Why We Make Bad Decisions

Posting  about 20 hours early this week (so don’t expect a fresh one at noon EST tomorrow.

By Phil La Duke

The View From the Top Of the Cliff

I’m in the middle of reading, Risk Makes Sense: Human Judgment and Risk by Dr. Robert Long and I can already recommend it.  Dr. Long’s work got me thinking about the concept of risk and bad decisions.  I’m not going to talk about the book beyond saying that it is a must read for any Human Resources, Quality, or most of all Safety professional.  Instead I thought I would share some of the insights I had as I reflected on the nature of bad decision-making.

While it’s true that there are plenty of instances where injuries are caused by equipment failure, an act of God, or other freak occurrence, my experience has shown that a fair amount of injuries, if not MOST injuries, are the result of bad decisions. Whether the decision is to knowingly take an unreasonable risk or just to do something stupid; at one point or another we all make bad decisions. If we are ever going to hope to make the workplace safer we have to help people make better decisions, and to do that, we have to understand why people make such poor choices.

The Need For Expediency Trumps the Need To Be Safe

Human beings have a natural inclination to seek out expediency; we want to avoid unnecessary work and hassle whenever we can.  If asked to choose between the expeditious and the safe, people will generally gauge the risk of consequences and weigh it against the rewards.

Let me tell you a story that I think illustrates a lot about poor decision making. I am the world’s worst surfer.  I have been surfing for nearly 20 years and am not measurably better than the first time I surfed, but it’s something I enjoy.  The first time I went surfing was at Sanofre State Park, near Camp Pendleton in Southern California.  Trail Six is a winding path to the beach that creeps along the base of sandstone cliffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean.  As we approached the path, my buddy (who was introducing the world of surfing to me) looked at me and laid out a choice for me point blank: “Which way do you want to go? There’s the fast way and there’s the safe way.” I asked what the difference was and he told me about 20 minutes.  I asked, “which way do you usually go?” and followed him as we strayed from the path and headed to the edge of what I judged to be a 30-50 foot cliff.  As we walked past the wreaths where others had fallen and died and the signs that warned of unstable cliffs (and urged us to go back) I grew a bit apprehensive but I reasoned that these veterans were smart enough to judge the risks and they would never put themselves, and me, in harm’s way.

We reached the edge of the cliff and clutching a surfboard in one hand, literally climbed down its face, from one precarious foot- and handhold to the next, one handed.  “Don’t look down” someone warned in all earnestness.  The wind was brisk, and catching my board, threatened to pull me from the cliff and hurl me to the rocks below. I got scared but it was too late.  “I am going to die” I remember thinking over and over again. Our party of six surfers got to the bottom without incident.  I’ve made that climb dozens of times since, and each time it gets a little easier. Why would anyone, let alone someone who works in worker safety, make such a bad decision?

Reason #1: Expediency

Clearly it was more expedient to climb down the cliff’s face than it would be to walk 20 minutes down the trail.  All I gained from taking the trail was safety where as I lost 20 minutes, inconvenienced my friend and risked losing the respect of my newfound surfing buddies.  I chose expediency even though there were plenty of indications that expediency would come at the cost of my personal safety.  This same thought process is at play when a skilled tradesman decides not to lock out because he is only going to be in the robot cell for a minute, or a truck driver decides not to wear her seat belt because she is only going to be driving across the compound, or a someone uses a golf cart to move furniture or anyone of a thousand examples from around industry.  If it takes appreciably more time to do something the safe way, people will generally look for shortcuts even if they risk death.

Reason #2: Peer Pressure

Some industries, or even some workplaces, have the misguided belief that safety is for wimps.  And that anyone who advocates for safety over production or expediency is a mother hen, a goofball, or a nerd.  Let’s be clear: in my example, I imposed the peer pressure on myself.  My buddy was perfectly willing to walk down the trail with me if I was in anyway uncomfortable.  But I wanted to be one of the guys.  I was learning the norms and if I was going to be a surfer I was going to do whatever surfers did, and surfers walked down the cliff.  The same can be said of the workplace.  New workers want to belong (having a new job sucks) and they want to feel comfortable so they adopt the norms that they see on the job.  If the safety guy (or trainer) tells them one thing but the rest of the crew is doing something else, the new guy will adopt the traits that make him or her fit in.

Reason #3: Imperfect Knowledge

Often we make decisions based on something we assume to be fact, or think we know but don’t.  In my case, I was trusting that others had knowledge that I didn’t, and in my case I was correct.  I trusted that my colleagues knew the situation better than I did (or the state of California did for that matter). I believed them because they were there and able to assess the situation in ways that I (or the state park) could.  I have seen far too many fatalities that were caused simply because someone believed something was true when it was not—from machines that were believed to be locked out when they were energized to parking brakes thought to be engaged when they weren’t.

Reason #4: Past Successful Outcomes

The first couple of reasons explained why I took the risk in the first place, but it doesn’t explain why I continued to take the risk.  As I got to know my peers and gained their respect I could absolutely have said, “you know guys, maybe we shouldn’t…” but after successfully negotiating the cliff numerous times I downplayed the risk in my mind.  After all, why would I stop doing something at which I was repeatedly successful?  Think about workplaces where workers do repetitive tasks day in and day out.  How likely will they be to take risks that do not result in negative consequences but that reap real rewards?

Reason #5: Bad Decisions Breed Bad Decisions

Once I had committed to climbing one-handed down the side of a cliff there was no turning back.  I was in a dangerous situation and every decision I made from that point on would prove more critical.  This happens in the workplace often and many times ends in tragedy.  Consider the worker who is violating the company’s no smoking policy by having an unsanctioned smoke break in the work area.  When he thought he heard someone approaching he quickly throws the lit cigarette in  a trash barrel filled with acetone soaked rags which ignites, panicked he runs for a fire extinguisher…Often one bad decision leads to a string of worse decisions simply because the first decision eliminates the possibility of good decisions from that point forward. Someone smarter than me once said mistakes + blame = criminality; I think that’s true.

Reason #6: Under Appreciation Of Risk

I can still, years later, clearly remember thinking, “people have been telling me to be careful for years…how risky can this be?”  I have been warned so often about dangers so ridiculously remote that I dismissed the risk of falling almost immediately.  In some cases, we get so many ridiculous warnings (in Michigan, there are road signs that say “Bridge May Be Icy” that are posted year long;  every July I think, “not bloody” likely) that we just tune them all out.  How many people have you heard say, “everything causes cancer” in response to the latest medical warning? In the workplace sometimes we remind people to work safe so frequently and to be mindful of dangers so remote that our voices start to sound like blah, blah, blah. Worker’s know the difference between something that could potentially in some cases maybe harm them and those that most certainly WILL harm them; we need to stop acting as if that they can’t.

Reason #7: Lack of Immediate Negative Consequences

            After I successfully made the climb (climbing up that bugger after 4 hours of surfing was miserable, but I did it) it made all my apprehension seem silly and trivial.  I was fine and had been stupid worrying about falling to my death. The same dynamic plays out in the workplace.  Workers make bad decisions and they are fine so they start to disbelieve the laws of probability.

At the end of the day there is little we can do to control how people will make decisions, but we can work to obviate the negative effects of these seven reasons. But even if we can’t help people make bad decisions let’s all remember that even though everybody at sometime will make a bad decision, nobody should ever have to die because of it.  Ultimately, I—the worker—control my own safety, but I sure hope there is someone out there trying to shield me from the logical consequences of my own foolishness.  The answer isn’t in reminding me not to die, nor is it in taking away my right to make decisions, and we can’t bubble-wrap and mistake proof the world.  In the end we have to be our brother’s keeper.  It’s up to us as people (not as safety professionals) to help protect people from bad decisions, our own and others’ as well.


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