SAFETY PERSPECTIVES

You Don’t Want A Hungry Judge – How Self-Control Affects Safety Behavior

Posted by  Brian Dishman

self control affects safety behavior

Imagine you are in prison. Your application for parole is being reviewed today by a judge. What time of day do you want to have your application reviewed?

Think about your answer and hold onto it. We’ll revisit the question later…

Self-control. It's critical to safety behavior and important decision-making. When thinking of self-control, let’s focus closely on people’s ability to control emotions and desires in challenging situations. It’s a tricky effort. Self-control is not operated like a light switch - toggled back and forth, on or off. Think of self-control as a bank account with withdrawals and deposits. Psychologists have demonstrated that all forms of effort – mental, emotional, or physical – draw funds from your self-control account. Will-power is overrated: self-control sure requires effort. It’s a limited resource.

Consider a study on self-control involving two groups of participants and an emotionally-powerful film. The first group of participants was instructed to restrain their reactions to the viewing and the second group was not instructed to stifle their emotions. After the film, all participants were measured on how long they could keep a strong grip on a dynamometer despite increasing physical discomfort. As it turned out, the participants who had forced themselves to keep their emotions in check during the film let go of the dynamometer much faster than the second group. Their self-control had been depleted, so they had less "funds" available to grip the dynamometer.

Maintaining self-control is depleting and difficult. Exerting self-control on a task reduces your mental, emotional, or physical resources available for the next task. In fact, there is a measurable physiological cost to mental energy: glucose. Glucose, or blood sugar, powers your brain. Performing a task that requires self-control drops your blood sugar level. In other words, self-control burns, at a high rate, the fuel (glucose) your brain runs on. Self-control is literally exhausting and that has implications for our decision-making and safety.

Now, remember the question about your parole application? Parole judges spend all day reviewing and ruling on these applications. On average, it takes them six minutes to review and rule on an application, and typically only about 35% of applications are granted. A study tracked the time of day per each ruling to take a closer look at variations in approval rate. The results of the study were fascinating.

As it turns out, you want your judge to have a full stomach when he reviews your parole application. Judges have three food breaks each day, and the approval rate rockets to 65% approval immediately after a meal. During the hours preceding the judges’ next meal, the approval rate drops steadily to almost 0% right before the break. It’s amazing how much our decisions are driven by physical and environmental factors. We aren’t quite the logical, objective creatures we pretend to be. 

Think of the last time you made a risky or unsafe decision. What were you doing prior to that decision? Focus on how you felt the moment you made that poor decision. Do any of the below statements describe you in those moments?

  • Physically tired

  • Emotionally upset

  • Worried or anxious

  • Hungry

  • Mentally tired from problem-solving or extended focus

There is a reason why there are mandated rest times for professions that affect public safety, such as drivers, pilots, and doctors. Self-control is replenished by physical rest, mental rest, and proper nutrition. So, take care of yourself. Be aware of your self-control in the moment. Understanding your natural, human limitations will improve your safety and decision-making.

making safety personal

Tags:   safe behavior, employee safety, safety commitment, safety assessment, safety management, safety communication

Brian Dishman

Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at Select International. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.

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