Kahneman on small gains

Daniel Kahneman is a towering figure in behavioural science and author of my favourite psychology text. I make sure to reread the Nobel laureate economist’s Thinking Fast and Slow every few years. It’s a 420-page layman’s tour through Kahneman’s 50 years of research, much of it carried out with his colleague Amos Tversky, and I come back to it not just because it is fascinating, but to remind myself how unreliable my brain can be if I keep to its default settings.

Kahneman lays bare the ways that we perform all kinds of sleight-of-mind to avoid having to deal with too much complexity or to make sense of conflicting data. Like making dinner out of whatever leftovers we can find in the kitchen, we instinctively assemble theories to fit the evidence we have to hand, rather than searching out or embracing more evidence.

Through a series of biases and heuristics we try reflexively to shape the world to patterns we know and prefer. Our minds are easily drawn to comforting conclusions, especially when we try to estimate probabilities. Kahneman’s research into optimism bias shows that people reliably overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and underestimate scary ones.

I like to warn myself of these traps, thanks to Kahneman, not so I can feel holier than thou, but so that I am more likely to remember them and try to avoid them when reading and writing about others’ research. With Kahneman’s help I may be able to practice the slower “System 2” thought process, that evaluates evidence and looks for a rounded picture, rather than the fast “System 1” rush to judgement that can often let us down when it is not needed as part of a fight or flight response.

Kahneman and Tversky’s work helps put a lot of workplace behaviour into context. Availability bias – that tendency to make theories, like meals, out of what is most easily to hand, has a powerful influence on individual risk perception: “in 15 years doing this job I’ve never seen anyone fall off a ladder, so it’s not going to happen to me”. One day, perhaps, individuals’ capacity to overwrite those attractive empirical conclusions when presented with the bigger picture – half a million people a year treated for ladder-related injuries in the US alone, according the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons – could be reflected in individual risk profiles. For now it’s helpful to have a scientific underpinning for the fact that “common sense” or personal experience is no substitute for training, instruction and supervision.

I’m blogging about Kahneman here because I’ve just been alerted to something he said in conversation with the producer and presenter of a behavioural economics podcast at a conference in 2017. Talking about behavioural change initiatives, Kahneman said: “What you can hope for is what is called practically significant improvement, which is usually a few percent. If you get a few percent at relatively low cost, that’s a success.”

That thought chimes with what we at One Percent Safer believe – it’s in our name after all – that concentrating on what’s achievable: incremental but significant gains, is the way to success, and is a success if you get there.

I owe thanks to my fellow contributor to the One Percent Safer book, the academic and consultant Theo Compernolle, for finding Kahneman’s comment, which feels like an endorsement (even if unintended) of our approach.

Theo is one of the speakers at One Percent Safer: Live & Direct event on 28 April, where he will be talking about mental health – one of his books is the excellent Stress, Friend and Foe! available on demand from Amazon. There are still tickets available for the virtual event, which features some major figures from the world of safety management including Siemens safety chief Ralf Franke and Malcolm Staves, global VP, health and safety at L’Oréal. Apart from explaining the One Percent Safer mindset and discussing lessons from the pandemic we will be hearing stories from members of the One Percent Safer community, OSH practitioners who committed themselves to make a difference in their workplaces, about how their progress to date. Get your ticket here.

(Image: Raman Oza, Pixabay)