The way we think – A new framework


Today I want to propose a new framework for how we as humans “think” and how it affects our behaviours. Much has been assumed about how our brains are logical rational machines and the logical rational decisions leading to logical rational behaviours. Unfortunately, this situation rarely happens and any safety system based on this premise is flawed.

For the past 4 years I have been studying “how we think” to better understand the thought processes that go on before people get injured. Drawing on the latest research and findings from neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, behavioural economics (a favorite field of study for me) and social science, I propose the following framework that I believe fundamentally changes behavioural safety and ultimately safety.

The “way we think” framework involves 3 principles:

  • We think most of the time in automatic mode – narrow focus, quick and effortless, associative and intuitive (aka System 1)
  • We think socially – influenced by social preferences, social networks and social norms
  • We think using mental models – mental short cuts formed from experiences of self or others, strongly influencing individuals decision making

So what does this mean? It means to be effective with any behavioural program you need to consider:

  • The program’s primary goal is to affect those behaviours we do automatically (habits) not the ones where we stop and think about (system 2 thinking).
  • Clearly understand the social elements within the work group and leverage them to benefit the program. It is not enough to say safety is an individual responsibility, as everyone influences each other and therefore all need to be involved.
  • Make sure the right mental models are being created and used amongst the work group. Spend time understanding them and getting them right. They are hugely powerful.

Using this framework opens up a whole new area within safety that many in other business fields have already worked out. In the field of Marketing for instance, these principles have been used for decades to shape and maintain the behaviours of consumers.

We safety folks bang on about lessons learned after incidents. Getting them out to the workforce as quickly as possible. It seems strange that we are quick to transmit but very slow to receive. Well it is time we learned some lessons from others.


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