Are we in an age of enlightenment? If so, what are the consequences? Our mind is not only capable of feats of innovation and creativity but also catastrophic decision making, we lose focus or focus too much, we get scared or overconfident and are susceptible to bias. Within such a complex technological world it would seem that it is human factors and errors that determine failure… let’s explore why humans are flawed by both our hardware (the brain) and our software (the mind).
We only believe what we already think – Confirmation Bias.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in 2010, prior to the accident testing confirmed that the concrete seal on a freshly excavated well was insecure and could cause a catastrophic blowout however the failing of the test was explained as a phenomena called the ‘bladder effect’, thus with the riggers reluctance to take their test at face value the resulting explosion was seen from 50 km away. Many of us have trouble believing evidence that contradicts our preconceptions, from a chemical position, dopamine acts on the prefrontal cortex inclining us to ignore evidence that challenges long-held views keeping us from having to constantly revise the mental shorthand we use to make sense of the world.
We miss the woods through the trees – Fixation Error
Martin Bromiley brought awareness of fixation error to the medical profession. Bromiley’s wife passed away after a room full of doctors and medical professionals failed to respond correctly to a blocked airway, fixating on intubating the patient rather than recognising that this method was failing and resorting to other means to provide the patient with oxygen. Humans have a remarkable ability to focus attention on the things we care about or that are relevant to our task or the present situation, this can mean that we sometimes don’t look for alternative solutions and miss critical factors that can lead to catastrophe.
Our survival instinct is out of date – Primal freeze
In experiments involving underwater helicopter evacuation drills, researchers found that trapped passengers tried to release their harness from the side as they would do with a car seat, even though they knew that the clasp was positioned centrally. Fear has evolved as a survival mechanism, when we encounter danger our heart rate raises and the stress hormone cortisol floods the system giving muscles glucose for the extra energy required. The issue faced is that cortisol knocks out cognitive functioning such as memory which intern denies us the ability to process information, make decisions, recall facts and events effectively.
We are seduced by success – Outcome Bias
If we get consistent good outcomes over time we start to ignore near misses more and more often, it is only when a catastrophe occurs that we suddenly wake up. We tend to evaluate a decision on the basis of its outcome rather than on what factors led to the decision. For example, a doctor decides to give a critically ill child a new, experimental medication that has a 50% chance of curing the child’s condition. If the child survives, the doctor will be praised for his actions. However, if the child dies the doctor will be criticised harshly for his ‘mistake.’
We are wired to conform – Group think
People tend to bend their opinions towards those of the majority. Conformity is useful in day to day living, also valuable when letting others lead in unfamiliar situations but this could lead to danger… after all a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Decisions shaped by group think have a low probability of achieving successful outcomes, one of the most famous examples of group think is the presidential advisory group who almost led the U.S. President Kennedy into invading Cuba and potential a nuclear war in the Bay of Pigs Affair.
Our minds are built to wander – The default mode
As soon as our environment becomes predictable, safe or boring our mind will start to wonder, consider a stretch of familiar motorway and how you switch to ‘auto-pilot’. Mind-wandering tends to occur during driving, reading and other activities where vigilance may be low. In these situations, people do not remember what happened in the surrounding environment because they are pre-occupied with their thoughts.
We don’t speak machine – Technology Clash
One of the worst friendly fire incidents involving U.S. Troops in Afghanistan was set off by a low battery. In 2001, a member of US special forces entered coordinates of a Taliban position into a GPS unit and before he could relay them to a B-52 bomber the device’s battery died. After replacing the batteries and sending the location,the device had reset it’s coordinates to it owns position, a 900 kg bomb honed in on the U.S. Command post killing him and 7 others. In an increasingly automated world misunderstandings between human and machines are an urgent issue.
Highlighting these areas and creating awareness of these human conditions will facilitate understanding and allow us to develop individual strategies ensuring that we as a civilisation and race continue to thrive and survive with the increase of technological advances. Now we raise our consciousness the next step is to ask yourself how you will make use of this information?
Information cited from New Scientist Magazine and ScientificAmerica.com