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How the "Overconfidence Effect" Affects Employee Safety

January 18, 2017


This is Part 5 of our series on how cognitive biases affect workplace safety. Click here to read Part 1, click here for Part 2, here is Part 3, and click here for Part 4.

“Don’t worry I got this” is a dangerous phrase. The overconfidence effect is a cognitive bias that frequently leads to recordable incidents and a lot of near misses. The overconfidence effect has been studied extensively within the context of decision making and risk taking.

A well-known study asked drivers to compare the safety of their driving to the other drivers participating in the study. 88% indicated that they were safer than the average driver. 60% said that they think they are one of the top 20% in terms of driving safely. Clearly there is a disconnect between perceived ability and reality. This is the overconfidence effect and it can be deadly.

Select International’s research has identified that some individuals are especially influenced by the overconfidence effect. These mavericks will often put more stock in their own ability and experience over safety rules. “Rules are made for the others that aren’t as careful and capable as I am.” Think Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Top Gun.

Our intuitive system consistently overestimates our ability to control the factors in our environment. This illusion of control does have some adaptive benefits. Entrepreneurs and many successful leaders possess this maverick, “I can do it!” mindset. An optimistic outlook is necessary to achieve goals. The “can do” attitude is a very desirable trait possessed by employees.

However, a maverick mindset amplified by the availability heuristic (e.g. “I have over 10 years without an accident) leads to risky job-site behaviors. Overconfidence can have deadly implications. Recall the news stories of expert mountaineers that lose their lives because of overconfidence. “I am an expert climber that has conquered many mountains. Sometimes in bad weather. This storm doesn’t look that much worse than previous storms I’ve seen on mountains.”

The Smithsonian reports that over 200 bodies litter the path to Mt. Everest’s peak. These victims were not stupid people or crazy thrill seekers. They trained for years and were highly capable and intelligent. We become victims to our own history of competence. Potential warning signs are discounted and personal expertise is overestimated.

Have you seen maverick behaviors at your work site? Does your team discuss near misses during safety meetings? What was going through the person’s mind right before the near miss? The overconfidence effect probably impacted their decision making process. Increased self-awareness is the first step to avoiding the negative consequences of the overconfidence effect.

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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.