Behavioural safety – The nerve of it03 October 2012
Dr Tim Marsh takes a practitioner’s-eye view of how physiology and neuroscience hugely influence safety culture through our perception of risk and drivers we are not actually aware of.
Some years ago, my family raised money for charity by holding a casino night in the local Irish Club. On the night in question, however, circumstances conspired to cause me to undertake all sorts of risky behaviour but which also served to demonstrate the neuroscience behind why workforce involvement is utterly essential if any degree of interdependence is to be achieved. (‘Interdependence’ is the upper level of the hugely influential ‘Bradley Curve’1 that I like to summarise as ‘my brother’s keeper’ behaviour.)
For what it’s worth, a ‘charity casino night’ involves a hall full of people playing roulette, blackjack, and the like for Monopoly money, which can be exchanged at the end of the night for real (donated) prizes. Everyone dresses up in tuxedos and posh frocks, and has a great time.
Several kind people came to me as I manned the bank on the night and said “this is brilliant fun and, feeling sorry for you stuck here, I’ve got you this pint…” – typically as they came back to the table to put hard cash down to buy more ‘funny money’ and plunge back in, having sworn earlier they definitely wouldn’t do that…
After a few hours of this I found myself staggering across several busy roads back home, tuxedo pockets stuffed full of notes, and looking like a posh Michelin man. I survived the cars and the fact that this was south Manchester, as I must have looked like the most obvious mugging victim of all time. When I woke the next day it took me two hours to remember where I’d hidden the cash (I’d had the bright idea to put it in a bin bag and then hide it in the bottom of the real bin!)
During the real-cash auction for the very best prizes at the end of the evening people were bidding many times what they’d promised themselves they’d donate – and were happy to do so. Even the next day the feedback was: “I winced when I woke up but it was all in a great cause, after all. When’s the next one?” Even when the alcohol had worn off (for those who drank) the ‘buzz’ remained.
We’ve all had nights like this, when you’d have thought the drinks were spiked with a drug that had made everyone happy, cooperative, generous and empathic – and, in a way, that’s what happened. However, it was not just the alcohol (a big help, of course) nor ecstasy in the punch that caused the behaviours – it was, to a great extent, naturally occurring oxytocin in the brain.
Basically, scientists have found that when something nice happens to us, we produce this chemical.2 It makes us less likely to hold back, less likely to cheat, less likely to take short cuts, and more likely to engage in ‘organisational citizenship’ behaviour (volunteering, intervening, praising, helping, etc). This is nature creating a virtuous circle, where everyone just seems at their very best. (“It’s still you, but on a really good day” as the advert has it). All of which is clearly hugely useful in building a strong culture and/or minimising a blame and claim culture.
The benefits of workforce involvement have been emphasised by many for some time now, and McClelland’s Theory X and Theory Y3 has long been known as the self-fulfilling prophecy where, if you treat people like adults they’ll most likely act like adults.
We all have experience of this being true, and oxytocin is the chemical mechanism by which it works. Indeed, in his book The Moral Molecule,4 Paul Zak suggests that the most important element in whether entire societies do well or not is not natural resources, education, health care, or even the work ethic of its people; it’s actually the level of trustworthiness that correlates best with success – so, maximising workforce involvement it is, then!
It’s good to talk
We are all of us instinctively wary of ‘others’. Even Guardian-reader members of the Anti-Nazi League will show an unconscious negative physical response when presented with people of colour if they are not used to actually mixing with them. (They do – electrodes measuring galvanic skin response and negative areas of the brain firing are irrefutable.) They simply can’t help it, because it is hotwired from millennia ago, when any ‘other’ we bumped into when out gathering berries may well have proved highly dangerous.
The only way to reduce this instinctive response is through repeated exposure – getting out and spending time with different people. Zak4 says clearly that “exposure to those outside our geographic tribe is vital if we are to have an oxytocin-driven and more prosperous society”.
Clearly, this is hugely important when we consider wider cultural integration and harmony issues but, leaving that to the politicians and community leaders, it is also of vital importance when discussing organisational cultural improvement. The research shows that the greater the number of “walk and talk” conversations undertaken pro-actively, the fewer the injuries; and, the greater the breadth of individuals involved, the fewer the injuries.
But at a molecular level, another benefit of these interactions is that (as long as they are done well and the person talked to feels valued, not patronised) the corporate level of oxytocin increases and our instinctive ‘fear’ of others decreases. (Anyone at the back saying that their organisation isn’t tribal can please sit down – it absolutely is!)
Obviously, these conversations need to be done properly. Just going through the motions won’t achieve much except alienate the workforce (though they are unlikely to call it that in the canteen!) and this links to the effective use of praise and reward.
It’s often stated that praise is ten times as effective as criticism in changing behaviour. Again, there’s a physiological explanation for this, which is that the parts of our brain that deal with praise are about 20 times as responsive as the parts that deal with criticism. We’re hotwired for optimism – for example, studies show the only people walking around with a realistic self-image are the severely depressed!
This helps explain why we need to train ourselves to actively seek out the bad news that is inevitably out there (the ‘mindful’ safety culture5).
It is said that recognition is more powerful than actual reward and, in a hugely scientific study (!) I watched Undercover Boss on TV last year. Every undercover boss learned significant amounts (as ever), and all the workers beamed smiles when called in to be told “you’re being promoted”. However, when told “because you’re brilliant, you are – I’m so lucky you work for me”, a full 50 per cent burst into tears.
In 20 years of consultancy work I have yet to undertake a culture survey where the workforce didn’t state that there was considerable scope to improve the use of praise and, as above, to enhance workforce involvement (again, they didn’t use those exact words).
(Let’s not) all change
People’s notorious resistance to change, which impacts on so many safety processes, also has a neurobiological explanation. Basically, learning and doing new things requires the use of new (or weak) neural pathways. This is more uncomfortable and tiring than acting by habit so, instinctively, it is to be avoided.
However, with repetition, these neural pathways become stronger and using them less tiring and stressful. This is why we have to follow up training courses and ensure the behaviours requested are repeated until they become habits. So, the answer to the question “why do we behave by habit even if that’s potentially harmful” is because, at a neurological level, it’s just easier.
Are you still with me?
Have you ever wondered why nearly all lectures are 50 or 55 minutes long – the same length as a typical TV programme? It’s because science shows we can concentrate effectively for around 55 minutes an hour when fit and rested and stress-free – but no more; our neural pathways get tired.
Basically, although our brains are the most complex things on the planet they need lots of recharging! This means it’s inevitable that for five minutes an hour, minimum, you’ll be in what is known as “presenteeism” – or, as we all know it: “away with the fairies” – here in body but not in spirit. If you are stressed, tired, or hungover from the night before, then it’s much worse.
This is vital when we find a residue of accidents apparently caused by “lack of attention” (slips, trips, and other ‘easily avoidable if only they’d been on the ball’ incidents). Faced with this, it’s very easy to slip into blame and conclude that ‘paying more attention’ is all that’s required, so we need a nice blend of colourful posters, inspiring toolbox talks and pinning people against the wall by the throat.
Unfortunately, if you have a workforce of 5000 nationwide, that means it is inevitable that they will spend around 16,000 hours a week ‘away with the fairies’. That’s a lot of unavoidable zombie risk!
Now, one tactic is to mechanise but a better tactic re: job retention is to ensure we spot issues like housekeeping problems in the 55 minutes of alertness and tidy them up. That way, when we come back around the corner 30 minutes later in zombie mode, there’s nothing to trip over. Hardly any planes crash because the pilot falls asleep during the adrenalin-charged take off or landing; they fall asleep on an A road on The Wirral 50 minutes after they set off home from Manchester airport.
One person’s poison. . .
Though this short section has one foot in the field of personality theory it has long been agreed that, outside of illness and trauma, the typical person’s personality is a broad balance of social experience and learning, as well as genetic inheritance.
We know that some people are naturally physically extrovert and tolerant of physical risk, so are much more likely to be up for rugby, driving fast, taking experimental drugs, and bungee-jumping. Obviously, this in-born “risk tolerance” can dramatically influence day-to-day behaviour, and the neurobiological basis is that these people tend to have slow-firing synapses and basically need more ‘oomph’ to get a satisfying feeling.
A more interesting element of the research, from this article’s perspective, is that ‘liberal’ types are more tolerant of innovation and change, whereas naturally ‘conservative’ types are instinctively anxious about innovation and change. They like order, consistency, and certainty; in other words, they see far more risk in the world around them than liberal people do.
The practical implication, of course, is that we need a mix of both in any organisation or team tasked with strategy – otherwise, its decisions will be apt to skew one way or another.
Incidentally, research suggests that naturally ‘conservative’ types might actually be less dogmatic in their thinking than naturally ‘liberal’ types. This counter-intuitive finding is rather alarming for those of us who consider ourselves liberal and, therefore, by definition, the very model of open-minded and tolerant. Basically, conservatives are apt to say things like: “I can see why you want to have a go, it does look quite exciting but it’s not really for me” whereas a liberal is apt to say things like “oh, for God’s sake…what is your problem…I just don’t get where you’re coming from at all”.
‘Gut feel’ gets it right
Obviously, you should never, ever use gut feel to determine your actions – except, that is, when you really should.
Have you ever walked into a pub with a sign over the door saying “a warm Irish welcome guaranteed here” and left straight away, even though no one as much as looked at you, because the ‘feel’ of the place is all wrong – instantly, instinctively and accurately? Then, next door, in a far rougher pub with bigger, tougher men in it, you felt instantly safe and at ease. (According to Malcolm Gladwell,6 this is our instincts working at a sub-conscious level, and anyone who feels uncomfortable somewhere like this is a bloody idiot if they don’t try to work out why from near the door!)
This is partly explained by the fact that the gut has its own ‘brain’, which connects it to the brain in the head via the vagus nerve. This nerve – referred to by Gladwell as “a hotline between two superpowers” – controls many of our ‘fight or flight’ responses, such as blood flow to eyes and muscles. I always struggled with my physiology exams, so perhaps it’s best to give a couple of practical examples of how this “instinctive brain” works.
In the “Iowa gambling task” experiment it was shown that subjects switch to the statistically most productive of two gambling options (small gambles, low odds) and away from more obvious and sexy options (bigger odds, bigger amounts) before they are conscious why. Basically, the electrodes confirm there’s nothing going on in the brain (well, there seldom is in mine at the best of times!) but the research shows spikes of electrical activity coming from the body!
A second example is perhaps the most useful unconscious risk-assessment ability of them all for men. Studies show that men can tell another man’s strength simply from the tone of their voice. Well yes, of course, you may think – but it’s not related to how deep the voice is; it’s just something about the tone itself. (Mike Tyson infamously squeaks, for example).
But though we can do it, the scientists can’t say exactly how we do it. It’s pretty useful, though, when you spill someone’s pint.
‘Gut feel’ gets it wrong
So, gut feel it is, then – except, of course, it really shouldn’t always be. Putting individual differences of personality aside we are all of us moderated by naturally occurring chemicals, such as testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone – found in women as well as men – is hugely useful in many respects, as it drives us forward to take risks, and we simply wouldn’t have ever evolved from the caves without it. However, every testosterone-fuelled success is followed by a rewarding and incremental boost in testosterone levels – for example, there will be a mini baby boom after any national sporting success.
Consequently, we are a little more bullish next time out but this can build to a level of overconfidence and even recklessness. In the wild, this leads to more time spent in open country – so, more fights and – whoops – higher mortality. It has often been suggested that the senior managers at places such as Enron and BP could have done with reading the books that advocate that, ideally, we’ll just aim for second or third best!
We know that adrenalin’s effects are short-term and ideal for a quick battle but it is cortisol that takes over if the ‘risk’ that triggered the adrenalin lingers for a while – for example, a lengthy chase, or prolonged job insecurity. On the plus side, cortisol increases arousal and sharpens attention, but if it stays in the blood too long it can cause perception problems and a sense that danger lurks where there is none (we’ve all seen the films).
What follows is inaction, over-caution and stressed individuals who are pathologically risk-averse (or over-compensate in their panic and are blindly reckless).
Overall, this science explains why we need objective analysis techniques, thorough risk assessments, clear data and balanced teams making strategic decisions.
As human-factors specialists, we are often asked: “Why do people make mistakes?” Often, we’ll talk about poor ergonomic design, lack of data, biases, physical misperceptions, prejudices, and the like. I’ve often written in these pages about ABC analysis, the soon, certain and positive consequences of temptation, about the social psychology of peer pressure. I’ve also written about organisational culture and how we communicate what we really want rather than what we say we want through subtle cues of body language, voice tone and symbolic acts.
Underneath all this social science, however, we are a swirling soup of hormones, chemicals, tired, weak and tiring synapses causing a variety of entirely unconscious perceptions. We assume that when we’re alert the mind is logical and rational – separate from the body – but it’s not.
So, in answer to the question: “Why did they do that?” it may be that they were under the influence of nature’s valium, nature’s cocaine, nature’s ecstacy, or nature’s dope. Or, perhaps our head brain was overriding our gut brain when it shouldn’t have – or vice-versa. Or both alternately!
But we can use our understanding of this science to our advantage. We can learn to listen to gut feel but always follow that up with some objective analysis. We can realise that embedding change is always going to be difficult and lack of concentration utterly inevitable – so design and plan for both. We can ensure that all important decisions are taken by teams balanced for youthful drive and hard-won experience.
Finally, we should always make time to get out and about and talk to people, involving them and praising them so as to maximise the amount of the one entirely helpful natural chemical – oxytocin! Safety culture reinvented as a rave perhaps? Now, where are my old Pulp CDs?!
1 Marsh, Dr T and Bizzell, P (2009): ‘Bend it, shape it’, in SHP June 2009, Vol.27 No.6 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/bend-it-shape-it
2 Haidt, Prof J (2012): The Righteous Mind, Allen Lane
3 McGregor, D (1960): The Human Side of Enterprise, McGrawHill, New York – see also www.managementstudyguide.com/ mcclellands-theory-of-needs.htm
4 Zak, P (2012): The Moral Molecule, Bantam Press
5 Marsh, Dr T (2012): ‘Cast no shadow’, in SHP January 2012, Vol.30 No.1 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/safety-leadership-cast-no-shadow
6 Gladwell, M (2005): Blink, Penguin
Dr Tim Marsh is managing director of Ryder-Marsh Safety Ltd.
Join SHP Online
- ✔ Download free reports and research
- ✔ Access free Digital magazine
- ✔ Email newsletter briefings