The Role of Cognitive Bias in Safety Decisions

In the last column, we discussed the importance of creating a “change-ready” culture. When the conditions are right, the likelihood increases that safety-directed initiatives will succeed. Leaders create the right conditions not only through their behaviors, but also through their decisions.

Safety leaders make decisions under many different pressures while managing the risks inherent in the working interface and seeking to satisfy a variety of constituencies. These pressures often do not explain mistaken decisions that in hindsight were preventable. For example, what causes a leader to keep a poor performing manager who fails to improve despite repeated coaching, or another to postpone equipment repair that would reduce exposure?

Judgment Under Uncertainty

Many safety-related decisions require a leader to make accurate judgments about future likelihoods. After an undesirable outcome, it frequently seems clear what should have been decided. Too often, if we look carefully at what we knew before the event, we had all the information we needed to make a safety-supporting decision, but we didn't pay attention to it. A rich scientific literature in cognitive psychology offers insight into why this is: human beings tend to make inaccurate judgments about future probabilities in predictable ways. These tendencies toward faulty judgments are called cognitive biases.

In an otherwise complex world, cognitive biases allow us to establish shortcuts that simplify decision making, make our world more predictable and absorb new information consistently with what we already know. Cognitive biases are automatic and unconscious. They shape how human beings select and process information.

It's usually ok for the organizational leader to make decisions without purposeful consideration of cognitive bias. But there are critical decision points at which cognitive bias can be disastrous. For example, when faced with an adverse event, how often does the first idea for which there is evidence capture the organization's attention and come to dominate subsequent thinking and analysis to the exclusion of other causes — especially cultural and systems issues? In this case, the cognitive bias called “anchoring” obscures the true causes of the event, leading to a course of action that perpetuates the problem.

Cognitive bias can cause leaders to underestimate exposure risk and overestimate the capability of systems to mitigate hazards. While any single decision may be insignificant by itself, a series of small decisions can create a path to disaster.

The biases that affect safety and organizational culture change decisions include:

Anchoring — Putting too much weight on the first information received or on a specific piece of information over all others.

Recency bias — Paying more attention to data that are easily available (e.g., most recent and therefore most memorable) while neglecting less readily available data.

Sunk-cost bias — Making choices that support past decisions or escalating your commitment to a course of action in which you have invested time, energy, reputation or money — even when data indicate the course of action may be mistaken.

Actor-observer bias — Explaining others' behaviors in terms of their personalities rather than their situations, but doing the opposite when explaining your own behaviors.

Overconfidence — Overestimating your abilities and the accuracy of your predictions, perceptions and judgments, despite evidence to the contrary.

Wishful thinking — Overestimating the probability of good things happening or preferring a course of action because its outcome is desired.

Making Better Decisions

Knowledge of cognitive bias enables leaders to question their own thinking and to isolate biases that increase hazards. In addition to becoming acquainted with the literature on cognitive bias, safety leaders can improve their decision making by putting this knowledge to use when weighing important issues. Leaders who monitor themselves for the effect of biases in their thinking, and who enlist others in the effort to check for bias, can improve the quality of safety decisions and the outcomes they produce. While understanding cognitive bias won't change every decision a leader makes, knowledge of its effects can inform the decision making process. Most importantly, this knowledge provides a strong incentive for leaders to engage in open communication, to share and dissect mistakes openly and to foster a culture that strongly favors effective safety functioning.


Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. Krause has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other targeted applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.

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