Drive my car

One of the nice things about this blog is that I can indulge myself in musing on pretty much any topic that takes my fancy. I’ve wanted to do something about perception of risk for a while, and was reminded about a nice example or two while discussing some of my colleagues in Thailand over a cup of coffee back in the office. So here goes…

Why is a Thai Amulet like a Volvo?

In Thailand, as in many parts of the world, people are connected to the spiritual world in a fundamental and meaningful way that impacts their lives on many levels. One way that this connection and belief manifests itself is in the use of amulets to provide spiritual and earthly protection for everyday activities. These amulets have a fascinating history and they range in style and price based on materials and craftsmanship, and (of course) on their effectiveness as protective talismans. My colleague tells me that the amulets also form a reminder and a connection to Buddha and other great teachers or spiritual leaders, who teach the correct and good behaviours in all facets of life that form so much of Thai society. Of course they don’t replace other safety functions, warning signs, barriers, a legal framework etc.

Western religions also have a long tradition of protective talismans and amulets, stretching back to ancient Rome and beyond. Perhaps the most obvious examples are figures or medallions of Christian saints common across the Catholic faith.

Anyway, back to Thailand. A common use for amulets is to provide spiritual protection for drivers. Most taxis have an amulet or two on display and many other cars also sport amulets as an essential ‘layer of protection’ against Bangkok’s sometimes crazy traffic. Belief in these amulets is profound and pervasive and many Thais will tell you that they are safer because of their protective powers. When all else fails, perhaps they will provide the miracle that is needed. Here’s a couple of nice pictures of the dashboard of a Thai colleague’s car with his collection of powerful amulets (they’d better be powerful as he has a certain reputation as a fast driver!).

Image credit: ABB
Image credit: ABB

It can sometimes be too easy to dismiss people’s beliefs about what keeps them safe both in and out of the work environment, but our beliefs about how safe we are and what it is that protects us have a profound affect on our behaviours. Staying with the theme of our cars and driving beliefs, most people will feel significantly safer in cars equipped with a driver and passenger frontal air bag, or with ABS. This is despite the fact that the airbags are of much less use than people believe if seat belts are worn correctly, and ABS is only useful in certain circumstances and only to provide steering control, not necessarily reduced stopping distance. Of course, these and many other innovations do have a real and measurable effect on our safety in the right circumstance. However, our beliefs regarding the effectiveness of these systems are important, and some manufacturers such as Volvo cultivate an image for leading edge safety systems in their vehicles.

So, to answer the question at the top of the piece, ‘why is a Thai Amulet like a Volvo?’ It’s because they both make us feel safer.

But why is that important? What’s so wrong with feeling safer? Well, the answer to that is with something called risk compensation (or more controversially, risk homeostasis), which says the safer you feel, the more risks you tend to run. The risk compensation effect has been known for some time and there are an extensive number of studies that illustrate the effect. These studies examine fields and applications as diverse as sexual behaviours, medical and health, sports and workplace issues. The effects and principles apply to adults and children, and even at the level of organisations. For an example of the latter consider the recent rush to utilise the trans-polar route for airline travel, saving as much as three hours in the journey time on some routes. Previously this route was considered as not safe enough due to magnetic anomalies and the lack of search and rescue facilities amongst other factors. As our aircraft reliability and systems improve, the level of risk becomes acceptable to society and Russia and China have now authorised the routes. Of course, an alternative to saving the three hours would be to continue to fly the existing route at the reduced level of risk that these improvements afford. But we don’t. At the organisational level we reset the risk and indulge in new behaviours. Of course, these organisational behaviours are merely the sum of the human elements involved, including us as customers demanding the shorter journey times. Nothing in this is inherently wrong and the three hours gained is a hugely valuable gain. It is interesting to see this risk compensation occurring at the macro level in the full glare of media and public attention though.

Risk compensation also appears to extend beyond personal risk, to the risk we seem to be prepared to directly expose others to. Some of you may remember a small study published in 2007 regarding bicycle helmet use, widely reported in the media. The study looked not at the risk that the cyclist runs when wearing a helmet or not, but at how close drivers drove to cyclists wearing helmets. As you might guess by now, drivers drive closer to cyclists when the cyclist is wearing a helmet, exposing them to more risk. This study prompted a debate on the value of cycling helmets, despite their proven efficacy in the event of an accident. Of course, cycling helmets are a form of PPE, and we can expect the risk compensation behaviour to apply to PPE at work in the same way as it applies to other areas of life.

There is a reason that we have evolved to compensate for perceived risk. When you look at the inverse of what we are discussing, an increase in perceived risk rather than a decrease, you’d expect people to compensate increased perceived risk with decreased risk taking behaviours. We are more reluctant to go near a cliff or rooftop edge in the absence off a protective barrier. In very real sense, all this is saying is that we’ve evolved as a species to actively manage risk. That all sounds good, and highly appropriate, so is there really a problem?

The problem comes when our perception of risk doesn’t reflect the real level of risk involved in activity, or in a protective system or device. In those circumstances we may increase our risk taking behaviours on the misplaced assumption that we have a protection in place that does not in fact exist or isn’t as effective as we think it is. Our risk compensation behaviour makes us less safe, rather than more. Unfortunately there is a lot of evidence that people are not as good at assessing risk as we would like to think, especially when it comes to assessing our competence in managing and avoiding hazards. Risk can be complex, emotive and personal; and our experience, knowledge, education and beliefs all colour our perceptions in this area.

Education and communication regarding the level of protection and the limitations from new and innovative protective devices, PPE, and systems are therefore essential if the inevitable compensation behaviour is going to be appropriate. In particular, we must ensure that the benefits of any change are not overstated, therefore provoking an inappropriate compensation in behaviours. There is, quite rightly, an increasing level of interest in the public perception of risk, often concentrating on how Governments, the media and professions such as the medical community or scientists communicate risk. Hopefully we will improve this area over time, but in the meantime we can all contribute by looking at how this communication operates in our workplace.

At the end of the day though, as long as we don’t change our behaviours to compensate, a little spiritual protection can’t hurt, can it?


Header Image Credit: Jace via pixabay

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About the author

Tony Atkinson

I lead the ABB Consulting Operational Human Factors team. I've spent over 30 years in the process industries, working in control rooms around the world, in the fields of ergonomics, control and alarm systems, control room design and operational and cultural issues such as communications, competency and fatigue. I've been blogging on diverse topics that interest me in the widest sense of 'human factors', all of which share the same common element, the 'Mk.1 Human Being' and their unique limitations, abilities and behaviours. I'll discuss the technical and organisational issues that affect safety and performance of these process safety operators and technicians and how this impacts control rooms and the wider plant. However learning comes from many places and you can expect entries about aviation, automotive, marine, healthcare, military and many other fields. Outside of work, I indulge in travel, food, wine and flying kites to keep myself moderately sane. Please feel free to post your comments on each post. Blog entries are posted with no set frequency. To ensure you don't miss out on the latest blog post, click the button below to subscribe to email alerts when a new blog has been posted.
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