The unconscious acceptance of risk

The unconscious acceptance of risk

In this month’s post we explore the concept of risk using the example of working on an oil rig but the ideas expressed here are applicable to risk in any context.


It’s Sunday on the drilling platform, out here in the Bass Strait, and Gary is heading to the crew room for a safety meeting. He’s a bit tired and ready to head to the galley for a good feed and then some game time on the computer. In such a state his brain is a not going to be too receptive to safety messages, and I’ll make sure that not too much the safety guy says makes an impact. At least on his behaviour. I mean that’s my job isn’t it?

But, hey, you’re probably wondering what’s going on, that I would want to influence Gary in this way. So, let me introduce myself. I’m Gary’s pre-fontal cortex. As the name suggests, I live in the front part of his brain, behind his forehead. I have a number of jobs but, just to keep it simple, I am mostly responsible for making-decisions and judgements, deciding what’s right and wrong for me, determining what’s socially acceptable, and then directing other parts of my brain to take action. It’s not surprising that psychologists call me the Executive Centre-I control a lot of what Gary does, and I do it completely without him knowing.

One of the things that I do is control impulses, especially for things that might be physically, psychologically or socially risky. It would be right to say that one of my jobs is to control Gary’s risky behaviour.

It’s not only Gary that doesn’t know about me but neither does Bob, the safety officer, whose job it is to educate us and make sure we toe the line when it comes to preventing accidents. The rig super and the engineers don’t know about me either. At least most of the time, because only some of their strategies for safety management actually work.

Don’t get me wrong, education and safety systems are really important and you need them But all the training in the world or the best systems won’t make one bit of difference should Gary have an impulse to cut corners, take a risk, have some fun or just ignore the signs. I mean, look at what happened in the Gulf with the Deepwater. All the systems and education in the world and all the data were ignored, and not just once. Well, that was me in action.

Let me explain. You see, Gary is under 30 and male. That means that I am not properly developed yet and still not able to fully function in protecting Gary from himself. In teenagers, I’m hardly working at all but gradually get more traction, particularly in girls and am able to prevent a lot of the pretty silly things people get up to when they are full of raging hormones and very impulsive, testing out the world.

So, you see, I won’t necessarily kick in when Gary thinks it would be a good idea to circumvent procedure, ignore instructions to get something done in a hurry, not use a harness, race a mate down a ladder, and even when he get’s distracted. Stress will make it even more unlikely that I will function. This is one of the reasons why car insurance premiums for men under 25 are enormously expensive and why most patients in a spinal injuries wards in hospitals are young men. Statistically, they take risks. I’d like to help but my nerves are not quite developed yet and for some really good reasons. I bet you’re thinking that there aren’t any good reasons to take risk.

Well, you would be wrong. Young men are biologically designed to take risks. It is a time when they are at their fittest, fastest and strongest. They might not be blessed with great insight but they are physically capable. Their younger years are spent becoming strong, Six pack and all, and competing against others. When we lived in more primitive times it was important that someone was not adverse to risk and who wanted to use their powers to kill fierce animals for protection and food. This was essential for a tribe to survive. And given that women had babies and were more vulnerable, nature decided that it would enable men to take this role.

And that’s where I come in. If I was fully functioning in Gary, then he would be less inclined to take a risk or be challenged to use his prowess. Now, this made sense in primitive times and it also makes sense in wartime when young men are prepared to head off and risk their lives. They even see it as an adventure.

But, as you are rightly thinking, it doesn’t make much sense in daily life today. And no, it doesn’t but evolution doesn’t work that quickly.

The closer Gary gets to 30, the more likely I am to mature and dampen those impulses and prevent silly behaviour. You find that older men and women from the age of about 20 are much more thoughtful when it comes to risk. My good friend personality, that I also have a role in developing, also plays a role in risk.

Well, there you are. That’s what I do or don’t do in Gary’s case and that’s why risk on a rig, or in any other workplace for that matter, will never go away where you have young men working. Keep up the education and sharpen up those systems. Keep reminding people of the risk. But you really can’t control Gary, because I do.

What does help your cause and Gary, in the long run, is make sure that he doesn’t work with just other young men and is not alone, if it can be helped. Make sure an older hand is around or supervising. Strong leadership works too because Gary will hear the messages from people he admires and respects. Sadly, fear will not work. Keep the stress down, embrace transformative leadership, enhance positive relationships, make sure there are adequate rest breaks. Make sure you walk the talk when it comes to safety and when you talk about safety trumping production, make sure you mean it because, otherwise, Gary will take the challenge and take the risks. Again, remember the Gulf.

I overheard a rig supervisor ask a psychologist once about what the greatest risk factor on a rig was. The psychologist said, ‘Any male under 30.’