Would you rather…

…always be 10 minutes late or 20 minutes early?

…lose all your money or all the pictures you have ever taken?

…your shirts be always two sizes too big or one size too small?

…find true love or a suitcase with $5m inside?

You get the drift. It’s a classic example of Daniel Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking – intuitive. You process the alternatives, and generally choose the one which feels better (or less bad). It can be a fun way for two or more friends to pass some time.

The ones I find most interesting (but troubling) are those where the outcomes are negative, but with divergent emphasis:

…relive the same day for 365 days (fear of boredom) or lose a year of your life (fear of missing out)?

…face your fears (fear of confrontation) or forget that you have them (fear of personality loss)?

It seems to me that in life, we most often make decisions by comparing two (or more) related things, then choosing between them:

  • Between buying a cake or saving the money
  • Between asking someone out on a date or not experiencing the associated anxiety
  • Between taking the road less travelled or not

By contrast, in the field of Process Hazards, we are also making decisions. Here, the outcomes may also be negative and divergent:

  1. (a) Using a frequently applied short cut to an abnormal operation sequence or

          (b) Slightly reducing the risk of a dangerous loss of containment

  1. (a) Removing the source of ignition of an explosion which may cause multiple fatalities or

          (b) Fleeing from a running vehicle when spotting a major hydrocarbon release nearby

  1. (a) Avoiding the discomfort associated with an act which seems to be detrimental to company profitability or

          (b) Stopping production when sensing something untoward during a plant visit

If we only apply intuition to these alternatives, we will choose the one which feels more comfortable (or less uncomfortable). Have a go yourself, without lingering.

I did and went 1(a), 2(b) and 3(a).

In his book ‘the Intelligence Trap’ science writer Daniel Robson suggests that, at least in Western Culture, we learn to equate success with

  • memorising what we are told,
  • putting our hands up fast,
  • jumping to conclusions,
  • arguing our case convincingly and
  • persuading others to follow

The impact of this is that we leverage our intelligence to make quick decisions then develop the necessary justifications to avoid any associated cognitive dissonance (or discomfort following subsequent review and realisation that the decision may not have been the best one). Apparently, this tendency becomes more pronounced the more intelligent we are.

From an IQ perspective, medical doctors are highly intelligent. However, 15% of all hospital diagnoses are wrong, often because they are swiftly made and rarely rethought, meaning that more people die from misdiagnoses than some common and high-profile diseases such as breast cancer. As our own industry is profitable but complex and hazardous, it tends also to be populated with people with IQs significantly above average. Who would then be increasingly likely to answer 1(a), 2(b) and 3(a), as I did.

So, what can we do to help us make better professional choices? Robson sees one way forward in the way Japan educate its pupils, where the understanding of complexity is emphasised. Children in classes are encouraged to work out answers to problems before they are offered techniques. They are expected to be confused, to discover there could be several routes to a solution, to consult, to fail and taught not to see any of this as weakness or stupidity. They call this ‘eating bitterness’ and it fosters deeper learning, co-operation and strategic thinking.

A new field, based on this approach, is currently being adopted in the US: Evidence-Based Wisdom. Teachers at American schools, having raised a question simply paused for just a few seconds before inviting answers. They found that their pupils offered more evidence and alternative theories, listened to each other more and produced more nuanced, sophisticated writing. In the same way, doctors who were asked to pause after their initial hypothesis to analyse their reasons and consider other explanations improved their diagnoses by up to 40%.

It would be unreasonable to ask the truck operator to pause in the scenario mentioned above, as he felt (reasonably) that his own life was at risk. Nevertheless, the other two examples and many other similar ones besides, would benefit from a pause to allow consideration of the implications of our professional choices.

We work in a complex and hazardous industry. Let’s acknowledge that in the way we make our non-urgent but critical decisions by pausing, thinking then acting.

chem plant operators