Cognitive Dissonance in Safety: Part 4

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological principle that occurs when the mind encounters a principle that is contrary to the person’s current belief. The mind creates a “dissonance” between the thoughts as a method of adjusting

This discussion focuses on the aspects of the cognitive dissonance and how that applies to occupational safety.

The free choice paradigm is an aspect of cognitive dissonance that creates a greater difference in a choice when the decision is actually very close in proximity. An example: Someone is given a choice between two very similar items. When they are evaluating which to choose, they rank the two items very close. The person makes a choice between the two similar items and is polled again at a later date. At this time, they create a much wider gap between the two items, heavily favoring the one they chose. The mind wants the decision that it made to be the best choice. So in retrospect, it creates the idea that it made the better choice by a wide margin.

I think as a safety professional, I have found myself doing exactly this. There are times where I am having to explain why I made one choice over another. The regulations sometimes allow a decision to be made on how to conduct compliance. In those cases, it often feels like “six one way, half a dozen another.” Once the decision is made, it is easy to look back and really feel that the decision was clear and well made.

I can remember one decision in particular. It was a start up, and I was deciding which safety glasses was the best choice. The risk for eye issues was low, but still it was an avoidable problem through the implementation of a safety glasses policy. I had narrowed the choice between a light weight more slim line style or a wider slightly more heavy one. Both were equally good choices. Ultimately, the choice was for the wider slightly more heavy style. Some days/weeks later a near miss occurred where a small air hose had come loose and whipped against someone’s face. Instead of striking the area near the eye, it hit the glasses. I remember pontificating quite passionately of “that was why I chose the wider style.”

The truth  . . . the glasses may not have made a difference. The other style may have protected just as well. I see it now as a way that I created greater reasoning for why the decision was made.

In this case the cognitive dissonance was not destructive. Probably annoying, but not harmful. It does show that when we are faced with equal choices, we may be apt to increase the benefit of why we made the specific choice in hindsight or after an event.

For the safety professional, this is an aspect of human psychology to keep in mind. If someone has to make a choice of two equally justifiable items, they could be prone to unintentionally making the choice significantly more favorable than the alternate. This can come in handy as a tool for incident investigations or while gaining understanding of processes and procedures. There may have been a good reason for why something is in place, but there may not have been such a positive difference. In these cases, the facts could speak more clearly than the opinions.

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