July 13, 2018

Is Your Brain Affecting your Safety Decisions?

How Does Your Brain Make Decisions?
Do you think your brain is clever? Most of us think that the brain is smart but in making some decisions it can actually be shown to act without thinking! Optical illusions and simple card tricks demonstrate how easily the brain is fooled. Take for example the optical illusion of two lines the same length, one with the arrows pointing inwards and one with the arrows pointing out.
Your mind finds it hard to accept that these two lines could possibly be the same length. (I even got the ruler out to measure them and seeing the results I still believed that the measurements weren’t right!) So if the brain can get a simple problem wrong, how many other things is the brain getting wrong?
Allen Cheng, in summarising “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement” by Charlie Munger, writes that the mind relies on brain shortcuts called heuristics to make decisions quickly. This works well for us in the way that when the traffic light turns red, we don’t have to wonder each time, “Now, what do we do when the light turns red again?” We have already internalised what the traffic lights represent (and what the blue lights on the police car chasing us down also mean!) and we can react quickly.
These thinking shortcuts worked well for us in prehistoric times when we had to avoid being eaten by lions, Allen Cheng explains, but in a more complex world these cognitive biases can trick us into making really poor decisions.
So, how does the mind help us (or hinder us) in the workplace if we have to think quickly to get ourselves out of trouble or to keep ourselves and others safe?
In the upcoming articles we will examine several of the more common “brain biases”, but first we’ll start with the two common cognitive biases that you should be aware of when you are making decisions in the workplace around risk and safety; incentive-caused bias, and the halo effect.
Incentive-caused Bias
People will repeat behaviours that earn them rewards and resist behaviours that cause pain or bring punishment. For example, the lesson learned from touching a hot stove or heater is learned much faster through the accidental touching of the hotplate causing pain (punishment) than the gentle reminders of a parent.
Conversely, workers will perform work in an unsafe manner if it gains the praise of a supervisor who supports the mantra “production first – safety second”. A crew quickly learns that they need to work fast to please their supervisor, (which ensures that they keep being employed, with employment bringing a monetary reward). Crew members will risk their own safety if working safely means that they will disrupt production, lose favour with the boss and put profits at risk.
Time is money, after all, so taking time to put on harnesses when working in housing construction on top of a roof to install an air conditioner will slow the work down. Unscrupulous leaders who put profits before people will insist that their workers take shortcuts to get the work done on time.
Don’t be afraid to call out this behaviour – or, if there is too much pressure to conform, find another workplace that you can be sure operates from the “Safety First” principle. There is too much at stake to simply become another workplace statistic.
Halo Effect (or Association Fallacy) and Reverse Halo Effect
Admiration for someone can lead us to do or believe things that we normally wouldn’t. This admiration or idol worship can build extreme feedback loops, as liking further intensifies the admiration for those qualities and ignores faults. Inconsistency-avoidance tendency (the tendency to always be consistent in our thinking) keeps this further entrenched.
A reason why actors, music and sports stars are so often sponsored to endorse products in the media is that those in marketing know that the public will accept what their idol promotes without assessing the information first. This leads to false beliefs. Can certain products really cure acne, for example? Or make you feel more energetic? Or do you only believe these products work because someone you look up to, someone who in your eyes could only tell you the truth, is telling you that they work?
In the workplace, we can also have feelings of admiration for colleagues and leaders. If those leaders abuse their privilege of authority and encourage us to do things that we know are unsafe or dangerous, could we resist?
Yet, on the other hand, if it were someone that we didn’t like or respect who was asking us to work in an unsafe or risky manner we would have no hesitation in telling them where to get off. This is known as the Reverse Halo Effect.
5 Ways on How you can Avoid Succumbing to Cognitive Biases
  1. Double-check and be cautious – disbelieve what you have been told is “gospel”
  2. Reward behaviours that you want your employees or workmates to display and don’t reward behaviours you don’t want
  3. As a safety leader in your workplace, use task-based audits as an objective assessment to observe whether any bias or any learned (unsafe) behaviour that may have become hard-wired is evident
  4. Report poor supervisor behaviour to your union representatives or to your Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs)
  5. If you feel that you will get support, escalate issues of poor safety leadership to your manager’s manager
Being aware of cognitive biases is not a perfect defence but by being able to recognise them you can at least take a step back, gather more information and practise more objective decision making. Making better decisions will ultimately improve your life and possibly even save your life – or someone else’s.

Gaynor Renz, WHSE Compliance and Risk Expert, WorkPac/BHP
Gaynor has a strong background in WHS, Risk and Compliance, with many years in mining, construction, fabrication and utilities (electricity) and prior to that, a solid background in compliance and leadership positions in the education and training sector. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Education, Diploma in Work Health and Safety, Cert IV in WHS and Training and Assessment and a Graduate Diploma in Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) completed with Dr Rob Long in Canberra. She continues to study SPoR in Master Classes held by the Centre for Leadership and Learning and Risk (CLLR). Currently she is working in multi-million dollar mining projects as a WHS and Risk Consultant.

You can follow Gaynor on LinkedIn here >

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