Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Social Licking?

The linked file contains a book review with some interesting social science that could be of great relevance to building and sustaining safety cultures.  But I couldn’t resist the best quote of the review, commenting about some of the unusual findings in recent studies of social networks.  To wit,

“In fact, the model that best predicted the network structure of U.S. senators was that of social licking among cows.”

Back on topic, the book is Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, addressing the surprising power of social networks and how they shape our lives.  The authors may be best known for a study published several years ago about how obesity could be contagious.  It is based on observations of networked relationships – friends and friends of friends – that can lead to individuals modeling their behaviors based on those to whom they are connected.

“What is the mechanism whereby your friend’s friend’s obesity is likely to make you fatter? Partly, it’s a kind of peer pressure, or norming, effect, in which certain behaviors, or the social acceptance of certain behaviors,
get transmitted across a network of acquaintances.”  Sounds an awful lot like how we think of safety culture being spread across an organization.  For those of you who have been reading this blog, you may recall that we are fans of Diane Vaughan’s book The Challenger Launch Decision, where a mechanism she identifies as “normalization of deviance” is used to explain the gradual acceptance of performance results that are outside normal acceptance criteria.  An organization's standards decay and no one even notices.

The book review goes on to note, “Mathematical models of flocks of birds, or colonies of ants, or schools of fish reveal that while there is no central controlling director telling the birds to fly one direction or another, a collective intelligence somehow emerges, so that all the birds fly in the same direction at the same time.  Christakis and Fowler argue that through network science we are discovering the same principle at work in humans — as individuals, we are part of a superorganism, a hivelike network that shapes our decisions.”  I guess the key is to ensure that the hive takes the workers in the right direction.

Question:  Does the above observation that “there is no central controlling director” telling the right direction have implications for nuclear safety management?  Is leadership the key or development of a collective intelligence?

Link to review.

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