April 2016

The social psychology of risk, safety and leadership maturity

  • By Dr Robert Long, Executive Director, Human Dymensions

Dr Robert Long argues that social arrangements can affect decision-making and judgement in the workplace

An introduction to social psychology

Why do people do what they do? Why do they do things that don’t seem to make sense? Why do people change what they do depending on social context? How do social arrangements influence judgment and decision-making? How does risk make sense? These are the questions that preoccupy the social psychology of risk.

Social psychology is the study of human social behavior, with an emphasis on how people think towards each other and how they relate to each other under the influence of social arrangements. As the mind is the axis around which social behavior pivots, social psychologists tend to study the relationship between the human mind(s) and social behaviors. Social psychology is the study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, values, decisions, judgments and behaviors can be influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others.

The growth in interest in social psychology accelerated after the Second World War. Some of the most well-known research in Social Psychology include:

  • Herbert Simon on Bounded Rationality (1947)
  • Solomon Asch on Groupthink (1951)
  • Muzafer Sherif In-Group/Out-Groupness (1954)
  • Leon Festinger on Cognitive Dissonance (1956)
  • Stanley Milgram Obedience to Authority (1961)
  • Alber Bandura on Social Learning (1961)
  • Darley and Latane on the Bystander Effect (1964-68)
  • Philip Zimbardo on Evil and Power (1971).

The social psychology of risk

The social psychology of risk is the application of the principles of social psychology to risk. The foundation of this discipline was established in Australia by Dr Robert Long (2012, 2013, 2014, 2014a) and emerged out of his postgraduate studies in fundamentalism and occupational health and safety. Social psychology of risk is interested in how social arrangements affect decision-making and judgements in risk. What this means is that all social relationships, social settings, discourse and organising affect human judgement and decision-making in risk. Long suggests that without a social psychological understanding of risk, people will be less risk intelligent, more visually and spatially illiterate, and less able to make sense of risk.

The nature of risk

All risk involves a degree of uncertainty and subjective attribution. Risk, according to Standards Australia (AS/NZS ISO 31000, 2009), is ‘the effect of uncertainty on objectives’. In early times risk was most associated with understanding and predicting the weather, navigation and primitive notions of insurance. Whilst we have ‘moved on’ from these associations, unfortunately we have been strongly influenced by reductionism, what is commonly known as the Newtownian/Cartesian worldview.

Risk is not objective – rather, the perception, amplification, attenuation and attribution of risk are conditioned by social psychological factors. Slovic (2000, 2010) has shown that perception of risk varies according to life experience, cognitive bias, heuristics, memory, visual and spacial literacy, expertise, attribution, framing, priming and anchoring. In other words, risk is a human constructed sense of meaning associated with uncertainty, probability and context. For example, one person’s risk is another person’s opportunity.

When reading through the many resources and programs about risk, one could be forgiven for thinking that compliance would be much easier if it didn’t involve people. I often get amused by approaches to risk that spend most of the time focusing on objects, as if judgements made around those objects are irrelevant. It is as if the object itself is value laden and dangerous.

The fixation on objects

I recently did some work for a mining organisation who asked for help in developing a more mature approach to leadership in risk at work. I looked through the tools they were using to think about risk and everything in their checklists involved the observation of objects. Looking out for ‘things’ is of limited value if one can’t imagine or focus on how humans respond to each other and those objects in that environment.

Social arrangements give us meaning, purpose and fulfillment. Social arrangements also determine the way we make decisions and judgements. Risk is not an engineering problem but a social psychological problem. An engineering approach to risk tends to have its training and focus on objects. Whilst it is great to observe what engineers think and construct, it is not the core focus of that discipline to understand human organising, collective mindfulness and he collective unconscious in response to objects.

The social psychology of risk helps us understand the following questions:

  • Why do humans not obey procedures?
  • Why are people non-compliant?
  • How is human perception limited?
  • Why do people make poor judgments about risk?
  • How is risk attributed?
  • Why are people not motivated to better attribute risk?
  • How is perception limited by collective mindlessness?

Without an understanding of the social psychology of risk, it becomes easy just to view people who take risks and fail as being ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. Once we have dismissed people in this way, we no longer feel compelled to understand the problem or the drivers of the problem – the label has taken away any need for further understanding. Without a better understanding of human judgment and decision-making in a social psychological context, leaders tend to advocate greater vigilance and ‘more of the same’.

Leadership maturity and risk

The challenge for leaders is to understand risk as a trade-off governed by the social psychology of goals (Moskowitz and Grant, 2009). The key to leadership maturity in risk is understanding the nature of motivation and why people do what they do (see Deci, 1995 and Higgins, 2012). Furthermore, leaders need to understand that human fallibility and risk creates a ‘wicked problem’ (Brown et al, 2010). Wicked problems extend beyond the notion of complexity and are known by their intractability and insolvability. Wicked problems cannot be ‘tamed’, they can only be ‘tackled’.

If leadership is to be mature in risk, it must understand how goals compete (Cameron and Quinn, 1999). If leadership is to be mature it needs to understand how risk creates meaning (through trade-offs and by-products) for humans and leaders, and thereby knowing how to engender vision, influence others and foster risk intelligence.

Riggio (2008) emphasises the social relationship or social contract between the leader and followers as a pathway to leadership maturity and wisdom in risk. The social contract between leadership and followership is about much more than the traits of the leader. Somewhere along the journey, managerialism discourse has lost sight of the follower, the social contract and social arrangements. This is where the social psychology of risk enters the discussion and asks the question, ‘what are the social arrangements that create effective leadership maturity in risk?’

The enemy of leadership is not a lack of power but a lack of ‘connectedness’. A shared sense of ‘us’ lies at the heart of influence. Leadership discourse that is exposed as dehumanising the community is rejected by followers. Anti-social values cannot create a pro-social collective.


The idea of maturity and wisdom in risk is not a common discourse in industry, rather we hear the dominance of language of controls and policing. Maturity can be understood as an endless journey up a set of escalators, in maturity and wisdom, one never ‘arrives’ but always looks back to immature stages of development.

The escalators (Figure 1) represent movement over complexity and time. In the social psychology of risk one matures from a focus on just Workspace to a focus on Headspace and Groupspace ™.


It is in this movement to maturity that leaders develop a more holistic understanding of risk and learn how to tackle its challenges with wisdom. 


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