Can you believe what you see?

Last week I was involved in an incident which wasn’t an incident. Two people reported seeing a person drive past them holding a mobile phone. Like most workplaces, driving whilst on a mobile phone is a major issue. Firstly it is illegal in all states of Australia. Secondly, most research shows use of a mobile reduces driver abilities to perform driving tasks and hence reduces safety.

An investigation was commenced, looking for data to understand what actually happened. Many had jumped to a conclusions and guilty seemed unanimous.

Very quickly though, we arrived at a conclusion the driver was not driving whilst on his mobile phone. The evidence showed the mobile phone remained on the drivers desk all day and he could not have been on the phone when observed. So what did the two people see?

So much of what we see, is a construct by our brain. Our brains filter much of what is optically available, with an initial search function looking for patterns which we can recognise quickly. Our brains also fill in data which may not be present with information it thinks should be there, rather than what is there. Actually, the connect point of the optical nerve to the eye is a blind spot. So the brain fills in the bit in the middle.

What did they see? Well that was easy to find once we understood what pattern they recognised. They saw a driver with his head resting on his right hand, clenched around a security access card. The access card is also black. See the pattern they saw? Easy to do. We filter the optical data to match the patterns we have in our mind. Daniel Kahneman says the brain is a machine for jumping to conclusions.

Why is this important for safety? We need to be aware of the limitations of what we see, especially when it relates to things which can hurt us. Be aware of the patterns written into your brain and how it affects what you see. Assume you will jump to conclusions quickly but they may not be accurate. Be self aware……

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