Risk: Why, You can't anticipate everything

Introduction (via Invisible Gorilla)

A standard approach to safety engineering is to try to define all of the potential risks in advance and to design protocols that, if followed precisely, will avoid all of the known hazards. Such safety-by-protocol is great in principle, but it has a critical failing: The illusion of knowledge. The approach assumes that we can know and anticipate all of the potential risks.

Here’s one example of why that approach doesn’t work (I’m hoping it was a faked scene for a comedy program, but I’m not sure). Watch it all the way until the end:

Favorite excerpt (via Invisible Gorilla Blog)

Moreover, it makes no sense to build safety protocols to address all of the really remote and rare cases — we’re not great at maintaining vigilance for things that almost never happen, and doing so would divert attention from what happens all the time. We want doctors to look for the most common diagnoses rather than the one-in-a-million ones, we want safety engineers to stave off the most likely problems, and we want security personnel to look for the most frequent risks. That means we might miss some of the rare cases, but we’re going to miss those anyway…

There are good and bad ways to deal with these limits on our ability to notice the unexpected. The bad way is to try to build each rare event we experience into our safety protocols so that we can spot it the next time it occurs. Yes, you can be prepared to notice the gorilla the next time you try to count people passing basketballs, but you might miss something else as a result:

Even if there are not easy ways to anticipate all the unexpected events, knowing your limits allows you to take steps to increase the odds that you will notice some of them. You’re more likely to notice the gorilla in the basketball game if you’re not focusing attention on counting passes, presumably because you have more of your attention available to pick up other aspects of a scene. Similarly, a passenger in a car should be more likely to spot unexpected events on the road because they aren’t engaged in driving (that’s why you should never complain when a back-seat driver tells you to watch out). When driving, you can turn your phone off and put it in the back seat so you won’t be tempted to use up valuable resources that might help you spot the child running into the street. If you are manning a security checkpoint, it’s a good idea to have someone watching the scene who has no task other than to watch the scene for anything out of the ordinary. If you’re designing a product or protocol, don’t assume that you can anticipate all possible risks. Instead, assume that you can’t and make sure people are as aware of their limits as possible. That won’t let you anticipate everything, but knowing that you can’t anticipate everything at least gives you the chance to maximize your odds of noticing what matters.

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About Miguel Barbosa

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11. August 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Risk & Uncertainty | Leave a comment

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