Enthusiasm for Occupational Health and Safety: When It’s a Benefit and When It’s Not

Offer employees a helping hand as they navigate complex tasks by ensuring they are motivated, prepared and practiced.

The Opening Session of the 2011 ASSE conference in Chicago featured a keynote talk by Daniel Pink, an attorney and author of a book on motivation. For an audience of over 3,000, Pink described an experiment that showed detrimental effects of using incentives to motivate the completion of a difficult task.

As Pink described it, the incentive condition for the complex task involved the experimenter standing next to the subject with a stopwatch and stating, “If you can beat the time record set by a prior participant, you will be the best at this task and receive $5.” Pink specified the $5 reward in 1962 – when this experiment was conducted – would be worth $35 today. Participants in this “incentive” condition actually took more time to complete the task than participants who did not receive the extra incentive. However, explaining these results on the basis of task complexity ignores other important contributing factors and is therefore misleading.

The cornerstone of Pink’s presentation was the assertion that incentives only can benefit performance in the case of relatively simple tasks. This is not scientifically valid and misses a key motivational lesson related to occupational health and safety.

It’s About Emotional Arousal

Imagine yourself in a situation similar to that described by Pink. The task is relatively complicated and you have not been in this situation before. Given that you want to show personal competence, you probably will be a bit nervous and excited. Now, consider the addition to the scenario that the researcher sets up a competitive situation whereby you can receive a financial reward if you are the fastest at completing the task. Would this extra incentive/reward condition cause more emotional excitement? Yes, if you could use an extra $35. (Note that all participants were college students and probably would view $35 as a valuable reward.) Would this increased excitement help or hinder your performance?

An answer to this second question is determined by more than task complexity. Extra arousal or excitement facilitates performance when the participant is well-practiced and prepared, regardless of task complexity. In other words, if you have a dominate response available for a particular job (i.e., you know what to do), your performance will be facilitated by the extra motivation from the emotion-arousing condition (e.g., an interpersonal competition for a financial reward). On the other hand, if you are confused and do not have a clear behavioral strategy readily available (i.e., you’re unsure what to do), as probably was the case for most subjects in the experiment described by Pink, your performance would be inhibited by the extra arousal induced by a win/lose competition. This revised conclusion would be reached by those who not only know the research on task complexity, but also know how to combine that information with other basic research in psychological science.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

Students in my introductory psychology classes learn about the Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal and motivation, first explored scientifically in 1908 by R.M. Yerkes and J.D. Dodson. Simply put, human performance improves with increased arousal up to a point, but after this level of arousal is reached (which varies as a function of both personality and context), human performance decreases as arousal increases.

So, what person- and situation-based factors influence the level at which more emotional arousal is detrimental to human performance? As described above, task complexity is a critical contextual variable, but its impact depends on dimensions of the individual performer. Is the performer well prepared or unprepared for the difficult task? Does the performer possess a personality trait that is accompanied by inherent motivating arousal? For example, an individual could be a highly competitive Type A personality (Freidman & Rosenman, 1974), and therefore bring substantial arousal to the situation. Or, a person could be a more laid-back Type B personality, and not be as naturally aroused in competitive situations.

Real-World Applications

Sticking with the theme of task complexity and arousal, let’s consider a few real-world applications of the Yerkes-Dodson law, with direct connection to occupational health and safety. Two of the most popular domains of social psychology are relevant here, and frequently experiences by most readers.

Social Facilitation – Imagine a crowd of people watching you practice driving golf balls or rallying with a tennis instructor. Would a watching audience help or hinder your performance? Would you rather practice your golf swing or tennis strokes alone, or in the presence of scrutiny from others? From the above discussion and your personal experience, you know the answer to these questions. Golf and tennis are relatively complex tasks, and the emotional excitement triggered by the onlookers will help or hinder your performance depending largely on your perceived proficiency (or self-efficacy) at golf or tennis.

Professional athletes competing in major golf and tennis tournaments obviously are internally motivated to do their best. Thus, they are experts at related tasks. With highly developed skills, there is a motivational advantage to large numbers of observers because they increase arousal. And, whether or not they “need” the money, a large financial reward for being the best performer also increases arousal. These situation factors constitute a social facilitation of one’s performance because they enhance the emotional arousal of a well-practiced competitor.

For the same reason, there is a home-team advantage for most teams of competent athletes. Fans cheering loudly for their team motivates players to try harder. For players who are prepared and well-practiced, this extra motivation will improve performance. Thus, I must respectively disagree with Pink’s assertion that Rafael Nadal’s tennis performance is not benefited by an “if-then” incentive/reward contingency associated with winning Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

Bystander Apathy – A well-known social psychology phenomenon directly related to occupational safety and health is “bystander apathy.” Since the seminal research of John Darly and Bibb Latane (1968), social psychologists have studied the conditions that influence whether an individual observing an emergency situation will intervene to help. In general, an inverse relationship has been found between the probability an individual will intervene and the number of people present at the crisis. This is termed “the bystander effect,” and usually is explained by “diffusion of responsibility.” In other words, the more people observing an individual’s cry for help, the easier it is for an onlooker to disperse the responsibility to others, perhaps to people better equipped to handle the situation.

Typically, we look to others to determine the nature of a situation, and if no one is doing anything, it appears there is nothing that needs to be done. In reality, each person watching the situation worries about making a mistake in interpreting a non-emergency as a problem, or about looking foolish if he or she does not intervene correctly – a social inhibition of performance.

Not knowing crisis-management methods makes a person reluctant to engage in them. This is why first aid/CPR courses teach people to assess situations and direct others to assist, which they readily do once ambiguity is resolved and a clear, easy-to-perform task is assigned to them (e.g., “call 911” or “get the AED”).

Thus, there’s a notable exception to this bystander effect. If someone among the observers knows what to do in the emergency (i.e., the onlooker has a relevant skill set available), he or she will help the victim, regardless of the number of onlookers. Consider how these empirical results readily fit within our discussion of emotional arousal and task complexity.

An emergency certainly provokes emotional arousal and if observers are not well-prepared to handle such circumstances, as is unfortunately the case for most people, they will be reluctant to act in front of others, hoping other observers will take responsibility. But, if an observer of a crisis is well-trained and practiced at emergency response, this person will conduct the complex task with effective proficiency, motivated in part by the emotional arousal elicited by seeing a victim in need of special attention.

Preparation, Practice Benefit Performance

The need for more people to be well-trained and practiced to handle the complicated components of emergency responding is obvious, and readers don’t need another reminder of this fact. However, the role of emotional arousal in potentially facilitating or inhibiting performance may motivate the acquisition of skill sets for situations that could cause emotional arousal. If you are prepared and practiced for situations that cause excitement (e.g., giving a speech to a large audience), your performance will benefit from this motivational state.

Much more could be said about Pink’s critique about the use of incentives to motivate behavior, but the evidence-based do’s and don’ts of incentive/reward interventions for safety have been explained elsewhere. Moreover, I discussed the critical role of emotions in activating attention to safety-related behaviors in my previous contribution to EHS Today (May 2011).

The dynamics of human performance are diverse and complicated. I hope this article equips you with a more sophisticated understanding of the connections between task complexity and incentive/reward contingencies. Perhaps this presentation also will persuade some of you to be skeptical about simplistic presentations of the “what” or “how” of psychology, when evidence-based answers to “why” are not given.

A medley of environmental, personal and social factors interacts in intricate ways to influence human performance. Therefore, in the absence of evidence-based explanations of underlying mechanisms, it’s wise to question proposals of a straightforward causal relation between human behavior and an experimental simulation.


Noted author, educator and lecturer E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions; an alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech; and the director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in Blacksburg, Va.

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