Overcoming complacency – What is it first?


Overcoming complacency – What is it?

Complacency seems to appear frequently in incidents, when viewed through a behavioural lens. But few useful or demonstrated effective solutions exist. We see lots of telling people “not to be complacent” or complacency is just being lazy so use the punish model to change behaviour. Nothing which addresses the real reasons why people do what they do.

So, I thought I would post a short series which tackles this issue head on. First up, a definition of complacency. I checked out dictionary.com and it says:

A feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect: source

This seems a workable definition as it covers the two areas I think are important. “Feeling” and “unaware”. Lets look deeper.

It’s all in your mind

When we discuss complacency, we easily recognise it as a mental process. A mental process which affects what we do.

The latest neuroscience shows a more detailed picture of mental processes while helping us see deeper into these mental processes. Due to these advances, we now have a better understanding of the why we have a “feeling” of security and “unaware” of dangers.

These processes happen in the automatic thinking part of our brain. Task repetition creates neural connections. More repetitions, stronger connections.

It is helpful to picture these connections in the back of your brain. These connections operate with very little effort from you, and virtually no input from your conscious thinking or front of mind. Our brain makes this conscious thought about the task a redundant process. It does this for energy-saving reasons.

The consequence of this redundancy is our brain directs conscious thoughts to other things it finds interesting. This includes waiting for something interesting to appear. The result is our conscious thoughtful processes are not engaged in the task you are doing and diminishing our ability to compute risk and hazards during the task.

This is compounded when we add emotions to the completion of a task. As humans, we like to complete things. Picture crossing an activity off your list you did today. How did that feel? It is a powerful brain response. And the more we complete, the happier we become. The more certain and secure nothing bad will happen.

What does it all mean?

So complacency is created as a result of strong neural connections formed through repetition, no longer requiring your conscious brain (reduced awareness), linked to the powerful human emotions (feeling secure) with repeated task completion.

Little wonder we see complacency over and over. What is more mysterious, is with such a common cause of incident, why we don’t have more effective means to deal with it.

In the next post, we will look at the evolutionary hack we all have and how to use it to solve the complacency in safety.


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