The influence of the team on safe behavior
Many have probably seen it before: a well-trained employee with the right risk awareness and safety behavior is placed in a team. Soon, the learned behavior seems to disappear, and risky habits of teammates are adopted. How is it possible that a well-functioning internal alarm bell is quickly set aside, and unsafe behavior surfaces? Brain research in rats provides clues on how we can understand this process.
Brains of humans and rats
It has long been clear that the functioning of the brains of rats and humans shows striking similarities. Both are intelligent and have a high level of social intelligence. That is why researchers from the Dutch Brain Institute also conduct brain research on rats. Recently (December 2019), Han et al. published an article in PLoS Biology about empathy in rats in dangerous situations. In this research, it appears that the response of rats to danger depends on the behavior of their fellow rats. The social environment apparently influences their perception of fear and, consequently, their behavior. In order to better understand this process, a brief report of this research and its conclusions follows.
A brief tour of the brain
The brain consists of two symmetrical halves that are fused together in the middle and bottom. Looking from above, there is a deep cleft between these two halves. The side walls of this cleft play an important role in the perception of pain and fear of danger in both humans and rats, as well as in understanding each other’s experiences. This capacity for understanding forms an important part of what we call empathy. By injecting an anesthetic substance into this cleft in rats, the functioning of these areas can be temporarily weakened while other parts of the brain continue to function normally. Empathy is temporarily turned off. This allows us to better understand the contribution of empathy to overall behavior.
Experiment 1, awareness of danger
Han et al.’s research is interesting for gaining an understanding of the workings of fear in relation to social behavior. First, they investigated to what extent rats react to each other’s fear. For this purpose, rats were exposed to an electric shock through a metal floor in part of their cage. Rats startle and jump briefly when they experience such a shock. The question is what other rats do when they observe this event. Rats that have previously experienced an electric shock themselves react much more strongly to the startle response of others than rats who do not know what caused the fright. Without their own experience with danger, the observing rat does not develop empathy. Personal experience is therefore crucial for empathetic responses. The function of empathy is to enable rats to prepare each other for danger. The parallel with safety management lies in the structure of the training program. It should pay ample attention to learning to feel the dangers in the work. Awareness of danger does not arise on its own; it must be cultivated.
Experiment 2, the impact of empathy on the perception of danger
After all rats had developed an awareness of danger, one rat was placed back into the dangerous condition. Other rats could observe this from a short distance without being exposed to the danger themselves. The observing rats were divided into two groups that alternated in participating in the experiment. One group received an anesthetic in the brain areas that can evoke empathy in danger, while the other group received no pretreatment. The untreated group reacted strongly to seeing a fellow rat receiving an electric shock. In turn, the rat reacted more strongly to feeling the shock compared to the previous test situation without an audience. A shared feeling intensified the response to danger in all rats. In the anesthetized group, the empathy function was temporarily turned off. They could not muster any empathy and barely reacted to the startled fellow rat. This lack of an empathetic response also affected the rat that was startled, as it reacted much less strongly to the shock. In other words, the absence of an empathetic response in the observing rats led to a weakening of the response to danger. If no one is startled, it must not be so dangerous. In summary, the strength of the response to danger depends on how strongly fellow rats react to the situation. An empathetic response from them intensifies the perception, while its absence weakens it.
The experiments show that the perception of danger is a two-step process. First, awareness of danger must be learned by being exposed to it oneself. Once danger is learned, step two can follow, in which that perception is strengthened or weakened by the response of fellow rats in the environment. From other research, we know that the processing of these stimuli occurs in the prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the forehead. Apparently, this area makes an assessment, connecting the ringing of the internal alarm bell with the observation of reactions from fellow rats. The severity of danger is apparently determined in relation to the reactions of others in the environment. The conclusion is that awareness of danger is not constant but fluctuates depending on the conditions one finds themselves in.
Application to safety practice
The research also examined whether it matters whether observers are acquaintances or strangers. This was found to have no influence on the research results. Being placed in a new or familiar team, therefore, has no impact on this process. The message is that safe behavior starts with effective onboarding. This effort can either pay off or be completely undone depending on the behavior of the environment in which the person works. This explains why a well-trained new employee can be quickly tempted into unsafe behavior if there are role models exhibiting such unsafe behavior. The internal alarm bell loses out to the current model of fellow individuals. In summary, a front-end training phase is a crucial condition for safe behavior. However, the return on investment is determined by the team in which the employee will work.
Brain Based Safety,
Han, Y. et al. (2019), Bidirectional cingulate-dependent danger information transfer across rats, PLoS Biology