Common wisdom suggests complacency is built up over time working a process over and over. “Habituation” may take over. This means you go on autopilot and your ability to notice changes in the hazard, or perhaps your own behavior, fades.

When this happens our behavior drifts toward risk – because the hazards are not as salient to us. Since we notice them less, these hazards no longer influence us to take extra precautions for safety. In fact, we probably don’t see the hazards as hazardous any more. 

Yet habituation is a useful biological tool that frees up our brains instead of being overwhelmed by stimuli. We do it all the time. We do it automatically. There is nothing wrong with it.

But we blame those, including ourselves, who habituate to hazards; who become complacent in their tasks. In fact, we often accept “complacency” as a root cause in our incident investigations or descriptions of risk in our behavioral safety processes.

Unfortunately, “complacency” does not lead us to a solution to reduce the risks taken. Often a complacent individual is told to “pay more attention.” But we are exhorting them to go against human nature. And they can’t. Complacency shouldn’t be an exit strategy -- the end of your analysis. Let’s consider another approach to complacency from a behavioral science perspective. 

Acquisition – behavior seeks out reinforcement

Remember when you first learned a complex task, perhaps one that put you in the presence of hazards and you needed to follow a process pretty closely to avoid risk and do the task correctly? You were not very good and hopefully you had someone coaching you as you practiced and shaped up your skill. This beginning phase when you acquired the skill was full of variance. You varied the way you did the task in big and small ways until you eventually started doing it the same way every time. You got better because you reduced your variance. You got safer because you reduced your variance.

This process of shaping occurs because you got reinforced for the correct actions.

Perhaps you had a coach who first corrected you and then said “Yep, you got it” when you did it right.  Maybe you initially struggled using a tool, but when you used it correctly it made things easier. Or you finally got the harness to fit better so it wasn’t as cumbersome.

There are a number of reinforcers that shaped your behavior. The process probably made you feel safer around the scary hazards, so you did them more. Regardless, you systematically started doing things right, you got reinforced along the way. You mastered it and did the task the same way every time. At this point you were doing the task safely and probably doing a high quality job helping your production. This is the fluency zone -- where you want to be, where you want everyone to be.

Extinction – behavior stops being reinforced.

So how do we lose that fluency and become complacent? Our fluency gets extinguished, slowly burnt out by a lack of reinforcement.

Complacency is a lack of reinforcement.

When a set of behaviors are no longer reinforced they go seeking reinforcement just like they did when you acquired the skill.

Now you start seeing small variations in the way the task is done. You begin to glance away from your work, allow for a bit more slack in the line, pencil whip the checklist a bit, not do that extra inspection -- any one of a plethora of varying actions in search of reinforcement.

And behaviors find reinforcement, often resulting in undesirable results. Perhaps it’s that small bit of social interaction, escape from boredom, a quicker procedure, one that’s more comfortable or convenient. Behaviors will find the reinforcers and then the new variance sticks. It starts small at first but gets bigger and bigger… unbeknownst, sometimes, to the performer.

You only need to look into the research surrounding “Normalization of Deviance” to see this phenomenon in action.

The process of acquisition, fluency, extinction is like going down a funnel. You begin with a wide range of behaviors that get funneled down, through reinforcement and practice, to a narrow range. If these fluent practices are no longer reinforced then you exit the funnel.  Although initially well-directed, you hit your target but then bounce a bit off the target. You begin to go a bit off target again and again. If the behavioral variants are reinforced then that becomes your norm.

Now pair extinction, which causes more variance, with habituation. What do you get?  More risk happening in the midst of hazards  that no longer feel so hazardous. Bad news.

So how do you fight complacency?

If complacency is a lack of reinforcement, then reinforce more.

This is what your behavioral programs are designed to do. Prioritize your high hazard/high potential loss tasks. Create checklists to guide observations in those areas. Do observations (peer, self, or supervisory) and reinforce safe acts to lock them in place a little longer. You’ll also find opportunities to discuss the drift you see and reintroduce the funnel.

We are in a constant fight against complacency. Fortunately we have a very strong tool in reinforcement.

Extinction = to exit reinforcement’s influence.                                                                                                    

Don’t let complacency be your exit strategy.