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How to unlock safety gains through understanding irrational behaviour

Traditional approaches to improving safety performance assume humans are entirely rational actors. A more nuanced understanding of behavioural drivers can be key to changing safety culture. Marcus Beard and Immanuel Kemp from Arthur D. Little explain.

Sustaining continuous safety improvement is a common challenge across all sectors. Executive-led initiatives can yield initial improvements before reaching a plateau and stalling, damaging motivation.

The behavioural change required for improvement is a notoriously difficult obstacle to overcome. Human behaviour is influenced by both rational thought and emotion, habit and instinct, resulting in irrational and potentially unsafe actions. Traditional methods for influencing behaviour frequently fail because they do not connect with people at these fundamental levels.


The implications of behavioural theory have received increasing government attention in the UK, leading to the publication of MINDSPACE, a discussion document reviewing developments in behavioural science and their impact on policy decisions, by the UK Institute for Government. Much of its insight rings true to our experience of corporate safety management and culture.

Policymakers traditionally influence behaviour through incentives/penalties and information, which rational actors can review and respond to appropriately. Real people, however, are irrationally influenced by a range of other factors, nine of which are represented in the mnemonic "MINDSPACE":

M: The messenger's identity influences the response to the message, often through their perceived authority or expertise. Where emotional commitment is desired, a relatable messenger may be more effective (e.g. a relative of someone killed in an accident conveying a safety message).

I: Response to incentives can be partly irrational. People are more responsive to penalties than bonuses of equal value, as seen with carrier bag charges in UK supermarkets, which altered consumer behaviour far more than existing reward schemes for bag re-use. People also tend to respond to short-term reward over long term, to the detriment of many health initiatives.

N: Most people are predisposed to conform to perceived social norms. Communicating a desirable behaviour as being a norm will encourage people to adopt it - as demonstrated by the 2002-2003 "Most of Us Wear Seatbelts" campaign in Montana, US, which raised awareness of how high seatbelt use already was, resulting in further improvement.

D: When we are presented with options, we tend to favour the default. Use of 'opt in' and 'opt out' systems can significantly influence behaviour, as observed in the UK with the new pension regulations enforcing 'opt out' schemes.

S: Salience, characterised by the novelty, accessibility and simplicity of a piece of information, influences which parts of a message people respond to, a key feature of optical illusions. Choice of emphasis can, therefore, significantly alter someone's response. This phenomenon tends to cause people to focus disproportionately on risks they have personally experienced.

P: Subconscious cues, or priming, whether with words, sights or even smells, can influence how we make decisions and should be considered when designing displays and posters.

A: Affect, the act of experiencing emotion, can irrationally influence decision-making, e.g. a positive mood can lead to excessive optimism and influence risk perception.

C: Studies show that commitment to a defined, achievable goal increases someone's likelihood of following through, owing partly to reputational loss aversion.

E: An appeal to ego engages people's desire to maintain a positive and consistent self-image. For example, people are more likely to respond positively to a major request if they have already accepted a minor one.

Strengthening established safety improvement levers

Traditional approaches to regaining momentum on safety improvement initiatives focus on staff engagement. Behavioural science does not replace this but can augment existing approaches. For example, realistic performance metrics help prevent acceptance of failure as a norm. Salience should be considered when communicating these metrics to ensure the correct emphasis is made.

Branded safety programs should consider choice of messenger, along with defaults, priming, affect and the right use of incentives. Lack of engagement of middle management is a common reason for stalling safety initiatives, which can be remedied with appropriate training and development, potentially including commitment devices and appeal to ego

For the many corporations that face the challenge of the safety performance plateau, behavioural change can often be key to further improvements. Traditional "carrots and sticks" methods frequently fail because they do not connect with people at the level of emotion, habit and instinct. Behavioural science, as summarized in MINDSPACE, can help to strengthen established levers for safety improvement.

Marcus Beard is associate director and Immanuel Kemp is consultant, both at Arthur D. Little.