The Conundrum in Discerning Risk

Originally posted on February 9, 2014 @ 6:51 PM

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Dr Rob Long, Author of Real Risk – Human Discerning and Risk (download Ch1 Here), explains why we switch to autopilot when under normal work pressures, despite the safety world trying to impose rational thinking processes during inductions, tool box talks or via SWMS.

The Conundrum in Discerning Risk

When it comes to discerning risk humans are in somewhat of a conundrum. A conundrum is like an unsolvable riddle or what some would say a ‘wicked problem’. The idea that the human condition (fallibility) can be ‘fixed’ is nonsense. And, why would you want to ‘fix’ fallibility, as if fallibility is a problem? The very things that make us human, what is uncertain, our vulnerability and finiteness also deliver excitement, interest and enjoyment. The things in life that animate living, the learning that comes from hope and faith and, the limit of not knowing the future are the very things that enliven us. The idea that automatons and robot-like control and certainty are life giving runs counter to the very experience of life.

I have a friend Garry, who has decided to kayak from Sydney to Mallacoota. No big announcement, no funding drive, no fanfare, he just wants to do it for himself. Whilst I don’t understand the drive behind such a quest, I do understand the idea of exhilaration in conquered something, of having achieved something against the odds, of taking a risk and coming out the other side. The idea of getting in a kayak and paddling for 500 kms is not quite what I would do to experience a trade off against risk. I’m afraid I’m a bit more pedestrian these days. When I was younger I did canoe a similar distance and was upturned in rapids and lost an expensive camera but that’s as far as the empathy goes. Asking Garry not to take this journey and risk would be like asking a motorcycling enthusiast to not hop on a motorbike. These passions and drives make life worth living. And so in the middle of the journey, when things get tough and doubts creep in and the will diminishes and the mind wanders into giving up, Garry will know that he is fully alive.

The conundrum of risk is cyclic, the very way we ‘work’ as humans creates risk and uncertainty. We live in a complex world and simply cannot hold all the information available to us in our brain, we cannot tap into all the knowledge available to us at any one time. We step out in faith most moments in the day, not really knowing what will happen, without prediction of the unexpected but with a sense of resilience that we may be able to survive what happens if indeed something was to hiccup. We develop heuristics (mental short cuts) to help us make multiple decisions quickly under pressure. These heuristics are learned biases accumulated through experience, learning and nurtured over time. Heuristics (of which there are hundreds) allow humans to make reflex decisions in situations we assume are predictable, when circumstances conform with past experiences and seem predictable. This state of mind is known as automaticity or ‘autopilot’. Humans function on autopilot when they become ‘habitual’ about something, when things become routine humans can do things quicker ‘without thinking’. This is the purpose of developing heuristics, to do things faster and more automatically. The flip side of doing things by habit and automatic is that repetition becomes a drudgery and boring and, we become desensitized to the very thing we learnt to do on automatic.

I remember how exciting it was to learn how to drive but now after 40 years of driving I find the process tedious and an embuggerance, I would rather someone else drive. We have hundreds of similar habits and activities we become desensitized to over time as we develop heuristics and become able to do them on autopilot. The unconscious in particular helps us to do things in autopilot ‘without thinking’. We are thinking, just not using our rational conscious mind. We can drive through traffic in a daze and not remember one thing about our trip because our unconscious was on the job, driving on automatic. However, as we undertake complex activities in autopilot, we can only manage risk while things remain predictable, we get caught out by the unexpected. Then when we need our rational mind to kick into ‘thinking’ mode, we are sometime caught out by the speed of events, we have an accident. In such circumstances, others who are critical and self-righteous, brand us as idiots for undertaking a task ‘without thinking’, they would not do things in autopilot, they wouldn’t be human.

This is the conundrum of discerning risk. The very heuristics and automaticity process that enables us to live the way we do, also makes us vulnerable to change and unpredictable events. The very fallibility of needing to cope with complexity, drives the creation of heuristics so we can manage that complexity with greater speed and confidence. By the time we learn to undertake a task in autopilot we are already on the pathway to desensitization and overconfidence.

Meanwhile in the safety world, everything seems to focus on humans as if risk is controlled by a rational ‘lock step’ processes. The safety world seems to think that decision making is a rational ‘thinking’ process when in fact most decision making in daily life is taken in autopilot. It is more the exception than the rule that we slow down and ‘think’ rationally about the complexity of choices that face us. We might do this in a group undertaking a SWMS or a toolbox talk but when we are out on the job and things need to be done quickly, we are pretty soon back into autopilot. Then when something happens and the authorities are called in, we seek out rational causes, find blame for people ‘not thinking’ and seek rational solutions (usually more systems and regulation complexity) thereby driving the need for more heuristics and autopilot to manage the new complexities introduced to make the complex task more controllable. Once all the noise has died down and the new complexities have kicked in and the regulator leaves content with having ‘fixed’ the problem, the workers slide into the heuristic of ‘tick and flick’ and drop into autopilot until the next unexpected moment and the cycle is repeated.

So, when Garry is pumping hard on the high seas after 3 days and begins to slide into an autopilot daze, it’s the unexpected and the variation of something that will jolt his autopilot and bring him back into consciousness. This is what makes the trade off in risk so enlivening, to and from our conscious to unconscious experience. I just hope that Garry’s autopilot keeps him safe when the paddling and ocean are routine and that when things change he has time to enact his rational mind and make a good decision. One thing I do know, is that after this experience he will have a whole new learned set of heuristics though his engagement with risk. And if something unfortunate were to happen, he is certainly no ‘idiot’ and the wisdom in discernment learned through his trade offs with risk he will count as being worth it.

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