Implicit Knowledge and Safety
Most human judgment and decision making is implicit (tacit). What Polanyi described as knowledge that was felt but couldn’t be described. His famous phrase is: ‘we know more than we can say’. You can read Polanyi here: https://monoskop.org/images/1/11/Polanyi_Michael_The_Tacit_Dimension.pdf
Most of our tacit knowledge is actioned in heuristics. Heuristics are embodied knowing but not the same as habits. You can read about the intelligence of heuristics here . Giggerenzer’s work should be foundational reading in any curriculum on risk and safety (HERE ).
Recent research demonstrates that people are remarkably accurate, fast and efficient when making high value decisions. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/01/220131153234.htm ). This stands in distinction to the safety belief ‘safety is a choice you make’.
In most cases our decisions do NOT involve rational slow considered thinking. Many of our decisions are non-rational (aRational) NOT irrational.
When humans have to rely on rational decision making they are very slow. Human rational decision making is not just inefficient, it is dangerous. When people need fast and efficient decision making they rely on heuristics, learned short cuts through experience. In many ways humans make their best decisions when they are NOT ‘thinking’. I discuss this is my video One Brain Three Minds (https://vimeo.com/106770292 ).
The idea that workers use knowledge for decision making from paperwork is simply not the case.
Heuristics are connect to implicit knowing as ‘felt’ knowledge. Most workers ‘feel’ their way into decision making. Most of this is done unconsciously and involves no rational ‘choice’.
Safety is NOT a choice you make, just as unsafety is NOT a choice made. Such simplistic nonsense and language needs to be eradicated from the industry.( https://safetyrisk.net/why-safety-isnt-a-choice-you-make/; https://safetyrisk.net/the-great-safety-is-a-choice-delusion/; https://safetyrisk.net/is-safety-a-choice-you-make/ ). The purpose of this language is to blame. Couple this with the language of zero and you have brutalism.
If workers had to think rationally about their decisions and make concrete choices about safety, they would never get any work done. In the average working day and with constant rapid decisions that need to be made, 95% of all decision making is tacit. This is how workers really make decisions (https://safetyrisk.net/how-workers-really-make-decisions/; https://safetyrisk.net/how-do-workers-make-decisions/ ).
When we look at accidents and incidents we see there is most often incongruence between the speed a decision needs to be made and the lack of a heuristics to manage it.
Polanyi states: ‘Our body is the ultimate instrument of all our external knowing’. Note here there is no mention of the brain. Our felt knowledge is embodied knowledge, there is simply no time to engage the brain. Why is this not studied in safety?
The brain-centrism of safety posits that the purpose of the body is to serve a carrier service for the brain. Yet, all the evidence on embodiment in decision making contradicts this.
Most decision making in safety is NOT brain-centric.
Body memory (sometimes called ‘muscle memory) is both real and essential for human decision making. This is how my wife plays concert piano, all of the complexities of such music is decided by felt-knowledge. The same is the case in elite sports, there is simply no time for rational choice or decision making, all is ‘decided’ on tacit knowing and heuristics. Such decision making involves no effort, no concentration and no rationality indeed, elite sports people talk about not over thinking their craft but about ‘relaxing’ and ‘not thinking’.
Once again, we see in the safety industry so much energy being expended on a myth, the myth of brain-centrism to decision making.
When we ditch this silly idea that the brain is a computer and the eyes are a camera, we can begin to understand decision making and commence undertaking much better analysis of events and how to respond to them.