Absolute Error Prevention

by Dr Rob Long on July 8, 2014

in Human Error,Risk Aversion,Robert Long,Zero Harm

Absolute Error Prevention

Depositphotos_10588472_xsSafety is so easy, it’s all about error prevention. Safety is so simple, it’s all about risk aversion. Whilst both of these statements appear to be true, both are wrong. Safety is not simple and is not just about error prevention or risk aversion. Indeed, binary thinking associated with both these propositions is in fact dangerous. All risk and error is not bad. Again, the binary mindset that makes things black and white, distorts the thinking and language of safety people. For example, the binary thinking behind this question ‘how many people do you want to injure today?’ leads safety people to the absurdity of zero and a crazy ignorance of the psychology of goals. Let me give you some examples where error is not bad.

Forgetting and amnesia are not always bad, even though forgetting is projected as ‘bad error’. One of the good things about being human is we forget, just imagine if we could remember everything. There are plenty of errors in the past I certainly don’t wish to revisit. If humans were perfect just imagine all the data we could store, recall and use, surely that would be a good thing? I am quite happy that errors of the past are not held against me, it has allowed me to grow, learn and mature. This is the nature of forgiveness, meaning we no longer hold an error against someone. Forgetting makes for healthy marriages and relationships. So sometimes forgetting a ‘good error’. Sometimes it’s good to have faulty memory because it results in a positive outcome.

There are plenty of stories about some special humans who have had super memories, somewhat like Rainman. The famous story about Solomon Shereshevsky is one of them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Shereshevsky ). However, there is a cost and by-product to having unlimited memory, perfect memory can’t forget. When we understand the psychology of goals we know that all goals have trade-offs and by-products. There are no goals set that are neutral, those who project the ideology of zero as a good goal, rarely talk about the by-products of such goal setting.

Too much memory impairs the mind’s ability to forget, causing trouble for relationships and forgiveness. Human relationships are often improved because we forget, there is no great advantage in being omnipotent (all powerful) or omniscient (all knowing). Yet, the quest for perfection is the ideology of zero. The closer one gets to perfection the more this limits adaptable behavior. As Gigerenzer states: ‘the sins of our memory seem to be ‘good errors’, that is, by-products of a system adapted to the demands of the environment’.

When we learn language we use trial and error all the time to learn how to listen and speak. The characteristics of a ‘good error’ is that the person is better off for having made that error. In language, we do this all the time. Sometimes mishear things or misuse words and quickly learn the right way to use the word by listening to another or by comparing or being told how to use a word correctly. In this way, every intelligent systems needs to make errors, making none would destroy the intelligence of the system. It would be a system that couldn’t learn.

It has been through the progress of error that we have had evolutionary maturation. When things are uncertain, sometimes trial and error learning or the precautionary principle are all we have. We take calculated risks but don’t ‘know’ the outcome. The logic of zero and perfection means not to take the risk.

As much as we would like to prevent our children from committing the same errors we have made, sometimes all the lectures in the world don’t help them ‘see’ any danger. Sometimes they have to ‘feel’ the same error to learn. I had a friend this week who told me about taking his 13 year old to Sydney, it was their first time in the big city. My friend was anxious for their child and gave them the obligatory lecture about all the dangers of being alone in Sydney with friends. Were they listening? Of course not, being a 13 year old human is quite special. Sometimes history repeats itself for someone else before they learn, you just hope for your children’s sake that the pain of that learning is redeemable.

Unfortunately, in safety, for all the best of intentions, all the talk of error prevention and risk aversion continues to take the focus off learning. Rather than ‘discern’ between real risk and unreal risk we have ended up with the most absurd dumb down approaches to risk aversion. The more we fill the airwaves with ‘zero’, the worse this trend will continue. The sector needs to talk less about risk aversion and error, and talk much more about learning.

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