Have you ever suffered from something called "premature cognitive commitment"? I'd like to explore this concept, taken from Ellen J. Langer's book, "Mindfulness," as a follow-up to last month's article on how to increase mindful behavior to prevent injuries.

I've come to really appreciate the term because it captures the various ingredients of mindless activity:

First, it's premature-occurring before adequate diagnosis, analysis and consideration.

Second, it's cognitive-a mental process that influences our perceptions, attitudes and behaviors.

Finally, it's a commitment-a relatively permanent opinion or mindset that filters or biases the information we receive, and shapes how we act.

In other words, we commit ourselves to an initial impression without the benefit of critical thinking, and that opinion determines how we process and respond to subsequent information.

Interfering with safety

Here are three ways that premature cognitive commitment can hurt our safety efforts:

First, it can interfere with constructive learning. For example, I've found it difficult to teach behavior-based safety principles and methods to people who have a preconceived notion that attitude or culture change must come first, or that targeting safety-related behavior blames employees for a management problem.

Second, a biased mindset is especially detrimental to constructive learning and sound decision making when it is used to form global stereotypes for broad concepts such as intelligence, love, caring, respectability, excitement, fatigue, family, and aging.

Consider, for example, how a narrow meaning of "intelligence" (such as a score on a college entrance exam) can limit opportunity or self-image. Or how a detailed safety policy can thwart the customization and ownership of a generic safety mission.

This leads to the third effect-when we adopt narrow and premature definitions and concepts we limit choice and personal control. For example, people who attribute the cause of an injury purely to the victim's carelessness or to a particular environmental hazard reduce the range of preventive solutions. When we become committed to a single-minded explanation (think of the urge to find quick-fixes for safety problems), we are not open to information that runs counter to it.

Increasing mindfulness

So how can we shift from the mindlessness of premature cognitive commitment to increased mindfulness in ourselves and others? Last month I explained how a behavior-based observation and feedback process can help us become more mindful of environmental hazards and at-risk behaviors. An open and aboveboard system for auditing work tasks increases mindfulness for both the person doing the observing and the person or persons being observed. This method relates to one of Dr. Langer's key recommendations for making people more mindful-get them to pay more attention to how they are trying to accomplish something (such as working safely), as opposed to focusing only on the outcome of that process (the safety record).

There are many examples of how we take a process for granted and instead direct our focus to the outcome. Dr. Langer reminds us that starting in kindergarten the focus of schooling is on the final result. Students in my university classes seem obsessed with their grades and seemingly lose sight of the important purpose of learning critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Likewise, travel is often seen as only a means to an end. The journey can be viewed as unimportant, just as long as the destination is reached.

Safety professionals readily see the fallacy in this logic. How you complete a journey can determine whether you reach the destination in one piece. Again, the focus is on how you do it. Orient your people to the process-the steps needed to ensure safety every day. Emphasize their involvement in deriving corrective action plans from ongoing reports of environmental/behavioral audits, near misses, first-aid cases, property-damage and injury incidents.

When employees see how these successive steps or "small wins" lead to an outcome such as a reduced injury rate, their sense of mindful control is enhanced.

So keep tracking outcomes, of course, but facilitate and reinforce discussions of the ongoing processes needed to prevent injuries.

Conversations about safety processes keep people mindful of what they must continue doing in order to keep themselves and others safe.

Note: Dr. Ellen J. Langer's book, "Mindfulness," was published in 1989 by Perseus Books, Reading, Mass.

By E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions, and professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. For information on related books, training manuals, videotapes, audiotapes, and customized consulting call SPS at (540) 951-7233 SAFE), and visit www.safetyperformance.com.

What is premature cognitive commitment?

  • Mindless thinking
  • Prejudice
  • Mindset
  • Paradigm
  • One-sidedness
  • Bigotry
  • Discrimination
  • Pigheadedness
  • Just plain bias

and how it hurts safety...

  • Interferes with constructive learning
  • Leads to single-minded explanations
  • Reduces sense of personal control
  • Blocks teamwork and interdependence