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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: The power of a "guilt trip"

October 2, 2006
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I bet most of you have used the term guilt trip when explaining personal feelings or when attempting to understand the behavior of others. What do we mean? Can we use this metaphor to improve safety?
Yes.
I think we can put people (including ourselves) on a guilt trip for safety. Personal responsibility for injury prevention will be increased in the process. Let’s explore this notion and its practical applications and ramifications.

What is guilt?

The behavioral definition of guilt is quite simply being responsible for an offense or “wrongdoing,” as revealed in the first definition of guilt in The American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, 1991). Then there is the related legal definition of guilt — “culpability for a crime or lesser breech of regulations” (p. 581).

But the term guilt trip reflects more than behavior. It suggests a feeling state. Presumably it motivates certain subsequent behavior. This is reflected in the fourth definition of guilt in my dictionary — “remorseful awareness of having done something wrong.” Of course, the key word here is “remorseful” — which means one feels “moral anguish arising from repentance for past misdeeds” (The American Heritage Dictionary, p. 1046).

Psychologists call such mental anguish cognitive dissonance. It’s typically caused by an inconsistency realized between one’s actions and a related belief, value or attitude. This inconsistency between inside conviction and outside behavior causes mental tension and self-directed motivation to restore congruity between behavior and one’s belief, value or attitude.

Simply put, we want our actions to reflect our values, and vice versa. When we perceive an inconsistency between our values and our actions, we more often adjust our behavior to match our values than change our values.

When do we feel guilty?

According to these definitions, a guilt trip motivates personal responsibility to do something to reduce a perceived discrepancy between personal conviction and behavior.

For example, when circumstances prevent me from getting proper sleep, nutrition or exercise, I feel guilty until my actions restore balance. Likewise, when I don’t give appropriate attention to family matters, I feel guilt or tension until my behavior reflects the appropriate attention to family values.

But what is “appropriate”?

It’s left to each of us to decide how much action is needed to relieve our guilt and restore a sense of balance or consistency between internal conviction and external deeds. How to eliminate guilt through action is personal, subjective, and quite variable among individuals.

Can we influence how much guilt a person feels and/or the quality and quantity of action needed to stop a guilt trip? My “yes” answer to this question has critical implications for increasing people’s self-accountability for safety. In particular, if we can make a person feel guilty about performing a certain at-risk behavior, we will increase the likelihood that individual will accept personal responsibility for behavior change. We might even activate safety-related action beyond correcting one behavior. To eradicate guilty feelings, a person might feel they need to do more for safety than adjust one behavior.

Does this sound far-fetched? I’ll discuss some practical ways to make this happen, but first we need to consider a popular slogan among safety pros, “Safety is a value.”

Is safety really a value?

Many years ago, in my October 1991 ISHN column, I proposed safety should be considered a “value” rather than a “priority,” and offered a reasonable rationale for this. Since then, I’ve heard support for this opinion from numerous safety leaders and consultants.

When I ask my audiences these days whether they hold safety as a value, almost everyone raises a hand to affirm a collective “yes.” And when I question individuals, I invariably receive an assertive confirmation. Some say, “Safety is more than a value to me and my work team, it’s a core value.” Frankly, I believe many people are too cavalier with their affirmation of safety as a core value or personal principle that receives precedence in every situation. But I’ll accept their thinking, because this is the first step toward putting people on a guilt trip and helping them develop self-accountability for safety.

“OK,” I say, “safety is a value linked to every one of your priorities. So regardless of the circumstances, including outside demands on your time, you attempt to be as safe as you can be. Right?” Surprisingly, most people answer “yes” to this idealistic proposal, especially in public settings. Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised by this response. “Safety” goes along with “motherhood, baseball and apple pie.”

Note what I’m doing here. First, I get agreement that “Safety is a value.” Then I explain the true meaning of this statement. To be consistent, listeners give successive “yes” responses, up to the final impractical affirmation that safety gets preference over everything. This defines safety as a person’s “Number One value.” This confirmation certainly can be used to activate a guilt trip and build self-accountability for safety.

From value affirmation to safety responsibility

The intervention process is simple and straightforward. Get people to declare safety as a value linked to the changing priorities of each workday. Then define behaviors compatible versus incompatible with this value statement. A guilt trip can be activated whenever you point out behavior inconsistent with safety as a core value. For example, after observing at-risk behavior you remind the performer of the group consensus that safety is a value. If the person realizes the inconsistency, he or she should feel guilty and proceed to resolve the tension or attitude/behavior imbalance by substituting safe for at-risk behavior.

But if you want self-accountability, you need to enable choice in this situation. The individual’s conviction should not be viewed as controlled by extrinsic contingencies like incentives or peer pressure, but by the personal decision to demonstrate safety as a core value.

Analogously, in a prior ISHN article (October 2000), I described the “hypocrisy effect” as a way to motivate behavior by having participants experience a discrepancy between what they have done and what they should do. This intervention procedure is as follows: 1) Present the rationale for certain safe behavior; 2) Ask participants to commit to always choosing this behavior over designated at-risk practices; and 3) Ask participants to list the most recent times they had performed at-risk alternatives to the safe behavior.

Do you see how the hypocrisy-based intervention mimics the guilt-trip tactic? The goal is to enable the target individuals to experience a discrepancy between their behavior and a commitment, or personal value statement. This initiates a guilt trip, relieved when self-directed action restores the imbalance.

The more public the commitment or value affirmation, the greater its impact. When people attest to safety as a value in the presence of others, they feel a greater sense of obligation to live up to their avowal. And those who heard the value statement can readily start that individual on a guilt trip by calling attention to at-risk behavior they observe that does not reflect safety as a value.

Use this value declaration to increase self-accountability for injury prevention. Simply start people on a guilt trip by revealing an inconsistency between their internal conviction that safety is a value and their at-risk behavior. Individuals will likely end their guilt trip by choosing the safe alternative in the future. They might even go beyond the call of duty for injury prevention in order to reaffirm safety is indeed a core value for them.

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