• Accidents can happen to anyone

    7 October at 14:37 from atlas

    Accidents of all types used to be analyzed in terms of their physical or mechanical causes. When the cause was clearly human error, they were often written off as the result of foolishness or lack of training. But among those who investigate accidents, there is an increasing awareness that this type of analysis does not fully explain why otherwise rational people do what may seem irrational.

    In May 1989, Lynn Hill, the winner of more than 30 international rock-climbing titles, was preparing to climb what she called a "relatively easy" route in Buoux, France. She threaded her rope through her harness, but then, instead of tying her knot, she stopped to put on her shoes. While she was tying them, she talked with another climber, then returned to climb the rock face. "The thought occurred to me that there was something I needed to do before climbing," she later recalled, but, "I dismissed this thought." She climbed the wall, and when she leaned back to rappel to the ground, she fell 22 meters, her life narrowly saved by tree branches. In her case, more training would not have helped. In fact, experience contributed to her accident. She had created a very efficient model for tying her rope to her harness. She could do it without thinking. So the act of tying her shoes may have been similar enough to tying her rope that it allowed her to reach the unconscious conclusion that her rope was tied, even while leaving a slight residue of doubt.

    At some level, most of us are like Lynn Hill, with a knot half-tied somewhere in our lives, just waiting for us to put our weight on it. And one of the most frequently ignored factors in many accidents is the way we form models of the world and refer to them—not the world itself—in most of what we do. Understanding this system will help explain why smart people do irrational things.

    Mental models have been the subject of intense research by psychologists for at least two decades. A classic one can be seen on the parking sign for the handicapped. It displays an image that we instantly recognize as a wheelchair, even though it looks very little like one. That's because we code information in an abbreviated form for quick reference. We can also create much more elaborate models. Most people, for example, have a complex model for driving that allows them to do so while talking on the phone and drinking coffee. Once models are established, they require no thought. They're efficient, which is probably why they were selected by evolution, but the models we make automatically push our intellectual knowledge aside.

    Skiing deep powder results in a big rush of adrenaline. The next time we find ourselves poised above a great expanse of deep powder, we may launch into it without stopping to assess the danger of an avalanche, even as a tiny voice says: "Wait just a moment, please."

    Most things eventually fall into the category labeled "ignore." That's why you can put a new picture on your wall and find that soon you don't even see it. We don't really perceive the world most of the time. We take in perceptions through our senses and then pull up what seems like the most relevant mental model. We see, in other words (and hear and smell and feel), by analogy. This system lets us move smoothly through the world without having to stop all the time and reexamine something we've already examined. It's the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once.

    These models form the basis not only of how we act but what we perceive and believe. We tend not to notice things that are inconsistent with the models, and we tend not to try what they tell us is bad or impossible. Henry Plotkin, a psychobiologist at University College in London, refers to this phenomenon as the "primary heuristic," a tendency to "generalize into the future what worked in the past." Until Reinhold Messner climbed Mount Everest without oxygen in 1978, everyone was held back by the belief that it was impossible. Today an average of seven climbers do it every year. Human evolution had not changed in those few years. What changed was the mental model. Seymour Cray, famous for inventing the fastest supercomputers in his day, liked to hire kids straight out of college, because unlike senior engineers they hadn't yet learned what was impossible.

    These models can become remarkably stable even in the face of clear information that would seem to contradict them. That's why we can continue on into deteriorating conditions or ignore obvious hazards. That's why Lynn Hill fell.

    As a species, we are tremendously successful. And that very success becomes incorporated into the models that shape our behavior. Our strongest models tell us to keep doing what I've been doing.

    Man was once a wary creature, venturing onto the plain with his head down and his ears up. The world must have seemed calculated to bedevil him, to snatch from his grasp all that he held dear, and to distribute his bones to the beasts just for spite. It must've seemed the height of good sense to create a world where the fruit always hung low and all predators were kept at bay. But that benevolent world comes with unintended consequences: It teaches us to drop our guard.

    Taking measures to increase safety suffers from the ratchet effect in the same way that technology does. It's a one-way process. Once you invent the car, you can't go back to the horse. Once you've established a safeguard, you can only increase it. The point is not that we should make the world less safe. It is that we should be aware of these unintended side effects. In addition, we should be aware that the safety we're being offered is often an illusion. Systems become more complex but not necessarily safer. When radar was introduced into commercial shipping, it was supposed to reduce accidents. Instead, accidents increased, because the captains drove their boats faster. Something as simple as requiring bicyclists to wear helmets can backfire in surprising ways.

    Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath, found that people drive their cars much closer to cyclists wearing helmets, because drivers assume that those people know what they're doing. Rollins doesn't believe requiring locator beacons will make anyone safer. "It's going to increase the number of rescues and put more search-and-rescue volunteers at risk," he says.

    We have the capacity to be thinking creatures. Yet we scarcely try, despite the fact that everything we might love and enjoy as well as every pain we might avoid is decided by how well we learn to use that ability. Or as Gregory Berns, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Emory University, wrote: "People who seek out information about the world get more goodies."

    We need to adopt the acronym STOP for Stop, Think, Observe, Plan more often. That's what smart people do when trouble comes. If you don't do that, your behavior will be whatever you've practiced. Most of us are practicing all the time without even recognizing it. We may be rehearsing our own death.


    Dave Grossman describes in his book On Combat how one police officer had trained himself to snatch a pistol from an assailant's hand. During practice, he'd grab the gun, then give it back and try it again. One day, facing a real assailant, he snatched the gun out of a criminal's hand, taking him completely by surprise. Then he handed it back. (Luckily, he shot the criminal.)

    However reasonable and thoughtful we may seem to be, our intellectual powers grow weakest just when we need them most. We need to perhaps set our alarm clocks to go off once an hour whilst at work and to STOP and look at what's happening, rather than having daily briefings before we start work.

    The brain and body are not two things. They are one. And what we call our "self" is neither of those. It is, rather, a process shaped by our experience of touching the world. The emotional system with all its mental models does not come already assembled. We create it through our experience of responding to the world. Most of us do that construction work haphazardly, and then we're sometimes surprised by our own behavior.

    At every step, we should strive to slow down and examine what we are really doing. And to become believers: We need to regularly tell ourselves "Yes, things can go wrong here, it really can happen to me, It's out there waiting for me now, It will come unannounced".

    Although it's easy to pass through life as if in a waking dream, we could enrich our lives, be more effective, and sometimes even cast a protective web around ourselves by developing a habit of knowing our world and ourselves and by consciously paying attention.

    If only we could only see high risk activities as a cancerous disease. Near misses would then be portrayed as a once in a lifetime activity and we would appreciate safety professionals more as helpers instead of hinderers.