"Autopilot" Behaviour - What Can Be Done About It?


We cannot prevent people from going on “autopilot” – it is part of who we are. However, there are strategies that we can use to help. They originate from our understanding of the science of habit formation - the association between a cue, a routine and a reward (click here for previous post).

One strategy is to change the cue. Leaving your rubber gloves and safety glasses on the chemical drum is an example. Introducing a physical cue is relatively easy to do but many of our cues are mental. Introducing mental cues is more difficult.

Another strategy is to change the reward. One option is to add something negative to the existing reward so that the routine is discouraged. For instance, introducing fines for speeding. Another option is to add something positive so that the preferred routine takes place. For instance, reducing driver licence costs for people with good driving records. The best approach is to do some of both. However, we first have to determine the actual reward, which is not always obvious.

In our experience, the best approach is to change the routine itself. In other words, use the existing cue for a different routine. Eating fruit instead of chocolate when we get the late night munchies is an example. The cue is the same (hunger), as is one part of the reward (satisfying hunger) but the routine is different.

Changing habits is never easy. When we first try to change a habit, our biology gets in the way. The “thicker” neural pathways that have formed habits get used preferentially. But the more we keep at it, the easier it gets. After all, new habits are just neural networks that are in the midst of establishing.

A habit is not something we can break easily from the “outside in”. They are very personal, so people need to be engaged to make the change. This is exactly the reason why public authorities find it difficult to get people to slow down on the road or not drive while fatigued.

We have found that the best approach is to introduce small changes to our existing routines gradually. In our experience, a total of 20 hours of practice (10-15 mins a day over 3 months) can change almost any habit, including the well ingrained ones.

Here’s three ways you can help your workers recognise the dangers:

  • Help them appreciate that going on "autopilot" is normal and can happen at any time, especially if they are doing something they have done plenty of times before.

  • Discuss the effects of going on "autopilot" openly in safety meetings.

  • Conduct training that provides workers with the skills required to deal with going on "autopilot".

It is clear that we cannot prevent people from going on "autopilot". The best thing to do is to work out which personal safety habits could be safer and use a combination of the three strategies to make the changes that will help us stay safe.

Next Time: What is first and second generation safety

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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