Framing Folly and Fantasy in Safety

Originally posted on September 18, 2014 @ 7:44 PM

Framing Folly and Fantasy in Safety

imageResearch by published in the Orthomolecular Psychiatry Journal shows that humans can be primed by colour. Advertisers and political strategists know that colours can ‘frame’ the way people receive a message. The choice of a red or blue tie is most important for a politician. Research by Schauss demonstrates that the repeated exposure of men to pink rather than blue diminishes their strength response. Alter’s neat little book Drink Tank Pink documents Schauss’s experiments and a host of forces that influence thinking and behaviour. The idea that humans are objective and not influenced, framed and primed by social psychological context is naïve in the extreme. The evidence that semiotics (signs and symbols), semiology (words and texts as signs and symbols) and Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP) influence think and behavior is overwhelming. How strange that safety is one of the only activities that ignores this research and knowledge. Has safety been so dumbed down by regulators, legislators, lawyers and CEOs that it can no longer think critically?

Research by Kahneman and Tversky shows that the way situations are ‘framed’ at us affects the way we engage in risk. (Prospect Theory) Their research commencing in 1992 has been most influential in understanding the nature of gambles, risk, economics, choice and free will. The Nobel Prize winning work shows that loss aversion increases risk taking.

Those who think the whole zero debate is about some nonsense semantics don’t understand the nature of framing. The way one ‘frames’ shapes the way others think about a problem, and affects the choices they make. It is nonsense to propose that people can choose to be safe or not. There are far too many factors that affect human judgments and decision making. The framing and priming of safety messages in perfectionist absolutes increases risk taking and promotes hiding, denial and risk taking. The ideology of zero is both anti-human and anti-learning because it ‘anchors’ human thinking to absolutes. Our understanding of probability, consequence and risk are all shaped by what knowledge is ‘available’ to us. We can easily misjudge risk just because our exposure to one problem ‘framed’ in one way is more recent that another problem ‘framed’ in another way, this is called ‘the recency effect’. There are hundreds of biases and heuristics like ‘recency’ that affect human decision making.

When I was in The Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg I saw the most amazing art in the world. I could have wandered about for days mesmerized by the whole place. At one stage of our tour I saw Leonardo Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, I was with my wife and daughter. Whilst I stood there observing the painting I noticed my daughter’s reflection in the glass frame and quickly pulling out my camera took a snap and here is the picture of my daughter in the frame looking over the Madonna’s shoulder. It’s one of my favourite pics, a fluke from an amateur photographer.


It is Weick who reminds us that the nature of our ‘collective mindfulness’ ‘frames’ the way our organization understands risk. What we put in our frame changes the meaning of the safety message and the ways others ‘see’ the picture. If our frame is based on a deficit model of loss (eg. counting injury statistics in the quest to zero) we increase risk thinking in the organization. Framing the safety message in deficit ‘loss framed’ discourse is actually dangerous and anti-safety. A deficit mindset promotes risk rather than mindfulness. So it doesn’t matter whether the language is about ‘journey’ to zero, ‘aspiration’ to zero, ‘target’ zero or what ever gobbledygook to zero, the anchor, ideology and frame is still zero. The frame is still an absolute anchored to fallible people, counting LTIs or injury data is still a deficit frame that shapes decision making.

How does your organization ‘frame’ the your safety message?

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