How to beat our fallible memory, distraction and confirmation bias


Humans suffer from three major issues that are often found in incidents. The first is a fallible memory. Our working memory has a limited capacity to reliably remember tasks, especially when facing complex environments.

The second is distraction, especially with mundane repetitious tasks. Our ability to paying attention is also limited. Significant studies show for most people our level of attention drops dramatically after about 20 minutes. Even focussed individuals get to about 30 minutes. Once attention drops the potential to be distracted increases, steps can be missed and hence why it is appears.

The third one, and probably the most dangerous, is how we, when we do miss steps and nothing happens, can put ourselves into a false sense of security. We repeat the missed step again and again, nothing happens so it continues to be “ok” to do it. Before we know it, we are habitually missing important steps. Steps that aren’t important until they are!

I’m sure safety professionals, when they look for it, will see these issues everywhere. This is not new. The major question is how do we prevent it?

Checklists, thats how. In key areas where memory, distraction or self confirming step skipping would be catastrophic, checklists have been used with outstanding results. Take aviation for a start. The amount of complex inter-related activities that need to co-ordinated to enable an aircraft to fly for most people incomprehensible. Even highly trained pilots, with years of experience all use checklists to ensure safety. It is fair to say that we wouldn’t have the aviation safety record today, without the ubiquitous use of checklists.

Today, checklists are used again and again with great success in many industries. Medicine, Engineering, Manufacturing, Banking, Transport just to name a few. The reason why they work are:

1. The important knowledge cant be forgotten by your working memory,
2. When the inevitable distraction happens, you don’t lose important data or processes, and
3. A checklist is a visual marker when you miss a step, creating accountability to follow the process.

So if you are looking for ways to beat your brains weakenesses, try using checklists to do it.


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