Two young girls died when hit by a train six years ago, and Network Rail have admitted their ‘liability’ in court a few days ago. Tragically people are still dying when crossing railway lines, faults are analysed, attempts made to reduce or eliminate such incidents, but they keep happening.
Network Rail admitted liability because, so it is told, they knew there was a risk and had done nothing. Why the girls made the mistake of crossing is easy to understand. It is a simple and common mistake of connecting one thing with another, erroneously. Crossing gates are down, warning lights flashing, sirens going, train passes, and so the girls stepped into the path of a train thinking the gates and the siren and the flashing lights connected to the train that had just passed. Such a simple mistake and Network Rail knew it could happen.
Ex Sir Fred Goodwin must have had lots of lights flashing, sirens warning when he made poorly judged purchases of other banks, he ignored them, as did his fellow board directors, the FSA and others, when you believe you are the Master of the Universe, bells and flashing lights don’t apply, do they?
Fred has lost his knighthood but keeps his multimillion £ pension pot. When people in positions of power make big mistakes it is usually others who pay most heavily, as it was with the teenagers who crossed the railway line.
So how do we get people in power, especially people in power, to minimise mistakes, to think twice and twice again, think one way and then think another? A start is to help them recognise why things go wrong.
It is not unreasonable to simplify thinking into 3 types, creative, intuitive and reasoning. Each of these types can make big mistakes but also can be used to help us ‘see’ the mistakes we are about to make. So we might use some ‘creative thinking’ to help us review how we are rationalising, or we might use some reasoning to review our intuitive feelings about what to do.
We can also know, with a fair bit of understanding coming from some nice neuroscience and simple people experiments, that the context of the decision making makes a big difference in the kinds of mistakes we are likely to make with different kinds of thinking. When the context is complex reasoning can be pretty poor at knowing what to do as we tend to reason based on some minimal evidence and ignore the rest. When the context requires ’emergency action’ intuition works best, but needs to be checked as much as time allows, one check being how much other people’s intuition says to do the same thing – BUT NOT as crowd thinking, crowds make terrible decisions, but a collective of independent thinking works well.
We should be able to do a lot better than we do. We should be able to implement what we know about good thinking and bad thinking so fewer people die, so lives are richer and more rewarding. If we don’t do it soon, then I think robots will take over.