Oct 092011

“Complacency” is a term much bandied about after accidents. It implies some deliberate act of decision or non-decision that consciously says “It won’t happen to me” but the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience, reports the BBC, suggests that the lack of appreciation of risk is inherent and not a result of conscious processing.

Research carried out at University College London showed that risk assessments were poor in four out of five people, with the brain filtering out potentially negative future outcomes. Faced with real-life statistics, the assessment of potential negative outcomes changed marginally.

The negative outcomes are not being consciously suppressed, any more than a sieve consciously suppresses objects too big to pass through its mesh.

This work goes well with research that shows that the brain filters data that it has evolved to ignore. Slow changes in the environment are filtered before they reach the consciousness, for instance. Fast changes may not be noticed even if we are consciously looking for them.

It doesn’t feel like that but the truth is that while we may be the CEOs of our brains, our brains are like secretaries who only tell us what they want us to know, which is not necessarily what we need to know.

The relevance to safety is obvious. Less obvious, though, may be the need to understand these hard-wired hazards to understanding risks.