Brain Based Safety

Risk Tolerance

Our distant ancestors succeeded in surviving and in producing offspring despite facing difficult circumstances and many dangers. They were masters of survival and have passed on this art to us via the DNA. Considering this, you would not expect that we would be prepared to undertake life-threatening actions at work which deliver only a small profit for our boss. How that pattern has emerged and what the consequences are, that’s what this message is about.

Whether or not to take risks?

Thinking about the relationship between risk and survival, it seems as if avoiding risks leads to a greater chance of survival. As long as you don’t take many risks, nothing can go wrong. But we also have to take care of our food supplies and from this perspective taking risks can contribute to our fundamental desire to survive.


To illustrate this I will take you 40,000 years back in time to the savannas of North Africa. Our ancestors lived there as nomads. Unfortunately the potential prey was too alert and too fast for human hunters. One of the best tricks in those days was to exploit the qualities of a true hunter, for example, the lion. The trick was to follow a group of lions and wait until the time that they had made a good kill. Then what they needed was a substantial amount of bluffing if they were to succeed in stealing a piece of meat. If they achieved their aim, inevitably diner would be served.


In this story, timing is crucial. If we start approaching the hungry lions too early, they will treat us as an unexpected dessert. On the other side, if we wait too long, we will only find some leftovers from the lion’s meal. The trick is to surprise the lions after their first hunger is appeased. Lions also have a herd instinct and prefer to run away for a moment, just to check the situation from a distance. But before they discover that they are being robbed, it is essential to retreat.

Optimum to the risk spectrum

This incident outlines the dilemma confronting our ancestors. Take a high risk and potentially die in action versus taking a low risk and die from hunger. Thus our ancestors learned that taking moderate risks best ensures the survival of the species. Until today, we are risk tolerant and some of us are even risk loving.

Our struggle with nature

If we examine different processes, we will soon discover that each has its own optimal risk profile. For some processes (e.g. investing in stocks), people are willing to take high risks, while for other processes we want to eliminate all risks if possible. The safety profession takes an extreme position at this point: each risk is one too many. What we see is that our primary nature and the current safety culture collide. On a rational level, we can never oppose any safety measure, but intuitively we experience some measures as heavily exaggerated. That is unfortunately part of human nature.

Safety policy

If we want to win over the hearts and minds of our employees for our safety policy, we cannot suffice with the message that this is for their own well-being. Many organizations strive for an accident free workplace and implicitly assume that all share this commitment. That assumption, however, cannot be made. On a rational level people will agree, but on an intuitive level they are programmed in a different way. A good safety policy starts with the acknowledgement that employees have, on an unconscious level, much more tolerance for minor accidents than they ever want or can admit. A small wound is not seen as a troublesome event.

Then what?

Like all intuitive features our risk profile influences us in an unconscious way. This does not mean that this profile cannot adapt to a situation in which there are higher standards. Every time we want to reduce the amount of risk taken, e.g. by addressing a new rule, we have to consider that we provide a solution for a problem which is not perceived as such because we are willing to live with degree amount of risk. The most obvious alternative to regulation is to mobilize our personal alarm system: the sense of danger via the assessment of risks. But then we face another problem: we are risk tolerant and we often underestimate the seriousness of the risks. That brings us to the subject of the next post of this blog: risk underestimation.


Wanting to know more?

– The described method of hunting was filmed by the BBC and featured in the documentary Grasslands.

– There are a lot of related items available on this website.

– The book “Human behavior in hazardous situations” (Butterworth & Heinemann), gives a lot more additional information.



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