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BOOK REVIEW: Careful! The Surprising Science behind Everyday Calamities – And How You Can Avoid Them by Steve Casner

BOOK REVIEW: Careful! The Surprising Science behind Everyday Calamities – And How You Can Avoid Them by Steve Casner

Pan Macmillan Australia
May 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo



For the majority of last century, accidents and preventable injuries were on the decline. This was due to increased innovation, safety measures and design, as well as better regulation and improved practices such as workplace health and safety. But since 2000, these numbers have been increasing again and Steve Casner is all too aware of this through his work as a research psychologist with NASA. It is his job to make our skies a safe place and in his book, Careful! The Surprising Science behind Everyday Calamities he compiles a lot of his research and experiences with human behaviour into an accessible volume that should prevent us from becoming another calamity Jane or John Doe.

We stopped using the word accident many years ago and replaced it with the phrase preventable injury. Under our watchful eye that we now know sometimes wanders, our impressive but sometimes intermittent skills, our good judgment that occasionally steps out for a smoke break, and our human ability to think ahead and look out for others when we’re doing it, we can reduce these so-called accidents to something much more rare. We have the power to make them not happen.

Casner argues that a lot of injuries or “accidental” deaths are actually preventable. He states that society has progressed as far as it can with respect to making advancements in safety features and regulations and that the next frontier involves people becoming more mindful of how and where issues exist so that they can be empowered to take different precautionary measures. One of the big things we need to realise is that humans are not infallible. We are all susceptible to injury because we aren’t as good at paying attention and multi-tasking as we think we are. We also fail to think ahead, ignore and take risks, neglect to take and give advice and fail to look out for one another as often as we should.

The next safety revolution is going to have to happen in our own minds…When the idea to be more careful comes from within our own head, we don’t need to be reminded or convinced. The hard question is, of course, how do we get there? How do we make it our idea to be more careful? To do that we’ll need to understand how our sometimes injury-prone minds work and to know where the potholes and mud puddles of life are waiting for us to come haplessly stumbling along.

This book is structured into chapters that tackle different areas of our lives (like where we go wrong with respect to safety around the house and at work as well as things like visiting the Doctor and heeding experts’ advice.) It also covers what our psychological short-comings are. It is fascinating to learn that we can’t actually multi-task well and that there is a thing called the “hangover effect” that applies when you switch between tasks. This switching means that things will still remain in our working memory even though we think we’ve changed focus and that it can take us up to 30 seconds for our attention to recover. This is particularly important in the case of people who think they can text and drive at the same time or even those who use their phone at a stopped light because the reality is we actually struggle to do single tasks well.

When we give our undivided attention to whatever it is we’re doing, we gather clues that allow us to anticipate things before they happen…But while we’re switching our attention between tasks, we don’t see some of these little details, and we forfeit the clues that they offer. And without them, when trouble pops up in front of us, it often feels like the unexpected “came out of nowhere.”

Careful! actually proves that human beings often fail to have the attention span to do one thing properly. Casner cites numerous research studies where participants failed to notice a change in their environment (like individuals who swapped roles mid-way through and another person in a costume). There is also the phenomena of automaticity where a task becomes so in-grained and practiced by us that we actually “switch-off.” While it may not be a problem to be able to do something without thinking too hard, it can have poor results like in the case where you cut your fingers because you weren’t paying enough attention while chopping or some other such thing. Casner argues that the best way to overcome issues with attentiveness is to:

1. Accept that we’re not good at paying attention
2. Not try and do two things at once if either one of them is important
3. Get someone to help
4. Prioritise and postpone so you pick one and not both
5. Pay attention when and where the attention is needed most

Human beings are also vulnerable to preventable injuries because we make errors, take risks and fail to think ahead. Casner describes a research study about prospective thinking which showed that when individuals had to remember to do something at a certain point in time in the future, most failed. People can also be naturally positive but this can also be to our detriment:

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen at New York University has made a career out of studying the perils of positive thinking. Her research has shown that when we formulate a goal and visualize it coming true, we tend to work a little less at it because, in our happy little minds, it’s pretty much a done deal… In short, we welcome thoughts of a positive outcome and skip the evidence in support of a negative outcome. Oettingen urges us to engage in what she calls mental contrasting, an exercise that invites us to consider the potential spoilers of whatever it is we are about to do…

Oettingen thinks some of this comes from within us. “We shut out all the bad stuff,” she told me, “because imagining the good stuff is pleasurable in the moment.” But she also places some of the blame for our unwillingness to “think negative” on society. Oettingen points to what she calls a “cult of optimism” that has pounded positive thinking into our brains. It can inspire us to conduct witch hunts for anyone who would dare to have anything other than a 100 percent can-do attitude in any situation. In the cult of optimism, it’s not okay to even make reference to anything negative.

It is obvious from this book that Casner knows his stuff. The fact that he can present his findings, knowledge and experience in such a digestible manner is commendable. There may be some naysayers who think that Casner is stating the obvious or that he is trying to advocate for cotton-wool to be placed around everyone. But the fact is we could probably all benefit from being a bit more aware of where our shortcomings exist, because then we can also be more empowered and proactive in overcoming these problems in order to prevent errors from happening.

Careful! is a book that is informative and a tad disconcerting when you learn where things can go wrong in everyday situations that you might not have even considered. On the flipside there is also the saying that to be forewarned is to be fore-armed and Careful! certainly ticks the boxes in that sense. This highly-readable, practical and interesting volume certainly makes a lot of sense when you stop and think about it, which really is point of it all in the first place.

BOOK REVIEW: Careful! The Surprising Science behind Everyday Calamities - And How You Can Avoid Them by Steve Casner

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