What the UK's fuel shortage can teach us about human risk

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

The UK is currently experiencing a fuel shortage — though the government wants to reassure us that there is no shortage — which gas ked to some fascinating stories that illustrate human risk in action.

The latest is this tale of a tanker driver who found he was being followed by a convoy of cars hoping to discover which petrol station ('gas station' for my American readers) he was supplying. Sadly for them, he was transporting mortar, not fuel.

Here are four of the many lessons we can learn from this:

1. We are very good at making decisions based on limited information

All the car drivers following the tanker clearly concluded that it must be on its way to make a delivery, as opposed to returning to the depot empty, and that it was a fuel tanker, even though there was no indication of that on the side (see photo). If the information we're missing is critical, we can make bad decisions.

2. We are easily swayed by other people

The further back the cars were in the impromptu convoy, the less information they would have about what was going on, and the more they were reliant on others knowing something. Copying clueless people makes us clueless.

3. If others copy us, it helps convince us we're right

There's a vicious cycle at work here. The people at the back assume the people at the front know what they're doing. Meanwhile, the people at the front take the presence of the people behind them as validation of their original idea, making them more confident in their decision to follow the tanker.

4. We can easily override common sense if we can tell ourselves a good enough story as to why we should

Driving a tanker is a difficult job that requires concentration, and leading a convoy of cars increases risk. We intuitively understand that tankers are not road versions of airport 'follow me' or Formula One Safety cars. It is also illegal to do so. Yet...

5. Once we have a story in our heads, it's hard to shift

Think conspiracy theorists. The drivers in this situation felt 'misled' by the tanker driver when they discovered what he was carrying. Yet the poor decision-making here was in their heads, not his. Obviously, following a tanker burns fuel, making the risk they were trying to mitigate, even more likely to crystallise.

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