Predicting Catastrophes
September 16, 2009 9:05 PM   Subscribe

When is an individual most likely to make a serious mistake (say, on the job or at some task involving risk)? I recall research that suggesting a "seven year rule" that after seven years of doing something, one has acquired enough mastery over the job or task or skill that complacence begins to creep in -- and with it, vigilance drops and disaster ensues. Any leads much appreciated.
posted by adamrobinson to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In a motorcycle safety class, I was taught that your second year of riding is the year you're most likely to crash, mostly due to complacence. *shrug* Can't find my booklet from class at the moment, so no citation.
posted by mollymayhem at 9:34 PM on September 16, 2009

It seems as though this question is a little too general to yield any really thoroughgoing answer. I don't really know what kind of ‘task’ you have in mind; the variation in risky occupations is, well, immense.

However, we can start to outline the problem. Obviously risky occupations range from the extremely physically intense (say, deep-sea fisherman) to those risky occupations which aren't so physically taxing (helicopter pilot). I imagine being a helicopter pilot requires more vigilance; enduring physical labor brings out a certain natural alertness, whereas any situation where one can relax is one which can lull one into a false sense of security and let things slip.

But, to be honest, I'm skeptical that anything can be meaningfully said about this even within those parameters. There may be studies, but my feeling is that the variation in human psychologies is itself so great that you can't generalize about how all of them react to risky situations. I myself, for example, go through all sorts of ridiculous changes in such circumstances; I sweat, I shake, and I don't think I could ever adjust to, say, being a skyscraper-crape operator, my fear of heights and my nervousness in risky situations is so intense. Whereas another person might not worry at all. There is in fact more variation in the amount that people get used to doing certain actions; I don't tend to learn things very quickly, and I have to repeat an action a dozen times, and when I finally do learn it I tend to forget it quickly; others are different.

Anyhow: was the study you remember about physically intense risky jobs, or was it about desky-sort of jobs that actually have a large amount of risk involved?
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I doubt there is any general rule.
posted by delmoi at 12:12 AM on September 17, 2009

I've heard the seven year rule, too, but I've never seen any data to back it up.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:34 AM on September 17, 2009

Fatigue is also often a factor in life threatening mistakes.
posted by metagnathous at 2:50 AM on September 17, 2009

I recall research that suggesting a "seven year rule" that after seven years of doing something, one has acquired enough mastery over the job or task or skill that complacence begins to creep in.

I've never heard of a seven year itch in anything other than marriage. If what you suggest here were true and widespread, there would be little or no value in anyone with more than seven years of experience in their field, and I can't think of any field in which that is true.

Doctor, lawyer, firefighter, accountant, plumber, dry cleaner... in every job I can think of, I would be quite more comfortable hiring someone with twenty years experience than hiring someone with five.

Then again, I have never really done the same job for seven years in a row, myself, so I have no personal data here.
posted by rokusan at 3:16 AM on September 17, 2009

As worded this question seems too general to yield any insight.
posted by dfriedman at 6:31 AM on September 17, 2009

Pretty general question, but on the topic I remember reading in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that it takes 10 years of intense practice for someone to become an expert in any field, be it computer programming, playing tennis, or the piano, or whatever. In fields where more knowledge and expertise is better, and it's not so much an issue of continuous vigilance to prevent catastrophe, more experience is obviously better.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:54 AM on September 17, 2009

I think for specific tasks/occupations one might be able to find a statistical bump in significant errors at a particular point in time. As others have said, this varies upon the task and the vagaries of the individual, so even if such a statistical bump did exist, the ability to do anything useful about it might be limited.

It also might be related to the fact that after X period of time a person has gained sufficient expertise to perform a certain task proficiently given nominal operating conditions. However, that person does not have sufficient experience to correctly and consistently deal with anomalies.
posted by forforf at 6:55 AM on September 17, 2009

Many flight instructors say.. "There is nothing more dangerous than a pilot with about 200 hours in his log." They make the point that this is just enough experience that some pilots start to cut corners on checklists etc. A little more experience and you've probably scared yourself a few times and go back to being VERY methodical
posted by ScotsLament at 6:58 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Part of the problem is in the definition of "serious error". Are we talking disaster-type serious error, such as lives lost, property damage, cost over-runs of huge amounts of money?

Because I tell you, I've had jobs in the past where, six months on the job, I committed a simple error with no such serious implications, such as a simple grammatical mistake on a document. But the boss perceived it as making him/her look bad, and it was though a tsunami had just swept away the city of New York.

A definition of what you mean by serious would be helpful.
posted by LN at 7:29 AM on September 17, 2009

An experienced heavy equipment operator, designer, doctor, lawyer, pilot, carpenter, oilfield tool-pusher, driller, boat captain, etc., will be aware that complacency is itself something to consider in dealing with whatever it is they are dealing with.

You will never know what it is you are forgetting or missing. That's why we have checklists and SOP's, Standard Operating Procedures.

It's a good question for an actuarial, but with this kind of statistical analysis, there may be many outliers - so your specific situation may be different. My mother has driven for almost 60 years, never had an accident or a ticket. I had an accident a few weeks after receiving my driver's license.

One thing that experience teaches you is that the things you take for granted can be the most costly or dangerous. Likely this is learned before seven years on the job, but I am just speculating.
posted by Xoebe at 10:47 AM on September 17, 2009

You might be referring to the research of Anders Ericsson on "expert performance" and "deliberate practice." Time article:

In making the case that she would be a better President than Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton never forgets to summon the argument that she has more experience. But as the Florida State simulations show, experience doesn't always help. In fact, three decades of research into expert performance has shown that experience itself ā€” the raw amount of time you spend pursuing any particular activity, from brain surgery to skiing ā€” can actually hinder your ability to deliver reproducibly superior performance.
posted by granted at 2:40 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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