Lies, Shortcuts and Lessons from Armstrong

Originally posted on January 21, 2013 @ 3:24 PM

First thought provoking article for the New Year by Dr Robert Long. I highly recommend his other Articles HERE and his new book: For The Love of Zero

Lies, Shortcuts and Lessons from Armstrong

Much has been made of the Armstrong scandal and many find it hard to believe that someone could be so delusional, deceitful and dishonest but the Armstrong story teaches us some important lessons about motivation and the attraction of shortcuts.

Whilst not wishing to defend Lance Armstrong for his actions, such behaviours never operate in a vacuum. Human action takes place in a social environment and social-psychological pressures must not be ignored when we seek to motivate and influence others. People take shortcuts because the shortcut is attractive and the benefit in their mind outweighs the associated risk. Armstrong knew the risks but his mind was more focused on gain than loss, this how gambling works. No-one should underestimate the fun and thrill of winning a gamble, it’s addictive. As it turns out, many knew that Armstrong was doping and their silence protected him, the system encourage them to do so. Once the gain of success was realized then a culture developed of normalised deviance. Once normalized deviance is en-culturated, it is rare that more systems or punishment will change anything. What happens most often following such a crisis is that regulatory and legislative champions rise to the occasion and seek to solve cultural problems with more systems solutions. New subcultures of hiding and ‘shifting’ develop but there is no real solution, and so a wave of new delusion develops until the next doping scandal.

All risk is associated with learning, there is no learning without risk. This is why it is a nonsense to propose that risk elimination makes sense. If we want to understand risk taking and how to influence others then, start with understanding the social psychology of learning and motivation. You can find the fundamentals of motivation and learning in any teaching qualification, but for some strange reason they are absent in safety training and safety leadership.

In every risk there is a trade off in uncertainty for potential gain. This is what is known as ‘gain framing’, that is, framing the risk as an opportunity for gain, rather than a potential for loss. Casinos and Tattslotto know the power of gain framing but the safety mindset stuck in legislation, regulation and punishment continues to wonder why it’s so hard to motivate people to safety ownership. I get exhausted by the advertising and discourse of safety that continually ‘loss frames’ everything, then turns around in amazement when someone is harmed by a shortcut. Moreso, the loss framing mindset then resorts to blaming the individual for the harm, rather than the social environment and culture created by the excess of systems and punishment.

So what are the 10 key factors that encourage shortcut taking?

1. Excessive systems. Humans when they reach saturation point and ‘cognitive overload’ simply find onerous systems too much. Humans are not machines or computers despite all attempts by behavioural based safety (BBS) to prove so. Excessive systems make ‘rules of thumb’ and heuristics, as governing ideas for judgment, so attractive. Under such thinking, there is no intentional deviance to break rules but, with so many rules, alternative manageable (shortcut) thinking is required. It is strange that so many see the solution to safety problems as ‘more systems’ when in fact, such a view of safety actually makes things worse.

2. Ignorance of motivation and learning. It is strange that safety training is so focused on legislation and regulation rather that the nature of what it is to be human. So much safety training and mis-education focuses on content of safety rather than the process of human judgment and decision making. Just look at conference schedules for the Safety Institute of Australia for the last 5 years and one would be forgiven for thinking that lawyers make the best safety officers.

3. Setting absolute and perfectionist goals. For some strange reason it is the safety community that loves the nonsense of zero and is blind to the psychology of goal setting. One of the principle drivers of Armstrong’s behaviours is the quest for perfection. Failure and mistakes become the new evil and so zero takes on an ideological and religious fervour.

4. Naïve understanding of language and discourse. Culture is sustained by language and discourse. Once one sets absolute goals, a new ‘spin’ of ‘semantic gymnastics’ develops that excuses unethical practice and renames shortcut taking so it is disarmed of its power. Loss framed language of ‘cheating’ is eliminated from the cultural discourse instead, they think of creative ways of not talking or thinking about it.

5. Focusing on rationalist-only solutions. To understanding human judgment and decision making requires more than just focusing on logical rational thinking. So much of human decision making is unconscious and subconscious. This is where intuition, counter-intuition and the ‘law of attraction’ works.

6. ‘Dumbing down’ strategies. The myth of ‘engineer out the idiot’ is premised on the nonsense that a. people are idiots and b. engineering can control decision making. Most harmful events do not originate in a lack of intelligence, this is a construction of the blaming mindset. The more the industry seeks to ‘dumb down’ the safety process, the more it will create poor decision making. Parrot thinking only works when everything stays the same.

7. Confusing systems for culture. So much of what is paraded as ‘culture’ in the safety world is really systems. Most supposed safety culture and climate surveys are systems surveys. Subsequently, what is often implemented to address cultural problems is more systems.

8. Belief in ‘common sense’. The idea that all people possess a common form of perception and understanding is a distraction from the real understanding of how humans make decisions. The delusion of common sense simply encourages blaming in causation. We know why that person hurt themselves, they are stupid and lack common sense. As long as we maintain language such as ‘common sense’ in an organisation we will continue to believe in simplistic ideas of how things happen and ignore the power of social influence.

9. Speaking the language of ‘Can Do’. The language of ‘can do’ is attractive to many and captures the idea of ingenious, inventive achievement of results. Unfortunately, ‘can do’ most often means ‘whatever will do’ to ‘get the job done’. We should eradicate the language of ‘can do’ out of our organisations. The language of ‘can do’ is gain framed and attractive but counter-intuitively encourages shortcut taking. ‘Get the job done language’ also has the same effect. ‘Can do’ and ‘get the job done’ language enable a culture to sustain Double Speak. Nothing more encourages shortcut taking than a climate where it is the norm to say one thing but do another.

10. Overconfidence (hubris). Overconfidence is the seed bed for shortcut taking. Overconfidence disables the ability to doubt and contemplate the idea that things may go wrong. When things do go wrong, there is so much surprise because risk arrogance drives safety culture blindness.

So, we can see these factors present not only in the story of Armstrong but in organisations that unknowingly encourage shortcuts. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait to be dragged kicking and screaming to the couch of Opera and confess that we normalized shortcut taking.

Author’s Resource Box

Dr Robert Long

PhD., (UWS) BEd., (USA) BTh., (SCD) MEd., (Syd) MOH (La Trobe), Dip T., Dip Min., MACE, CFSIA.

Executive Director – Human Dymensions Pty Ltd

Rob has a creative career in teaching, education, community services, government and management.

Rob is engaged by organisations because of his expertise in culture, learning, risk and social psychology. He is a skilled presenter and designer of learning events, training and curriculum.

Web Link:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.