read here.

If this is showing that our unconscious mind is making automatic decisions governing us in the workplace without our knowledge then it is entirely possible that after an incident or negative event, when you ask “What were they thinking?”, that they most likely weren’t thinking at all. Well, not consciously thinking that is!

These unconscious thoughts do not only govern our actions, but they can influence our thoughts without you even knowing it. The decisions we make can also be influenced by a multitude of factors, motivation, group opinions, what we see or hear, etc.

A good example of the unconscious power of the mind was given by Ash Donaldson during a TedX talk. An airplane pilot starts training to fly using only instruments rather than visually flying as in the novice stage. When this lesson is taught the majority of pilots end up, within a very short period of time, spiraling to their deaths. Well they would, if it was not for their instructors. This is not because they are inexperienced at flying. It is because their intuition (brain) convinces them that the instruments can not be correct, and it provides reasons why these instruments have failed. The pilots quickly abandon what they know to be true and end up ignoring their ‘working” instruments and resort back to flying by intuition. And they do this time after time, even after they understand what is happening in their minds. It is that powerful. Start to consider what is happening within the brain in this potentially life threatening example, and how our conscious thoughts are totally overpowered by our unconscious thoughts. If a well trained, intelligent, well functioning pilot can be repeatedly overcome by this disagreement of what they know and what their unconscious is telling them, then a similar scenario could be present in your workplace, processes and employees.

Another example of how the brain automatically provides answers to something we know is not good for us, is smoking. We know it is bad for us. We know the cost, the associated health problems and even cancer, but smokers generally find a plausible excuse to rationalize their behavior with their knowledge. For example; it helps me keep my weight down, obesity is a far bigger health problem.

Now, if I was to suggest that maybe the way you think about processes and maybe the way you design, was flawed or interfered with by an unconscious thought, I am sure you would refute this statement. Is this the same reasoning that we have just considered with the airplane pilot? In the same way that people justify smoking, can they also justify ignoring a safety rule or taking a short cut?

How about training? Maybe we should adopt the same manor that is used for training Instrument flying. It has to be reinforced in the pilot before they overcome their natural instincts. Maybe we need to train our employees in the same manor. Design the training and reinforce it until it overrides there natural intuition or pre-existing nature, and becomes a subconscious action. This might prove useful if you are dedicated to achieving a zero injury culture. This is why the subject of Social Psychology becomes interesting and potentially rewarding, both personally and professionally.

It is too early in my knowledge of the subject to make any determinations, as social psychology challenges many of the traditional safety rules and thinking at their sources. For that reason it will be hard for the majority of safety professionals to accept social psychology principles, even if they are believers in Behavior Based Safety. By being a little more open to things we don’t know and educating ourselves, we may be able to alter our existing safety policies, practices, training, etc. to be stronger, more flexible and more targeted. Given my brief exposure to the social psychology, I wonder whether a deeper understanding of Human Biology and Anthropology may also give us insights into how and why humans do things.

I doubt that using social psychology in post incident investigations will prove to give any useful insights though. This assumption is based on some research that shows how and why “eye witness” reports can and have been so unreliable. It’s due to the way the brain collects and stores information and can be fairly easily corrupted. You might find that you can learn more post incident details, because social psychology is focused on developing and enhancing relationships between people, along with trust and understanding which will improve your company culture.

One of my personal interests in this subject is to add some further insight and explanation into the Behavior Based Safety term “unsafe act”. This is an unexplained catch all that covers a multitude of potential causes that are yet to be understood. Is carrying out an incident investigation, and concluding just one thing was the root cause a little too easy and neat? Does this highlight a human desire to derive simple answers and solutions? I believe it does. Very little in the modern world is simple, and to attribute an incident to one easily identifiable cause or act is doing us, employees and Safety Professionals, an injustice.

Social Psychology certainly has some interesting thoughts on how and why our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect our decisions and judgments and therefore the behaviors of others as much as how our social situation influences our lives and thoughts. It also requires us to learn and understand that people are complex and, we are not problems to be solved.

The purpose of this article is not to suggest that we have been doing it wrong all these years, but to ask, in the realms of Continuous Improvement, if this is a subject worth further exploration and learning. It is certainly a subject that I personally intend to study a little more deeply, if it has any potential to keep employees from harm.

By Alan Langstone 

AlanLangstoneAlan Langstone has been involved in safety since the mid 1990’s in the Construction and Rail industries in the United Kingdom and subsequently in Steel & Manufacturing industries in the United States were he now resides. His 20 years of experience working on or around the frontline has given him an understanding of the pressures employees feel and what it takes to work safely. He is a strong believer in challenging and understanding the mundane, the average and the traditional, not just accepting it.


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