When these heuristics are applied to health, many people will lack memories or mental images of people who have sustained health damage, and therefore instinctively consider them to be less relevant, compared with the vivid aftermath of an accident.
This can happen for many reasons. Work-related health conditions may become apparent only once someone has left the workplace, or the person may ﬁnd ways of adapting to their deteriorating health, making it less obvious to others. Seeing someone with an arm in plaster represents a dramatic change which is more easily noticed and sticks in our memory more than gradually declining health (neuroscience calls this ‘salience’). Once a salient event is lodged in our memory, we will see a further occurrence as signiﬁcant, and our hippocampus will ﬁ le it in our long-term memory. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle, leading us to overestimate safety risks and under-estimate health risks.
The case studies in IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign illustrate how personal stories can be used to create powerful, meaningful memories, rather than reams of statistics, that we can unconsciously draw on to inform our judgements. Incidentally, we are also more likely to remember and be inﬂuenced by the most recent events – the ‘recency eﬀect’ (bit.ly/2Zpol56). Consequently, there may be value in rearranging the sequence of communications, so that they end with a key, impactful message about health.
An easier choice
Richard Thaler, an economist who went on to win a Nobel prize, and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar, drew on these ideas when developing and justifying Nudge Theory, set out in the book Nudge. This attempts to side-step a lot of these challenges by simply making the healthiest choice the easiest one to adopt. The classic examples are putting healthier snacks near checkouts, or increasing organ donations by requiring people to opt out rather than opt in.
Our heuristics support us in making immediate judgements about a situation. Our strategies for ﬁnding and processing information will prioritise anything that immediately threatens or supports our goals in that situation. ‘Melioration bias’ describes the resultant cognitive bias where we attach more importance to immediate and certain outcomes rather than distant and uncertain consequences. The long latency period between exposure to health hazards and their discernible eﬀ ects, and our uncertainty that exposure will deﬁnitely lead to ill health, means that naturally we will be inclined to consider them less relevant than safety hazards and their instant and obvious consequences.
Public health campaigns sometimes try to tackle these biases by employing graphic images of the unseen damage of cigarettes, for example. This enables us to readily visualise the immediate harm being done to our bodies. However, this has to be done sensitively. Paul Slovic, the guru of risk perception, points out that we can develop a sense of dread about some risks (bit.ly/2mmheMX) that could be counter-productive if we stop engaging with the training material.
Seeing someone with an arm in plaster represents a dramatic change which is more easily noticed and sticks in our memory more
It is possible to double-check whether unconscious biases are apparent in, or could be supported by, the messages we give out. A recent example was the decision by the Safety Institute of Australia to rebrand itself as the Australian Institute of Health and Safety. At a much simpler level, we could review templates for workplace inspections or past safety bulletins, and see whether health has an equivalent place to safety.
All of this can help to ‘normalise’ health-related discussions, which will generate even more material for our brains to process. In recent years, there have been high-proﬁle eﬀorts to achieve this through discussions about employee mental health.
If we want health messages to become salient, and lodged in the memory so they can sway future judgements, it is worth considering whether health information could be more impactful coming from an occupational health professional. Alternatively, a health and safety professional could establish themselves as a credible source of information – for example, by being seen to work closely with the occupational health provider, and drip-feeding short, accurate and relevant health facts and case studies through meetings and/or social media channels.
Although unconscious biases may result in people instinctively prioritising safety over health, it is possible to account for this, and to ensure health messages are absorbed and inﬂuence judgements and decisions.