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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Why do people act that way?

October 1, 2007
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Behavior is motivated by its consequences, but we all interpret consequences differently. A consequence that motivates some of us to change behavior might not even be noticed by others.

Last month I introduced a personality concept that categorized people as success-seekers, over-strivers, failure-avoiders, or people relatively indifferent to rewards and penalties.

Success-seekers are influenced by rewarding consequences.

Failure-avoiders are motivated to avoid penalties.

Over-strivers are sensitive to both rewards and penalties.

Those in the fourth category are not motivated by positive or negative consequences. Motivational researchers call people in this fourth category “failure accepters.”

It’s possible this indifference is actually a type of self-motivation. A low score on the survey assessing what inhibits and what activates one’s behavior that I introduced in last month’s column (September) could indicate the person is self-directed and self-motivated, not lazy. What kinds of consequences motivate these individuals?

Natural versus extrinsic consequences
Natural consequences are naturally produced by behavior, as when you fix equipment, draw a picture, plant a garden, wash a car, or participate in a sport. Ongoing behavior in these activities is followed spontaneously by soon and certain positive or negative consequences — a machine that still doesn’t work, attractive artwork, productive garden, a shiny car, or golf ball in the rough.

Many safety practices, though, have natural negative consequences. Discomfort, inconvenience, and reduced efficiency can inherently discourage their occurrence. As a result extra extrinsic consequences are needed to motivate safe behavior. These consequences are added to the situation as rewards (praise, recognition, credits redeemable for prizes) or penalties (reprimand, monetary fine, time off from work); and unlike soon and certain natural consequences, they are often delayed and uncertain.

The impact of activators announcing a positive or negative behavior-consequence process varies among individuals. Rewards can increase or maintain target behavior, while penalties can decrease target behavior. But your relative sensitivity to positive vs. negative consequences influences whether the consequence is even noticed. And if noticed, the value of a particular consequence can vary markedly from one person to the next.

Perhaps people unresponsive to extrinsic consequences are tuned to the positive natural consequences of their behavior, and don’t need extra rewards. But how do these people overcome the natural negative consequences (like inconvenience and inefficiency) that discourage safe behavior (like PPE use). Answer: self-talk and internal consequences.

Internal consequences
When you listen to music, read a novel or watch television, your listening, reading, and watching behaviors are maintained by consequences inside your head. These consequences are subjective and biased by your perceptions. Some can even be emotional.

In these cases, it’s difficult or impossible for an observer to know the exact nature of the internal consequences influencing your behavior — why you like certain music or watch a certain TV show. We do know from personal experience internal consequences and personal interpretations accompany most behaviors and impact motivation and subsequent behaviors.

I’m talking about thinking or self-talk, and the internal expectations that certain behavior will lead to a particular outcome. Appropriate self-dialogue enables self-motivation. Even when powerful soon, certain, and positive consequences (like comfort, convenience and efficiency) motivate at-risk behavior, we can overcome the temptation to take a shortcut with appropriate self-talk.

Some of us are generally more self-motivated than others. Perhaps more commonly, self-motivation is situation-dependent. We may be self-directed and internally motivated in some situations (like workplace safety and wellness), but externally motivated in other contexts (like driving on the highway and completing routine work assignments). Most likely, though, we are always motivated by both external and internal consequences in varying proportions, depending on a number of person factors – from our prior experiences to our personality and self-perception.

Assessing your locus of motivation
My students and I are researching individual differences in self-motivation. We developed an assessment device to measure the degree to which a person is self-motivated in various situations. Twelve representative items from this 24-item scale are given here for you to consider (see SIDEBAR below). Indicating your degree of agreement per each of these items will personalize the motivation concepts discussed here. Plus, you might learn something about the locus (external vs. internal) of your own motivation under varying circumstances.

The first six items refer to your own behavior; the next six refer to the behavior of others. For every item, except the three with an asterisk, higher scores mean greater external motivation. The first administration of the entire survey to 59 participants at my American Society of Safety Engineers workshop last June (2007) revealed participants judged themselves significantly more self-motivated than other people. Respondents believe they need less external control than others, especially regarding occupational safety.

The first three items of the scale given here, as well as items 7 to 9, reflect general work situations; the other items target safety. Does the situation (general work vs. safety) influence your degree of internal vs. external motivation? Or perhaps, the type of safety situation determines your locus of motivation.

To conclude
The “Locus of Motivation Scale” given here has not been tested for reliability nor validity. Don’t use it to categorize people. Still, the items can certainly be used to stimulate conversation about why people do what they do.

Bottom line: People-Based Safety recognizes the role of individual differences in determining the impact of natural, extrinsic and internal consequences on safe vs. at-risk behavior. If you understand and appreciate this summary statement, this article has achieved its mission.

SIDEBAR: A Locus of Motivation Scale

Strongly Disagree = 1
Disagree = 2
Neutral = 3
Agree = 4
Strongly Agree = 5


1. When I have free time at work, I motivate myself to stay productive.*
2. Much of what I do at work is motivated by external factors like directions, threats, incentives and rewards.
3. With a different work supervisor, my work behavior could be much different.
4. When I drive within the speed limit, I do so to avoid a speeding ticket.
5. When someone needs to remind me to use certain safety equipment, I am disappointed in myself.*
6. I drive more safely after seeing a police car on the side of the road.
7. People are more productive at work when they are working to achieve a financial bonus.
8. People are more productive at work when their supervisor is holding them accountable.
9. Bonuses and other financial incentives are the best way to increase workers’ productivity.
10. Most people need external reminders or support to motivate them to work safely.
11. When using uncomfortable and inconvenient PPE, workers are self-directed and self-accountable.*
12. Most people need safety rules and regulations to avoid at-risk behavior.

* These items are reverse scored by subtracting the scale value from 6. Thus, a score of 4 becomes 2(6-4=2). Then higher scores indicate greater extrinsic motivation. Total the first six items for an estimate of one’s need for extrinsic consequences, and total the next six items to the extent other people are presumed to need extrinsic consequences.

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