Author Bio ▼

Dominic Cooper PhD is an independent researcher who has authored many books, articles and scientific research papers on safety culture, behavioural-safety and leadership.
March 25, 2015

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Smell of success: subconscious safety influencers

blossom-652637_640Dominic Cooper explains how behaviours are grounded in physical sensations like temperature, colour and smell, and how this is linked to improving safety.

Safety Culture research[i] shows that psychological factors, observable behaviours, and the prevailing situation are inextricably linked; what occurs in one of these elements, impacts the other two. Used extensively in industry, this work reveals that the best way to optimise safety behaviour is to optimise the situation[ii].

Nudge theory[iii] uses this knowledge to adapt situations to get people to engage in desired behaviours. A successful nudge is where any aspect of the environment influences a desired behaviour and makes that action more likely to occur: a good safety example is the use of radar-equipped speed signs that tell drivers their own actual speed, this leads to substantially more drivers slowing down than simple speed limit signs.

Taking the nudge concept a bit further, Thalma Lobel[iv] a psychology professor, explored how physical and abstract concepts are linked in the brain. It appears our minds cannot work separately from the physical world: she aptly demonstrates that our emotions, thoughts, and behaviours are subconsciously grounded in physical sensations like temperature, texture, weight, colour, and smell. Given this fact, are there opportunities to use this knowledge to better improve safety in small, subtle, simple, and cheap ways? The following suggests ways we may do so.

Temperature: When people feel cold they tend to feel more negative about things; when they feel warm they tend to be more receptive towards new ideas and other people, but if they feel too hot they tend to be more aggressive. To influence others during safety meetings / toolbox talks, etc., it appears we should ensure a room is comfortably warm, with warm drinks (e.g. Tea/Coffee) provided as the audience are more likely to be receptive to safety ideas, and the speaker is more likely to be trusted.

Texture: Because we tend to equate rough / smooth or hard / soft textures with bad / good respectively, our perceptions and attitudes tend to be more positive when we are in contact with smooth and/or soft surfaces or objects. Perhaps, when trying to sell safety ideas and changes, we should provide soft chairs for people to sit on, so people are more likely to be receptive and keep an open mind.

Weight: The heavier a book, clipboard, stationary, etc., the more it influences our opinion about value, importance, and seriousness of the content. This shows that our judgement of importance is subconsciously linked to the concept of physical weight. In safety, we could use this to emphasise the importance of Rules & Procedures, etc., by printing them on thicker paper or presenting it in a heavier folder.

Colour: It is well known that colours subconsciously affect our perceptions, behaviour, and physical performance; for example, red clothing signals power and authority, whereas white exudes positivity and goodness. This knowledge suggests safety professionals should stop wearing red coveralls and/or red hard hats, as they are perceived to be displaying their dominance, power, and authority. Potentially, this could be creating unnecessary barriers that block communications between themselves and those they are trying to influence. Conversely, people wearing white shirts and hard hats, etc., tend to be seen as more helpful, and therefore, more influential. Similarly, brighter / lighter working environments lead to greater feelings of well-being and better performance than darker gloomy ones. Using lighter / brighter venues for training courses, safety meetings, toolbox talks etc., could lead to much greater willing involvement of attendees.

Smell: It is similarly well-known that smells affect people’s emotions, behaviour, and judgements. However, less familiar is that smells associated with cleaning (e.g. citrus) cause people to clean more. This has obvious implications for housekeeping, typically a problem area in many companies. Placing citrus smelling air-fresheners around a workplace may significantly increase the likelihood that people will be motivated to clean up after themselves without prompting.

Winning over people’s hearts & minds to the safety cause has always been difficult. Given there are cheap, cheerful, and simple solutions that could help smooth the path, we would be foolish to ignore them. By harnessing the untapped power of subtle environmental and physical cues on our subconscious, we can ‘nudge’ people to behave in desired ways to help improve safety. The solutions offered are not a panacea for the all the ills in safety, but surely they must be worth trying.

[i] Cooper, M.D. (2000). ‘Towards a Model of Safety Culture’. Safety Science, Vol 32 (6), 111-136.

[ii] Cooper, M.D. & Finley, L.J. (2103). Strategic Safety Culture Roadmap. BSMS Franklin, IN

[iii] Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge. Penguin Books.

[iv] Lobel, T. (2014) Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence. Icon Books, London.

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Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
8 years ago

Human beings have always reacted badly to sensory deprivation significantly triggering our primitive threat response presenting in a degree of anxiety and the need to suppress feeling fight or flight emotions whether in the modern world of workplace or urban jungle the threat is just perceived or imagined rather than real. This stress related response has increasingly been recognised in work/life where, over time, the normal socio-psychological and physiological coping and tolerating strategies lead to a cycle of building resilience to repetitive stress by up-grading our level of adaptations to enable human resources to persevere until, of course, we reach… Read more »

Darren Sutton
Darren Sutton
8 years ago

Great article Dr Dom, thanks for sharing. I think I’ll put heavier covers on my workbooks in the future! I’ve just written a similar article for IOSH on how sub-conscious nudges can be used to influence specific behaviours occasionally too. Here’s a link for those interested in this subject…