Cognitive Dissonance in Safety

The next series of posts will focus on a social psychology theory called Cognitive Dissonance. This series could also be called “Maintaining and Changing Safety Attitudes.” When people encounter information that goes against what they believe, a mechanism in their behavior makes them want to find a way to maintain the current belief.

Here is a very generic example that would demonstrate the theory in practice. An experienced safety professional comes to a new company and realizes some equipment does not have lockout-tagout information posted. Even more so, no one is locking out the equipment when performing minor maintenance or unjamming. After the equipment has instructions created, the training begins. During the training, the safety person encounters significant pushback from employees.

Typical responses would be:
“This will take too long”
“We’ve never had any trouble”
“Why do we need this now”
“This will add too much work”
“We will never have time to make the product”
“Another example of safety slowing things down and causing problems”
“We’ve never had much trouble with these machines”

Just to make the story more interesting, let’s also assume that there have been minor finger amputations and OSHA citations from the same/similar equipment. All information points to that the change to make the equipment safer as a good thing and yet they are firmly resistant to the improvement

Now let’s add a new aspect. During this training, someone else in the room speaks up, “at my last job we had to lockout everything every time. This makes sense to me.” The safety person takes this opportunity to talk about the injuries associated with the equipment and the OSHA citations. Now people cannot believe that they had never had those procedures in place.

This is the heart of cognitive dissonance. When someone is confronted with facts that differ from their belief, they create inconsistencies with the facts so that they can maintain their prior beliefs. It is not about presenting the facts. It is about to modifying attitudes and behaviors. There are various facets of the cognitive dissonance theory that can be explored in regards to safety and how to overcome those thoughts from a negative perspective while enhancing the positive. Cognitive dissonance can be a tough process or it can be a new method of motivation.

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