We all looked on in horror as the images of the Deep Water Horizon oil platform disaster hit our screens in 2010. Investigations at the time found that rig staff had tested the concrete seal before deciding it was secure to be able to remove 1,500 m of drilling column. Clearly the seal had not been secured thereby causing the catastrophic blowout. So why would skilled workers in a workplace with such high levels of engineering and management controls in place make such a mistake?
I was interested to learn that disaster analyst Andrew Hopkins found the workers ‘viewed the test as a means of confirming that the well was sealed, not finding out whether it was or not’. When the test failed workers explained away the increased pressure readings as a flexing rubber seal rather than rising oil and gas. The Obama commissioned independent enquiry into the spill found this to be a plausible explanation. The rig workers were reluctant to dig deeper into their test results rather than take them at face value.
This behaviour is not surprising since it comes down to how our brain is configured. The neurotransmitter dopamine acts as a reward signal in our brain. When dopamine acts in the pre-frontal cortex, we are inclined to ignore evidence that challenges the long held views we use to understand the world. In the striatum, dopamine levels spike in response to new information that makes us more likely to be open to these ideas. In most of us the overall net effect of these opposites is to favour our long held views. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. Although some people are genetically predisposed to be less susceptible to confirmation bias, we often do not recognise these people even when they are among us.
Having someone take a ‘devil’s advocate’ view to force alternative points to be considered, or using De Bono’s 6 thinking hats approach, are useful to counter this confirmation bias. When chairing meetings where key decisions are made you need to be open and listen to those fresh new ideas and different perspectives. These techniques may well have avoided what happened in the Gulf of Mexico during 2010.
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