Overconfidence in Safety: “I Won’t Fall.”

We’ve all thought it before…“it won’t happen to me”.

While this confidence may come in many variations, it’s often the cause of us arrogantly brushing off common safety initiatives. Every time our confidence fuels the decision to not take even minor safety precautions, we’re actively choosing the option with the most risk associated with it.

Adam Kepecs, professor of neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, believes that confidence isn’t just a feeling, but a scientific calculation used to make decisions. “The feeling ultimately relies on the same statistical computations a computer would make,” Kepecs states*. While the exact algorithm of confidence in decision making can’t be pinpointed, the human brain essentially derives a degree of confidence from it’s constant processing of statistical data*. After a while, it gets easier and easier to choose the option with the most risk because every successful completion of our poor decision only fuels our confidence that it will happen again…making us more prone to future arrogant decisions in safety.

Which, when applied to a specific, fictional scenario would look like:

Jim, the safety manager at ABC Construction, stresses the importance of fall protection and fall protection training because he knows: it’s needed for OSHA compliance, how many companies get cited each year, how many injuries and deaths occur each year due to lack of fall protection. Knowing these things significantly lowers Jim’s confidence that having no fall protection won’t affect his company.

Tom, on the other hand, is a carpenter who also works at ABC construction. He’s not rehearsed in OSHA standards, has never fallen, seen anyone fall, or even heard of anyone falling during his years in construction. Therefore, Tom has a high degree of confidence that he won’t fall and therefore doesn’t wear fall protection.

Knowing how human confidence plays a role in decision making can help drive home safety initiatives. If someone’s confidence encourages them to believe they are immune to safety risks, a safety professional can combat that by not just enforcing safety standards, but by educating on why we even have them…and it’s because it can happen to you.

*Source: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “Our brain uses statistics to calculate confidence, make decisions.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 May 2016.
Originally written for Safeopedia.com