Social Psychology of Risk – From theory to practice

March 4, 2023



This podcast is a discussion with Human Factors expert Suzanne Jackson about the practical application of Social Psychology of Risk. We discuss many real-life examples and we question the implications of the narrative about improving safety, efficiency and reliability in workplaces.

Further information


suzanne jackson, Nippin Anand


suzanne jackson  00:00

So, you know, in any type of workplace, you know, there is always that goal there, whether we’re serving a customer, or we’re trying to produce widgets. I mean, we whatever it is, we have this growth mindset, too, right? Like, we always have to be better, we have to produce more for the same cost or less every year, every year, every year, every year. Sometimes I almost feel like, we can’t go any further. And yet, we have shareholder demands, we must go further. And that trickles throughout an organisation by and that’s tacit, I mean, it’s, it’s sometimes not tacit, I mean, it’s sometimes explicitly Yeah, right. And what does that do to someone’s psyche? What does that do to your unconscious?


Nippin Anand  00:56

Hello, and welcome to embracing differences with me Nippin, Anand, founder of novellus, a podcast series dedicated to understanding different perspectives about how we as human beings, or rather, social beings make decisions. The podcast series draws from different disciplines including religion, mythology, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, biology, neuroscientists, and stem, making it truly transdisciplinary meaning transporting, or rather, travelling across disciplines. The idea is not to claim that one method or discipline is superior to the other, but to hold competing disciplines, competing values, diverse perspectives, intention.


Nippin Anand  01:44

And when that happens, we create space for doubt and reflection. The idea is to enjoy travelling, and the ambiguity that comes with it. Experiencing dissonance, discomfort, how else do we learn? In today’s podcast, I speak to my friend Susan Jackson. Susan is an economist, and also a specialist in occupational health and safety based in Canada. Susan and I have been thinking for a while now to discuss around social psychology of risk with some concrete examples with some concrete cases. And so we thought we will do a podcast together and share our thoughts with you. I hope you enjoy this podcast listening to to Susan as much as I did in interviewing her.



That’ll mean a few words. What is social psychology of risk to you?


suzanne jackson  02:57

Well, it’s, it’s, it’s the fact that, you know, people are working around others, you know, we don’t work so low, even if we are so low, there’s always people that have had input, or there’s customers or there’s the public. And so it’s not like we’re isolated when we’re at work, right? So how do people behave around others? And not just that, but as they’re posited within a work situation? And what does that what does that do to people? How does that make make them think and feel? Right? How does that make them interact? And and so the there’s a lot there that, you know, that spore uncovers?


Nippin Anand  03:43

Yes. So in a way, what you’re saying is that you will come to understand yourself through others.


suzanne jackson  03:48

Yes, and and you interact with these situations. So you know, I, I don’t necessarily believe like some leadership theories that it’s all just within the person, the charismatic traits, sort of idea. It’s, you know, we interact and we can self adapt, but there’s all of these sort of what I call them layers that both constrain and enable our behaviours and and even I think it gets deeper than that, because we do we take on identities from our roles at work, we take that home with us, it’s really nice to think, you know, we can cut it off but we don’t write, just like we bring ourselves from work into the workplace, we bring the workplace into our homes with us as well. So, you know, that it’s all very blended, you know, it all really has impact and, and I think, you know, sometimes very deep impact, right, people can be very, very wounded at work, and I’ve seen some deep seated anger towards over compliance from an occupational health and safety point of view. And you see people shine and you see people, you know really flourish at work doing things that they love. And so there’s, it’s a whole world of work I say, right. And so that’s why I love what I do, because I study that, and I’m involved in that, and I get to see people in that respect.


Nippin Anand  05:29

Great, great. So help me with an example. Help me with an example. Give me a story of what it was, you know, how would you explain this to your grandma? What is social psychology of risk?


suzanne jackson  05:41

Well, it’s yeah, it’s, you know, I guess to my grandma, um, you know, how, how do you act, you know, around others, when you’re with your group of with your group of friends, and how may you also be when you’re with your group of friends in the shopping mall, as opposed to maybe when you’re in church. So that’s, you know, that flow and adapting that that people do so, you know, understanding just that, just understanding that really is, is an eye opener, right? You know, in, in the workplace, right? We don’t really, we really silo everything, don’t we everything’s in its own silo. And, you know, what, what I really can appreciate that Splore, that social psychology of risk has done is, you know, stopped cut, stop cutting people off at the neck. You know, it’s, we’re, it’s a very holistic approach. Right? So you know, we’re physical, where we’re thinking, feeling beings, right, and we’re within an organisation of some sort that constrains and enables everything else. And there’s a lot of interweaving going on. Right? So really, it’s its complexity at the micro level, even if the organisation itself is not necessarily complex, the overall organisational goal may simply be just to, you know, get more oil out of the ground or something like that, right. It’s nothing too complex there. But it’s, you know, we’re very good at the talking about the technology and what the technology can do for us. And now we have to systems, computer systems and, and all of that, but, you know, there’s the people, also So, and that’s, and that’s socio technical theory, which, you know, is part and parcel of ergonomics, which is my background, right. So, I always think I always think of that and more so than, you know, really just that human machine interface, that micro level, is really boring. I mean, that’s, that’s easy stuff. That’s just looking things up in a textbook. Oh, yeah, this is what you do. But the implementation to make that successful and sustain, really, you have to really broaden your view quite a bit.


Nippin Anand  08:15

Yes, there’s so many things that come to mind isn’t as you’re speaking. And one story that resonates with me and I actually wrote an article on this was the I was once on a ship, Susan and I were we saw, I was talking to a group of seamen, and one of them started to complain to me about, you know, he him having to pay taxes, income taxes, which seafarers normally don’t pay, because they stay away from home for so long. So the conversation proceeded, and I, and he started to complain about taxes. And I was, you know, I had gathered in with this group to understand how they launch lifeboats and I was doing an audit, actually. So I’m thinking, you know, this is not my problem. Why are you telling me all this? But and this was a time when I had no idea of sport. I’m talking about about three years back or so two and a half, three years back just before the pandemic. And he moaned, and he complained, and something happened to me, I just stood still listening to him. And I didn’t move at all. And I just kept listening. And slowly other people join the conversation. There were other people who were also concerned about this new tax regime. And they moan and complain for about 1015 20 minutes, and there was a lot of, there’s a lot of frustration underneath. And then something happened very magical. And then they said, Thank you for listening. Nobody listens to us. And then we started talking about the lifeboat and he gave me all the details about the lifeboat which we today call as work as done you know, I don’t know if there is such a term but let’s just use that for now. So he tells me everything all the nuances about how they do loans the lifeboat as against what the documented process would say. And it was very easy to understand that, what struck me in that conversation was that unless you attend to the person, there is no way you can attend to the work. So in my mind, you have, if you look at it this way, you know, you want to tackle risk, or some people call it you want a more resilient organisation, right? Yeah. How do you get there, you get there by understanding work. But what does work involve? work involves choices, compromises, you know, as, as some people would say, and how do you get to those choices and compromises because they are not conscious compromises, a lot of them are unconscious. So in between work, and tackling risk or resilience, there is something really powerful, which is understanding people and understanding how people make decisions. And to me, that’s where sports it’s, so I don’t think it’s exclusive to other theories, as is as I start to go deeper into it. What I feel very, very strongly is that you cannot understand work unless you understand people, and sport gives you that, that really, really powerful framework, to understand how human beings make decisions as social beings, as you will likely see, that’s really where my thoughts are right now.


suzanne jackson  11:21

Yeah, absolutely. It’s, you know, we’re so enamoured by our systems. And, and there’s, you know, because that’s easy stuff, right. But, you know, spore really does elevate the, the person and, and the group and the culture. Right. And, and there’s some very different cultures. And I’ve experimented with the IQ board, right to in a couple of different scenarios, and, and have had some very different outcomes and reactions. When I was first learning this about five years ago, you know, I was working within a district that manages all the libraries, right, so I actually did this with, with a librarian who had an any any event and of course, in libraries, public library, so they deal with the public. And there’s always lots of incidents, potential, you know, for conflict and potential for violence. But the library Public Library cultures is very unique. I mean, they are there with with strong values about access for everybody. And so, what was interesting is that whole conversation was in the group space. And they lead that into the, into the group space area, I mean, surrounded by 1000s of artefacts, right, the physical objects was not anything about it, even you know, and it was it was about a cart and being blocked and a doorway and access egress. But none of that came out in the conversation. And in fact, I mean, they, that this person really started with the value of, you know, we can’t deny people we don’t want to deny people access, you know, to knowledge and information. And I compare that to my most recent example, which was in a private organisation in a business, and it’s around an incident in a warehouse, where someone had hurt their back or their shoulder, I kind of forget that the details by but I worked with their safety coordinator to sort of prepare, Hey, I’ve sort of got this method of you guys do talk through but I’m, I’m going to record what you’re saying on the board and sort of this manner? How, you know, would that be okay, and everyone was agreeable. And so there was, you know, four people in the room conversing. And, you know, and as they were talking it, sort of surface that, you know, this this person who happened to be a male, was really within a warehouse culture, where they would I sort of manually handle a lot of heavy items, even for the females in the warehouse. And, you know, even though there was some equipment there that could, you know, help lift and move the heavy items, they weren’t bothering, and they were in a customer service environment. So they, you know, they were retrieving things to get to customers, and that was really the mindset. But as I started putting these things on onto the board, the safety coordinator sort of noticed it, and it was almost like a switch or discomfort level. And all of a sudden, it just became very uncomfortable in In the room, and and he started, you know, actually pointing his finger and saying, but there, there’s a safe work procedure that I gave you for this and you’re not following it. And it went very negative very quickly. And I sort of lost I did, I wasn’t able to sort of, you know, handle that level of discomfort, and even the supervisor, Rob, this person was there. And he was also uncomfortable, right? So it’s, it’s interesting, because I mean, it uncovered work as done. I mean, you talked about that earlier. But it also uncovered the group space. And, you know, to to the injured worker, this was not a big deal. This was just fine, you know, and, in fact, this person, this injured worker is actually a farmer. So totally used to just heavy work and thinking nothing of it. And just another little injury, and perhaps, you know, thought it was even unusual to have to discuss it, right? Because I think a lot of times these, these injuries in the workplace that that we make a big deal out of that to the person is not a real big deal. And so it’s it that’s, that’s a forcing of a system, isn’t it onto a person? Right? So there’s


Nippin Anand  16:28

something much more powerful here, which is yes, you’re absolutely right, you’re focusing on something to the person who comes from a very different set of assumptions, who comes from a very different culture. And I think this is the clash between two cultures or subcultures. And unless you’re able to understand that, there is, there is no such thing like risk management, right? Because you could be operating in two different fields, you know, you’re into with two different worldviews, one worldview of processes and procedures, but the other worldview cares less about all that, because that’s how they always do stuff. So I think there’s this is the new way, right? This when you say group space, that is the power of IQ, because it very quickly helps you understand those those clashes between the constant tension between different cultures.


suzanne jackson  17:20

Yes, and you know, and the different work cultures, and you can see why in risk management, you know, is can always lead to blame, and I know, you know, the new view, and what is it hop, human and organisational performance? Those principles, you know, don’t blame you can’t learn. And that’s a beautiful tagline. You know, but if you really ask, well, how does that come about? And, and, really, it’s because the risk management is an orchestrated process, which is there to prevent everything from happening. So when it does go wrong? Well, it can’t be this process, it must be you. And and so we keep going down that same path of blame every time. Right? And how do we get away from it? Well, we have to look at this, this process that we’re forcing on to people.


Nippin Anand  18:12

So this is this is very powerful. Let’s let’s just explore this, I find it very, very powerful. This discussion helped me understand a little bit more, because let’s let’s Can you elaborate a little bit more on this? This is this is powerful stuff?


suzanne jackson  18:25

Well, you know, the health and safety industry is a very important industry. I mean, we don’t want people to get hurt at work, right. I mean, I have a son who’s been in the workforce, he’s training as a carpenter. So, you know, he’s, he’s exposed to a lot of different hazards. And, and I certainly don’t, don’t want him to, to get hurt. And so they’re, I mean, I genuinely believe in, you know, occupational health and safety rules and having different procedures in place and personal protective equipment. And even I myself, when I’m working at home, and I will put on safety glasses if I if I need to, right. And I put on gloves, right all the time because it because it makes sense. But I think that sometimes we’ve perhaps, gone overboard, it’s almost like we’ve, we’ve, we’ve we’ve gone too far on on things. It’s, it’s almost like it’s, you know, it’s just if we got to find every little thing, we’re only going to get better if we look at every little thing and that every little thing has, I think actually created sort of the opposite effect, to the extent where we’re no longer discerning risk and helping people discern risk. But we’re overwhelming people and that’s causing it Think people to sort of back away and, and think some of this is silly, right? Because we’re not really aligning with, you know, what people are thinking and feeling and helping them to see the risk. I mean, there has to be some level of awareness there. But I think the level of awareness is often there because, you know, I, it’s almost like, we assume that people come to come to work with an empty head that they have no life experience, we forget that they’re people. And, and so, you know, it just, it gets to be too much, too much. I mean, for example, I don’t in Canada, there’s the Institute for Work and health, and they have developed this, you know, sort of 3030 questions is a leading indicator, right? And they do they’ve, they’ve researched it to see if you’ve implemented these 30 aspects of health and safety. Does it really help the lagging indicators, which they call injuries and near misses, and we could go a whole episode on is a near miss a lagging indicator, a leading indicator, but aside from that, and Monash University, and Australia, they take that from, you know, different instruments from around the world that have been developed, and said, this seems to be a good one that that that plays out quite well. And I’m thinking that’s good. However, in Canada, especially in Western Canada, there’s an audit instrument, which is almost required in a lot of workplaces, as a pre qualification demand by customers, as an incentive for rebates from the local workers compensation insurance boards, and it’s 130 questions, and it has to be audited externally. And I just, if you just compare the two, and you can see, do we need 30? Questions? Do we need 130 questions? It’s like, more is, is it really better? Because I think that’s been the attitude for the last 20 years, and health and safety in Canada is more better. And I think we got to really start to question that. And now they’re just looking at some research. Just now after 20 years of doing this. Now, the researchers are starting to say, Does this really lead to reduce injuries, and they are finding some positive results. But we all know what return on investment is right? We all know that. How much time and money we can invest in something to get the outcomes we want. All has to be balanced. Right? So, you know, again, I’m not against auditing and having these management systems in place. Right. But it just seems like the the the idea is, well, we’ll do more, and we’ll do more, and we’ll do more, and we’ll do more. And I’m not sure we’re seeing that return on outcomes.


Nippin Anand  23:19

Yeah, this is a this is an argument, I think that the contemporary theories of safety have have done a really good job to get to this point that there is, there’s no point in investing more into interventions and safety in general, because the return on investment is very, very low. What intrigued me in our conversation so far was that even you said that, you know, you can study work, and you can make you can create the best processes in the world, you can have the real, you know, there is such a thing of failsafe technology in the world. But our reaction to an accident will still be to find someone to blame, that that won’t change. And I thought that was very intriguing what you said to me, and I just wanted to hear a little bit more from you on that. Can you build on that a little bit more and help me understand that, but


suzanne jackson  24:13

Well, we’re also identifying, you know, with our egos, right is, especially if you your role it at work is to have orchestrated, or identify with the processes that have been put into, into place, you know, so So I think we’re dealing with with something deeper as well, right? Just within, within individuals, right? It’s, it’s, its behaviour, right? And so just that, you know, behavioural aspect and, you know, if it’s, if it’s, if it’s good, you know, why, you know, how could things How could things go wrong, and, you know, people do have choices that that that they can make, and we you know, we do I think it’s, it’s more universal, just even outside of the workplace. Right. But and people are goal oriented. And they and I think we really lacked the understanding of the unconscious, influences on on choices, right. And, you know, I just think about road safety. And locally here in British Columbia with mountains and snow and ice on the road, there’s been an awful lot of accidents and, and fatality, so really bad accidents, and a lot of them involving the big trucks. And so that, you know, not good outcomes at all. And, you know, social media is just on fire here. Blaming those drivers and speed, right, it’s their speed and their care is not there, right. And, of course, it’s it’s more complex than that. But if we were to start to peel away, what is the semi truck driver doing? They’re trying to deliver goods on time, and they’re being measured, right? They’re, they’re being timed every second that their truck is moving, right, there’s an instrument that’s, that’s counting that as them getting closer to that goal. And, and so you can just see, that’s always got to be working at that person. Right? And especially, you know, how that is going to play into behaviour. Right. And so, you know, in any type of workplace, you know, there is always that goal there, whether we’re serving a customer, or we’re trying to produce widgets. I mean, we whatever it is, we have this growth mindset to right, like, we always have to be better, we have to produce more, for the same cost or less, every year, every year, every year, every year. Sometimes I almost feel like, we can’t go any further. And yet, we have shareholder demands, we must go further. And that trickles throughout an organisation. Man, that’s tacit, I mean, it’s, it’s sometimes not tested. I mean, it’s sometimes explicitly. Yeah, right. And what does that do to someone’s psyche? What does that do to your unconscious? Right? So even if you have a supervisor, and that’s the I, to me, that’s the last line of defence is hopefully you have a direct supervisor that understands that conflict, and can encourage you, despite all of this, right, you know, we you do what’s safe? And don’t worry about it. I have your back. How many supervisors say that to the workers, I have your back.


Nippin Anand  28:01

Fascinating, absolutely fascinating, so much to think about isn’t. And I wonder, now that we have no, you have explained it very well, by the way, I really liked that, how you took this whole idea of process systems strengthening those processes. And why because our natural reaction to accidents will not change, because we have an implied expectation helps. But actually, it’s very explicit that once you have you know, once you have strengthened those processes, once you have put your investments into into the necessary interventions, that comes in expectations, and things should improve from there. And you’re you’re so right in saying that if there is an intermediary in between who could you know, like a supervisor who could say, well, you don’t have to take that pressure. It’s like a buffer in between. and So here’s a question for you, Susanna, this is the final question I have for you is,



how would you look at? Because what you described just now is precisely what I see as the problem. How would you look at the same problem to the lenses of psychology of risk?


Nippin Anand  29:13

How would you approach the same issue within the framework? I think you have partly answered that question. But let’s go a little bit deeper. How would you frame and understand this problem? through the lenses of social psychology of risk?


suzanne jackson  29:29

When people feel, you know, when people feel like someone has their back when when people feel like they’re valued. I mean, it’s about the values. It’s about the deep stuff. I mean, you can, you know, show me the process, tell me how to do things. Give me the goals, show me the organization’s expectations. But when I feel valued as a human being as a person, and I feel, you know, that I I’m trusted, I can be extraordinary. Right? And, you know, it’s like we forget about all the things that really make us tick as, as people, I mean, just, you know, imagine if you’ve you raised your your children by saying, Well, here’s the goal, you know, we’re going to do this and you know, we’re going to go to the playground, and we’re not going to get hurt today. That’s the goal. And, you know, here’s the rules, right? We’re not going to be jumping from the high swing, and, and we’re going to stay, you know, away from the these groups of children, because we’re not too sure about them. I mean, if we did that, how would our children respond, right. And so I think we just, we just need to peel away, you know, the idea that this is, you know, we just reach sometimes treat people, you’re a brain, your body, you know, you’re purchased for your body or your purchase for your brain. But we’re very holistic as people. And so social psychology of risk, I think, really helps to, you know, help us to appreciate that. We have to treat people as people, which is, you know, there’s trust and respect and, and values, and, and really making people feel, I don’t want to say psychologically safe, because I think we’ve even started to take that and, and sort of systemize it, which, you know, it’s always been, again, just that supervisor that, you know, really shows he cares, or she cares. And, you know, I don’t know that we’re teaching that and in leadership, right? It’s, it’s, it’s like, there’s so much introspection, and but really, it’s just about care about the other person, you know, and, and when I feel cared about so, you know, when I feel cared about and you feel like, do that with your children, right? They will, I think they’ll just start to act. If you know, better, they’ll start to act safer, they’ll start to let you know, cuz I’m not too sure about this money. Right? Because there’s, there’s trust there. Right, that, you know, I might have might have not done this right. But I’m going to tell you about it. What do you think and that is what a near misses in the workplace. Right. So, we are so enamoured by saying, well, we need to counter near misses and investigate them. And, and yet all that really should be is a trust conversation between a supervisor and a worker. Right. And then the supervisor, perhaps with some leadership training, may realise, okay, this is maybe something I can take into my next morning’s talk before shift. Because it has value or not, this is just going to be between me and her. Right. So and that’s a maturity level. Right? And so these are these are people skills, I don’t know, these are things that we don’t seem to, to teach anymore to people, it’s all become so systems dominated. Right? So social psychology of risk, brings the person factor the personhood back up, and elevates that and at least balances it if, if nothing else, because again, we’re we’re all about technology. And we’re all about systems. And that’s fine. That’s great that that helps. But it’s it’s to the detriment of people. So it’s bringing the people factor back in.


Nippin Anand  33:50

wonderful, just wonderful. Just what I thought it would be a wonderful conversation. How would you like to conclude this? Well, we slept let’s, let’s let me just put some thoughts together, because it’s so much fun, fun doing the summary of this conversation with you. I think it’s interesting, because we both started with the idea of defining what sort of psychology of risk is and then and then also what it is not. And what I gathered from this conversation so far is yes, there is an element of the uniqueness of the person and what people can do if you create trust with them, which is missing in a lot of discussion today. And I think that’s that’s powerful. That’s very powerful. Susan, what do you think what, how would you summarise it?


suzanne jackson  34:41

Yeah, I think that sounds I think that sounds really well. You know, I I know that social psychology of risk as as we’ve learned is, really it talks about three spaces. You know, the physical workspace, you know, the headspace and the group space and it brings up eyelets to those three parts. So I would say that’s to me, in summary, that’s what it’s all about. So when we get really excited about the latest safety management system, you know, version, I think that that really tells us, you know, step back, how do we bring the people along with that? What did they think about that? Maybe they don’t think the extra four buckets of things that we’re going to add? Maybe that’s actually overwhelming, maybe we should be stripping things away rather than adding in? And so I think it really is it keeps keeps a good balance.


Nippin Anand  35:41

Absolutely. And I really loved your perspective on this will be something to think about and processes and systems. Yes, yes, we do need processes, but our, our natural response when somebody is this killed, or somebody’s injured, or somebody’s harmed, will always go back to the same day for which is what have I missed in these processes? Because we’re still in the same paradigm. Right, which was here, I think it will, we will start to question our relationship with that person. I think that the first the first thing to understand is, who is this person? And that’s, that’s, that’s the bit I find very intriguing, actually, in this in this way of thinking? is great. Anything else you wanted to add?


suzanne jackson  36:33

Uh, no, not nothing. It’s always wonderful to speak with you. Because you’re, you’re very enlightened in, in this area. And, you know, you really have had some good experiences now it sort of, we’re bringing this to people and, and I know from some of your postings, and your articles that you’ve had some good successes with this. And and I think you’re, you carry it very well by, you know, sort of making it a mirror to people, you know, not telling people, this is what we have to do. But, you know, getting people to think through that sort of appreciative and humble inquiry that you’re so good at.


Nippin Anand  37:21

Yeah, those and where should people find you if they are looking for you?


suzanne jackson  37:26

Well, I’m on LinkedIn, for sure. And I have my website, as well as human factor west.com, here in Western Canada, and I love to talk about health and safety and ergonomics, and human factors and how we can make things better.


Nippin Anand  37:47

And I would strongly recommend the listeners to go and visit your website, because you’re so good at everything you do.



Thank you, you as well.


Nippin Anand  38:00

So much to think about. But perhaps the most powerful thing that I took away was the problem with the sole focus on improving processes and systems, whilst leaving a big gap around people. So what happens when we put all our focus into understanding work, and improving the processes and systems. And if you still have an accident, I guess what Susan is trying to say is that when you invest in improving the design of the place, when you improve, or trying to improve the processes, there is a certain expectation that comes with it, that we will have lesser accidents. And the more you invest in the design, and the efficiency and the and the safety of the of the work environment, the more you increase those expectations. And in those moments, if you still have an accident, what happens next is that



even more frustrated that despite our best efforts, we still ended up into an accident. And in those moments, we try to give meaning to our our experiences or the sufferings. Which brings us back to the same thing again, which is who to blame, what to blame.


Nippin Anand  39:30

So we are back again, to where we started. Because we really haven’t addressed the issue of giving meaning to our sufferings. And I think that’s what we talk about in this podcast. So what has really changed as a result of improving the processes and systems internally within us. I think that’s a really good point to think about and I will leave you with those thoughts. Thank you, and thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast.