What if the emperor has no clothes?

The accident research field is dominated by the theory that accidents are due to faulty human behavior and characteristics.  An example is the road trauma field.  Many areas of research suffer from cognitive entrenchment; ‘seeing what you expect to see’.  Or as Erik Dane more elegantly writes: ‘a high level of stability in one’s domain schemas’ (2010).

What if their foundation assumptions and concepts are flawed?   What if they are wrong?  The risk is magnified.  The risk is vast.  The risk affects lives.  What if the emperor has no clothes?

How many research papers in the field of road safety behavioral programs begin with the basic tenet: “I think this whole behavioral fixation is a mistake and a waste of money with no or limited benefits and possible harm”?

Essentially none.  On the basis that it is probably none or few, it is a remarkable irony that a field of study generally about risk management takes no interest in considering whether it these basic concepts are wrong?  Would it not be a sensible form of risk management to address this issue?  Why not fund at least a proportion of the millions that go toward behavioral exhortation advertisements on some research beginning with a skeptical or even diametrically opposed schema?  I think we should add one more to Donald Rumsfeld’s list (1-3 are Donald Rumsfeld’s):

  1. “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
  2. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
  3. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”  (D. Rumsfeld, 12/2/02)

And I would like to add…

4. Things we don’t want to know.

Behavior change is not necessary as a means of change.  In any setting where risk exists, risk can be attenuated by various means, with design being the most robust.  It is a per-conceived bias in accident analysis that leads to the primacy of behavior-based initiatives and this is a significant conceptual handbrake on progress.  For instance behavior does not miraculously change as people come across bad design.  Yet that is where the accidents happen.

Follow on to the Magical Safety Town of Ballarat.

About John Culvenor

Hi, Thank you for taking a look at this blog. I work in engineering, ergonomics, creativity, design, training, etc. Often this is about helping solve legal puzzles through accident analysis. Sometimes it is about thinking up better designs for equipment, workplaces, and systems. This blog is about good design and bad design, accident analysis and how it can be done better, and how we can make a better, safer world by design!
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2 Responses to What if the emperor has no clothes?

  1. mikebehm says:

    I am thrilled to see you used both Dane and Rumsfeld in the same post – brilliant. Perhaps behaviouralists continue down that path because they know there will always be poor design, inadequate planning, and deficient upstream thinking. I have continually found that we fail to see the link between unsafe or undesirable behaviour and design, planning and other upstream aspects, or if we do see the link we don’t act because it is easier, simpler, a short term fix to do something to seek to change behaviour. It’s too hard to change the upstream. I think not, but perhaps, the truth is in the middle. Safety researchers need to think more like Sherlock Homes, and here are some great references, http://sherlockholmesquotes.com/. One of my favorites is, “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”.

    • Hi Mike, Donald Rumsfeld is a thoughtful character. I like his style. As for Sherlock Holmes “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” is pretty good but I find “The dog did nothing in the night-time” appealing for some reason.

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