We all know that drinking gallons of soda is bad for us. It’s been proven. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have determined that drinking 20 ounces (1 large cup) of soda a day was linked to 4.6 years of additional biological aging. If you want to shorten your life, it’s a sure fire way. So we know soda is bad for us; we just don’t feel it. When we drink soda, we get physiologically rewarded: it tastes good, we feel content. This is because our brains have evolved to keep us alive long enough to reproduce and ensure the long term safety of our offspring. In order to survive we need calories and a 20 ounce cup of soda is an extremely efficient means of acquiring them. We have not, however, evolved senses which will alert us to modern perils which could damage our long term satisfaction and health.

This seems rather bleak. We seem to be victims of an archaic defence mechanism, which is now diminishingly effective. A bit like an air raid siren in an age of cyber attacks. However, there is hope. We have the remarkable tool of consciousness, which enables us to review and modify our instinctive reaction to external stimuli. A kind of contemplative veto. A ‘free will not’. The challenge in applying this tool is the cognitive dissonance which arises (In the Blue Corner - ‘I want to get pleasure from drinking that soda’ and in the Red Corner - ‘I want to lose weight and live longer’) engendering mental discomfort.

Recognising that changing habits to give us better long term outcomes, generates short term stress, is the first step to addressing the issue. In my industry, we deal with modern threats of a different and altogether more dramatic nature. Our major risks, Process Safety risks, are not particularly aligned to detection and mitigation by our senses. This is because the hazards (high pressure flammable hydrocarbons, deadly toxic gases) are kept in check by multiple independent barriers. It is only when those barriers are breached (which may occur insidiously without detection - high pressure alarms and trips failing before the overpressure in the tank, leading to rupture) that our senses are alerted (hearing the explosion, smelling the toxic gas), by which time it is probably too late. If we can create a nurturing and stimulating working environment, we can engender these non-intuitive safer habits. We need a workforce which is motivate by what is safe, not just by what feels safe.