Why smart people do stupid things

True story.

Back during my PhD, I was with the Officer Training Corps.  We were out on an exercise, and had been told to ‘debomb’ our magazines (that is, to take out all the blank rounds and store them for later).  I noticed that the guy next to me was taking out his rounds and storing them in his breast pocket.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Easier to get at ’em when we next need to.”

“But if there’s an attack – and we need to hit the dirt – and you land on a rock – won’t they explode directly over your heart?”

I will never forget the look on the guy’s face.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t more senior than this guy.  I also wasn’t better soldier material – he was by far the better candidate.  It was just that, in this moment, he was doing something incredibly stupid – because he was too busy concentrating on the big picture to pay attention to what he was doing.

Lesson learned: you don’t need to be stupid or lazy to do something stupid.  In fact, it’s the guy who is smart and is hard working who is more likely to do something really stupid, because his attention is elsewhere.

My eyes roll when I read papers about the importance of developing careful procedures.  It’s not that the advice isn’t good – it is – and nor is it that you can do without these – you can’t – it’s that the authors seem to forget: as a lab manager, if you are really, really good, and really, really persuasive, you can count on, maybe, 5% of lab workers’ attention and effort.

Five per cent.

That’d be a good statement of the fundamental problem of lab safety: How do you get 100% safety from only 5% attention?

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