Joe’s a new hire and it’s his first day on the job. He just sat through a safety orientation and walks into his work area wearing all of the required PPE. His sense of awareness within his new work environment also seems to be very high. He looks around and notices a few of his co-workers wearing some of the PPE identified in the orientation, but little more. Seemingly, Joe tries not to think too much about it, and goes on with his training for the day. By the start of his third week, he doesn’t bother with other forms of PPE that were previously identified as required equipment. He’s become familiar with his co-workers and doesn’t want to stand out – he wants to be accepted. This might seem logical, but there’s more to Joe’s behavior than meets the eye.
Introduced in 1968 by Robert Zanjoc, the mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to develop preferences for things simply because they are familiar with them. This choice is not a conscious one. We don’t simply think, “Hey, I’ve done this job hundreds of times before and nothing bad has happened – so why bother….” Our subconscious is doing much of the work for us, bypassing conscious efforts that might otherwise be used.
If you are exposed to a given hazard regularly that hasn’t harmed you (even if it’s quite dangerous), over time, you will believe it is relatively safe and feel increasingly comfortable around it. Obviously, this feeling of increasing comfort and complacency is insidiously dangerous.
Taking the mere exposure effect into consideration, leaders need to consistently set high standards of safety performance. And safety standards have to be upheld so employees understand their importance and that their effort is worthwhile. We can’t allow employees to make their own rules or disregard established standards and protocol. Workers might not feel the need to wear certain PPE because they have seniority or have never been injured. While that might be the case, they should understand that standards are there for a reason.
On two different levels, familiarity with co-workers and their less-than-safe actions will produce unwanted effects. Concurrently, the mere exposure effect can cause increasing comfort with hazards and associated risks, further placing workers in ongoing danger.
Coaching people to work safety while setting high standards of performance isn’t simply about establishing norms and standards of safety excellence, but also about increasing awareness and limiting complacency.
Are your leaders and workers doing what they must to ensure that aspects of the mere exposure effect doesn’t take over within your organization?
Zanjoc, R. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9,(2, Pt.2), 1-27.