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How the Availability Heuristic Affects Your Personal Safety at Work

August 31, 2016

work-safety.jpgThis is part 2 of our workplace safety series on how cognitive biases affect safety. Click here to read Part 1, click here for Part 3, and here is Part 4.

At a family gathering, my cousin expressed concern about his dad’s lifelong smoking habit. His dad slyly replied, “I been smoking my entire life and I ain’t dead yet.”

The availability heuristic is our tendency to overestimate the importance of information that is most immediately available to us. The immediacy of the information holds more power than the accuracy or completeness of the information. A personal anecdote is more powerful than an actuarial table because of the availability heuristic. It is the part of our intuitive system that internally whispers “it won’t happen to me” because the potential negative consequences of a behavior are not immediately available to our attention.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky extensively studied the availability heuristic phenomenon. They asked participants in one of their studies the following question:

“If a random word is taken from an English text, is it more likely that the word starts with a K, or that K is the third letter?”

You may be surprised to learn that a typical text contains twice as many words that have “K” as the third letter. It is much easier for us to remember and focus on words that begin with “K” (kitchen, kitten). However, did you notice that two of the words in Kahneman and Tversky’s question have “K” as the third letter?

This phenomenon has implications for our safety. “Out of sight, out of mind” is one way to put it. Isn’t it interesting that when there is a major safety incident that grabs the workforce’s attention, the likelihood of that same type of incident recurring is greatly reduced? This is the availability heuristic phenomenon. It is a reason why our intuitive system naturally focuses more on lagging indicators than on leading indicators.

How do we encourage employees to be mindful of safety risks that have not yet occurred? Experienced safety professionals mostly realize that statistics are not very persuasive. Personal experiences are the most impactful, with anecdotes from trusted others a close second.

During your safety meetings do you set aside time for employees to discuss recent near misses and the factors that led to the near miss? Are the potential outcomes of the incident discussed? Imagining the pain, sorrow, and hardship associated with a risk increases its immediacy. Does your workplace have the safety leadership and culture where employees are comfortable discussing their near misses with coworkers?

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Brian Dishman Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at PSI. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.