Incident Investigations and the Einstellung Effect

Originally posted on January 27, 2020 @ 10:58 AM

imageWe all know about the psychological concept of ‘conditioning’. It doesn’t matter whether the conditioning is classical or operant , humans develop habits and heuristics to ensure comfort, safety, efficiency and security in daily living. Whilst there is some element of truth to the behaviourist assumptions of conditioning, this doesn’t explain a great deal about why people do what they do, because behaviourism is founded on a limited mechanistic and naïve anthropology.

Without an understanding of the social influences on humans one will tend under behaviourism, to assume that human action is reductionist (reducible down to the simplest part), linear (swiss cheese) and logical (think accidents happen because people are stupid). This is far from the case ( ).

We do know however that often the very things we think will work in safety do the exact opposite eg. homestasis ( ). Another example you may not have heard of is the ‘Einstellung Effect’ ( In 1943 Abraham Luchins through experiments like the ‘water jar problem’ ( demonstrated that humans have the tendency to develop a ‘mechanised state of mind’ when it comes to problem solving.

One of the profound weaknesses of a STEM-only approach to knowledge and skill development that is dominant in the indoctrination of the safety curriculum, is the ability to think critically. The safety curriculum teaches students that events can be reduced to smaller parts, that events are linear and that humans are the sum of inputs and outputs. These assumptions are also common to all incident investigation methods on the market.

The Einstellung Effect shares some commonality with Ockham’s Razor, that humans tend to find solutions as efficiently as possible. The opposite of the Einstellung Effect and Ockham’s Razor is the notion of Wicked Problems ( The best way to respond to a Wicked Problem is through Transdisciplinarity ( When problems are more like a rhizome ( ) than Reason’s swiss cheese, reductionist methodologies and behaviourist anthropologies simply won’t do.

When it comes to incident investigations one needs few of the assumptions of the current models of investigations on the market. Rather than investigation what mostly happens with these popular models is, confirmation of what is already assumed. Have a look at your favourite model of investigation and see what is discusses about:

· Human perception (

· Cognitive and social psychological bias

· The assumptions of the investigator

· The personality type of the investigator

· The dialectic of consciousness-unconsciousness

· Heuristics and habit

· Semiotics and visual influencing

· Wicked Problems

· Transdisciplinary ways of understanding decision making

· Cultural dynamics

· Pastoral care skills in investigating and,

· Cognitive dissonance

If these are not on the agenda and a part of investigation methodology, it is most likely going to be a pretty inadequate model of investigation.

The SEEK model of incident investigations opens up a whole new world of critical thinking, tackling human bias in investigation, social influences on decision making and thinking differently about event construction.

If you or a group are interested in learning how to SEEK contact

Rob is proposing to deliver a public workshop on SEEK in Belgium on 1,2 June 2020 ( ). You can register your interest for this workshop here:

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