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Don’t blame me. The ‘system’ wrote this

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

My friend was holding a can of soft drink and as he checked his watch he poured the drink on his foot. A person in my line of work—Human Factors—would call this ‘human error’.

How would we interpret the situation if, instead of laughing, I simply rolled my eyes and lost respect for my friend?

What if they ruined their shoes?

What if it left a puddle on the ground that led to someone slipping over?

What if after slipping over the person cracked their head and died?

What if that unfortunate person was also holding the cure for cancer and now this silly act of tomfoolery had led to the unnecessary suffering and death of people all over the planet?

But let’s say my friend knew they were going to pour the drink on their foot. It might be for a laugh and to get a reaction—to play the clown. This would no longer be an error but a form of intentional behaviour. That is, there is some additional calculation of the brain that determines the behaviour is a worthy idea.

So now, instead of being a catastrophic event caused by a harmless error, my friend is culpable. That few seconds of planning and intent is everything.

The cause of the event can be found in the deep, complex recesses of my friend’s brain. Somewhere in there neurons fired in unison and sent signals to my friend’s wrist to twist and pour the drink. Somewhere in this brain there is something to blame and assign fault.

Alternatively, the blame is elsewhere. It could be attributed to the broader system. My friend may have been trying to impress me with their sense of humour. So, he was under peer influence.

The soft drink can manufacturers could be blamed as they designed the can. They also failed to display a warning message that these kinds of events could occur.

The surface on the footpath may be to be partly to blame. Surely, it shouldn’t become slippery from a small amount of liquid.

Local councils may have under-invested in the quality of footpaths due to a broader systemic issue related to funding.

The funding was the result of an economic downturn and, yep, we were willing to tolerate the possibility of soft drink-related deaths so we could save a few dollars.

Perhaps even the broader culture is to blame. After all, we live in the age of YouTube videos and Facebook where individuals love to play the fool to get some much-needed applause from their peers.

Of course, if we play out a genuine scenario where an error—as harmless as it can be—led to true catastrophic events, the same basic logic is often applied after the event. What plays out time and time again is the extent to which a person caused a problem and how much of this was caused by the ‘system’.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming individuals even when they choose to do silly things. This is because I sometimes do silly things myself. Likewise, I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming the ‘system’ as it leads to a whole host of other implications.

Importantly, blaming behaviour on the ‘system of influences’ suggests that we must also accept that success, bravery, creativity and acts of kindness are the result of the system. Nevertheless, we often seek to praise and reward individuals when they demonstrate these positive attributes but can quickly revert to blaming the system when they display poor behaviour.

Is the system causing these things or not? I’m not sure we can have our cake and eat it too.

The heart of my discomfort is probably related to the concept of free will. When we seek to blame individuals for their mistakes and punish them, we must also assume that they have the free will to choose this action.

When we blame the system, and argue a complex series of events over time culminated in the event, making the individual a passive participant in the transaction of soft drink homicide, we imply that the individual does not have free will.

Systems thinking might be seen as a cover for deterministic thinking.

Deep down we want to blame people because the idea that we don’t have a choice in the matter is also alarming. If I do not have choice, then what am I? And can I celebrate my successes? Who’s typing this blog anyway? The system?

And if people generally feel more comfortable blaming others then this is ultimately a product of the system too. So, we have a deterministic system that basically advocates free will. Is your head spinning with this pop-philosophy?

There is, of course, a softer conclusion to draw. We might argue that individuals have choice but are heavily influenced by their past and immediate surroundings. Somewhere in my friend’s brain, the system has contaminated their intentions but those neurons still have the capacity to side-step the infection and come up with an alternative.

The individual, according to this view, triumphs over the system. But, then again, how did the brain achieve this? Aren’t those neurons ultimately a product of the person’s genes, development and experiences? That is, all elements of the system anyway?

So, when I see someone actively trying to force blame on individuals, I believe we are no better at understanding individuals—perhaps much less so—than we were thousands of years ago when ancient philosophers debated free will and determinism.

Deep down, they are reconciling their discomfort with determinism like the time Aristotle pretended to spill wine on his foot to get a good laugh…


Are safety practices scientific?

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

Don’t be too quick to take on the advice in this blog. Avoid nodding in agreement or giving it more credibility than it deserves. It is, like most blogs, the views and observations of one person tied into a convenient narrative.

You may feel more at ease agreeing or listening to my advice if I said it was based on research or established empirical findings.

Perhaps a four quadrant model or a series of circles with arrows pointing might also lend it some credibility and closure.


Mysteriously, the one thing that is likely to reduce your confidence is if I use the word ‘theory’.

Theories are often perceived as intangible, unreliable, and untrustworthy. The term is also used to try to discredit ideas. For example, some individuals attempt to trivialise the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution by saying ‘it’s just theory’.

It’s a suggestion that you have come up with an idea but don’t really have much in the way to back it up.

A scientific theory, in reality, is the result of extensive research based on many observations, experiments, and peer reviews. In science, theories help researchers consolidate studies, identify patterns and explain exceptions to predictions.

Theories are the result of research being tested, refined, and, yes, even discredited.

What scientific theories drive safety?

In safety, processes, procedures, models, frameworks, ‘evidence-based’ approaches, methods and risk matrices are preferred as they are perceived as being more practical. We often lose sight of which theories, if any, helped guide these approaches.

Observations and viewpoints from individuals—and heaven forbid blogs like this—with opinions are also valued.

At best this type of information can be useful but at worst it signals we understand exactly why a problem occurs and how to fix it.

To illustrate, let’s take the well-known James Reason’s error model. It can be used to categorise errors and breaches to rules. For example, employees often circumvent procedures to maintain workplace productivity—a violation for organisational gain.

One reason we fail to prevent future such issues is that we don’t often land an explanation as to why the behaviour occurred. It always seems to boil down to a generic explanation like ‘there is culture of rule-breaking’ or that the process and system was not followed.

We rarely stop to contemplate whether the practices we’ve put in place should have worked in the first place.

Applying theory to safety

What if we applied an approach that is based on a contemporary theory supported by recent evidence and application?

For example, regulatory focus theory explains that the person who broke the rules to increase productivity was adopting a ‘promotion focus’, which means they were motivated by achievements, accomplishments and other rewarding outcomes.

This theory explains that we all adopt a promotion focus from time to time but some individuals are more prone to doing so. Some individuals are more disposed to adopting a prevention focus, which is a sensitivity to warnings and reprimands.

In contrast, promotion-focused individuals are not sensitive to these warnings and reprimands.

They are also superior at processing patterns not details. So, they tend to have a ‘big picture’ mindset, perhaps focusing on the broader workplace’s success rather than ensuring they comply with all the details.

They will also do their best work in environments that promote autonomy, rather than those that dictate compliance.

The benefits of a theory that explains behaviour

Immediately, we can see that a deterrence model, such as issuing corrective actions, is unlikely to shift the approach of this promotion-focused individual. Even worse, reprimands could simply demotivate the employee, reduce their creativity and make them focus on simple linear trends and patterns.

As such, their situation awareness is likely to suffer. Their mindfulness of their surroundings is impaired. Their resilience and attention is also undermined.

In short, awareness of regulatory focus theory allows us to tap into an extensive literature of research that can help us explain behaviour and, therefore, address problems more appropriately.

Such theories can help explain why deterrence models can fail to produce behavioural changes. Without the theory, we may just assume that greater rigour, investment and enforcement is needed to apply the model.

The downside of theory

There are some areas of caution, however. Many theories are based on norms and beliefs about how the world operates with researchers confirming what they already believe to be true—the confirmation bias. As such, the theory can be a formal way of validating the way we want the world to work not how it actually works.

Some researchers have attempted to address this shortfall by intentionally examining non-intuitive research findings. This forces theories to address exceptions to our predictions and ensures we don’t build our knowledge on pre-conceived ideas and assumptions but, rather, scientific findings that may be counterintuitive.

Theories have also been criticised on the ground that they provide a narrative fallacy, where we are more likely to be convinced by a compelling story rather than look objectively at the evidence. Just like this blog.

If you want to influence someone, dance with them

in Work Psychology by


Have you ever seen the end goal so clearly that you thought you had no choice but to drag everyone along, kicking, screaming and wailing. How did that work for you?

If you are like most people, you probably discovered that trying to force an issue only resulting in pushing people away. According to reactance theory, when our freedom is compromised, our motivation plummets and we try to reassert our autonomy.

But here’s a clever way to influence. Get ready to slap your head with me in disbelief. Research suggests that people are more prone to conform when they syncronise their movement with others.

Think of the uniform marching of a squad, a group of dancers or the coordinated movement of athletes. Think of the years at school where you and your fellow students walked from class to class like robots and greeted the teacher in unison before each class.

When we coordinate with other individuals we adopt a ‘copying others’ mindset. When in this frame of mind, we are more inclusive and agreeable. This means we are also more susceptible to complying with the ideas or demands of others. Are you listening? Right?

What’s important is that people feel like they are choosing, not being forced to get involved. So, you can’t simply coerce or pressure another person and expect to get results.

You might, however, invite a colleague to discuss an idea on a walk around the block. Perhaps this coordinated journey may lead to them agreeing with your point of view?

I do have the heart to tell you this

in Work Psychology by


Subtle changes to behaviour can affect decision-making. In this study, people were subtly manipulated into touching their head or their chest (heart). The head-touchers made more logical decisions. The heart touchers were more motivated by emotion.

The researchers suggest that we unconsciously learn to associate the heart with emotion and the head with logic through popular culture.

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