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"Autopilot" Behaviour - Why Is It So Common?

Fatigue - How Does It Impact My Brain?

Have you ever gone into your driveway and thought “what road did I take to get here?” Most of us have at some point. Driving is one of the riskiest things we do, yet we seem destined to do it in “autopilot”.

Neuroscientists have estimated that more than 95% of what we do is subconscious. But what does that mean?

Well, it means that most of what we do is “back of mind” rather than “front of mind”.

A way to think about this is to consider what we think about when we drive, walk or brush our teeth. We are not always thinking about what we are doing. We need to realise that we do many things in the same way every day without much conscious thought because we have done them plenty of times before. That makes it subconscious. We know what we are doing but it gets done in "autopilot" because we follow the routines we created for ourselves.

As the saying goes:

"We are creatures of habit."

We all know that repetition enables us to do things, lots of things, without much conscious thinking.

But you might be thinking that the reason we walk or brush out teeth in "autopilot" is because there are no safety concerns. It may surprise you to know that it has a lot more to do with how comfortable we feel about the activity. So, let’s return to the opening example. If you are able to drive while thinking about something else, which mind do you think was doing the driving?

That’s right, the subconscious.

So what we are saying? We are in control of a 1000 kgs of metal and plastic travelling at 100 km/hour. A couple of meters away on the other side of a lick of paint, there is someone else doing exactly the same thing. And we hand control over to our "autopilot" to get us home safely?

Lucky our "autopilot" is so competent.

Consider the following: Did you consciously decide to hand control over to your "autopilot"?

Of course not, it happens automatically. If you are like most people, you knew you were driving but the "autopilot" engaged without your knowledge, awareness or permission. That happens when you feel so comfortable that your conscious mind can think about other things rather than what you are doing at the time.

Why do we continue to go on "autopilot" when we drive (or do other things)?

Well, when you drive in "autopilot", what’s the most common safety consequence that results?

That's right, nothing, which reinforces its engagement next time.

And if it can happen to you, can it also be happening to people at work?

Next Time: The science of habit formation.


This blog is an excerpt from Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece by Cristian Sylvestre.

Cristian takes what neuroscience is revealing about how the brain functions, explaining how human performance could impact personal safety and what individuals and organisations can do about it. TO BE RELEASED SOON

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