Nature versus Nurture. One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology. The nature vs nurture debate within psychology is concerned with the extent to which particular aspects of behaviour are a product of either inherited (i.e. genetic) or acquired (i.e. learned) characteristics. Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception e.g. the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual.
So to what extent does the nature versus nurture debate apply to a person’s attitude to safety and their level of safety consciousness? What makes one person take safety seriously in the workplace while another may have a laissez-faire attitude to it? The reason I got to thinking about these questions, which then evolved into writing this article, is all because of Elmo from Sesame Street believe it or not. It seems that each time I turn on the television lately, all I'm seeing is that cute, little, red fuzzy muppet Elmo. So what’s Elmo got to do with safety consciousness you ask? Well, let me relate a family story from nearly a decade ago now to demonstrate my point.
In July 2008, my oldest son James was selected by Nickelodeon to be filmed for some children’s television segments starring Elmo from Sesame Street. At the time James had just turned four years old and his younger brother Jacob was three. It was amazing to see that that both James and Jacob walked into the television studio and didn’t even notice that Elmo was a puppet (or muppet?), who had sticks poking out from him and was being held up by a puppeteer. All they saw was a cute, furry, red monster with a big orange nose and they were squealing with excitement and hugging him.
I must admit, little Elmo took a back seat for me when I saw the puppeteer of the perpetually three and a half year old Elmo at the time was a huge, tall African-American man (Kevin Clash). I just couldn’t reconcile that this tall, big built man was the falsetto voice of cute, little Elmo. The current puppeteer of Elmo is Ryan Dillon who started work at Sesame Street when he was only 17 years old. Ryan has been the puppeteer of Elmo in all productions and appearances since 2013.
Apart from his very high squeaky voice, Elmo almost always refers to himself in the third person – he doesn’t use the word “I”. Instead of saying something like “Hi James, I am so happy to meet you”, he would say “Elmo is so happy to meet you James”. So when the cameras started rolling, the conversation initially went along the lines of “Elmo would like to count to twenty James. Can you count with Elmo?”. This was followed by, “Elmo wondered if you could say the alphabet James. Elmo will start with 'a' and you follow along James”.
Anyway, to get to the point why I’m relating this little family story… after Elmo and James had counted, recited the alphabet and sang some songs together, the producer thought it would be great for Elmo and James to have a chat during one of the recording segments. When the cameras went back on, Elmo asked James, “What would you like to talk about James?” and I had one of the proudest moments of my life as a safety professional when my four year old son said “I think I’d like to talk about safety Elmo”. There was silence on the studio floor, then Elmo recovered and said, “Elmo likes toys and games James. Do you want to talk about toys and games with Elmo?”. James shook his head and said “No, I want to talk about safety”. He then went on to explain to Elmo how it’s important to be safe and what can happen if you’re not safe. It was a gorgeous moment that I’ll always remember.
In thinking back on how James would have such knowledge and appreciation about safety at such a young age, I do acknowledge that exposure to my job gave him some background in relation to safety. I remember him always being fascinated with my “Accident Go-Kit” and when he and his brother Jacob played dress-ups, James would raid my go-kit and proudly walk around with my safety vest and hard hat on.
When I would depart to investigate an incident I would briefly explain “Mummy has to go because there’s been a truck accident” for example. I recall James as a young child often giving me suggestions as I walked out the door on my way to an incident and saying things like “Well, make sure you check for fuel leaks or maybe the engine broke Mum or maybe it was the tyres exploding”. James regularly uses words like hazards and controls, has been known to walk around the house with a clip board sketching out evacuation routes and often discusses safety related issues.
So on the one hand, it would be easy to say that nurture definitely played a role in James’s level of safety consciousness which has carried on to this day now that he has just turned 13 years old. However, is nurture enough? Because I then consider my other son Jacob who is only 11 months younger than James and was exposed to the same experiences, the same level of safety related discussions and education. Does Jacob display the same attitude to safety and level of safety consciousness?
Well, the numerous scars, bumps and bruises he’s had over the years would be enough for you to realise why I refer to Jacob as my own little “Captain Risky”. Jacob plays rugby league, rugby union and loves archery, paintball and target shooting. On most weekends Jacob will be riding his bike and scooter on steep down-hill gradients that would make the American stunt performer Evel Knievel cringe. So far this year, Jacob has broken three toes in three months and is currently sporting some horrific bruises from a bike fall last week.
So, back to my original question from the beginning of this article. To what extent does the nature versus nurture debate apply to a person’s attitude to safety and their level of safety consciousness? What makes one person take safety seriously in the workplace while another may have a laissez-faire attitude to it? I think the experience of my two boys and their vastly different approaches to safety, despite almost identical upbringings and safety exposure, just goes to show that perhaps what organisations need to acknowledge in their on-going safety efforts is that everyone is different and what motivates one may not work for another.
Just like parents come to a realisation that each of their children is unique and responds differently to various incentives or consequences, perhaps a “one size fits all” safety program is never going to get us where we want to be on our safety journey. Dependent on their inherent nature / nurture mix, different people may respond better to different methods. Like chalk and cheese, cats and dogs or even Oscar the Grouch and Elmo – these individual differences are a challenge in enhancing safety and ensuring all our people have the level of safety consciousness we would like.
What are your thoughts when it comes to safety aptitude - nature, nurture or a bit of both ?
PS. Elmo - you're still looking great kiddo and we love the message you're spreading around the world this year of the importance of being kind to one another and understanding each other's feelings. Miss you and look forward to meeting up with you again one day!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR- Jo De Landre (Executive General Manager)
After 15 years with the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI),which became part of the multi-modal Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), Jo started co-facilitating ICAM training with Safety Wise in 2001 as the Principal Human Factors Consultant.
In 2005, Jo was promoted to the position of Executive General Manager of Safety Wise and beyond providing human factors specialist services and ICAM training and Investigations, she is now involved in strategic activities such as project management and developing safety management programs.
Jo has been the Safety Wise Lead Investigator for many high profile accidents, including multiple fatality investigations. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Psychology and a Graduate Diploma of Psychology, and has published papers in aviation, mining and police journals and publications.
Joanne has also been Secretary of the Australian Aviation Psychology Association (AAvPA) for close to a decade.