The Social Psychology of Safe Diving

As certified divers, we should already have a pretty good understanding of how to dive safely. But many of us have found ourselves in unsafe diving situations such as diving beyond our training or diving despite apprehension or discomfort. Many of these dangerous situations result from poor decisions made before a dive, but why do divers make bad decisions when we know better?

I have found myself in several unsafe situations in diving. Once a dive operator encouraged me to go on a dive that was deeper than I was trained to go. Another time one put together my equipment for me, and when I went to double check it he told me not to bother, saying they had “been doing this for years.” Many divers give in to this sort of pressure, but why does this happen despite all the training we’ve undergone?

We could say these dive operators have an unsafe dive culture, but I think we must examine how such cultures arise. Many factors contribute to unsafe diving. One is pluralistic ignorance, which is when people act as if nothing is wrong because nobody else is acting like anything is wrong. In diving, this can occur when someone suggests something unsafe and nobody speaks out against it. When this happens we tend to look around, notice that nobody else seems to be concerned, and think something like “Well, nobody seems concerned, so maybe I’m paranoid; it must be OK.” We must not take the inaction of others to mean that everything is as it should be.

Two male divers look at a computer after a dive
Divers should be aware of the various ways social pressure can influence their behavior. When in doubt, rely on your training and never forget you are the best advocate for your own safety.

Another factor is known as diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when a person’s sense of responsibility diminishes in the presence of other people. In diving, we might see something that is inappropriate but say nothing because we assume it is someone else’s responsibility to say something. It is particularly easy for novice divers to fall into this trap since they tend to assume that everyone else is better suited than they are to take responsibility for the dive. Remember, you are the best advocate for your own safety.

Deindividuation is another factor that can lead to unsafe diving. This phenomenon is often called “being lost in the crowd,” but it doesn’t necessarily require a large group. We feel fewer constraints on our actions when many people are around us, as might be the case on a full dive boat. When we are lost in the crowd, we tend to act more impulsively and may thus be more prone to making errors.

Close-knit groups of friends can be particularly prone to groupthink, which is when everyone in a group agrees with each other without thinking things through. Someone might suggest an unsafe dive, and everyone gives their assent without much thought.

On the other hand, diving with people you don’t know can also be problematic. We tend to want to be liked by others, so we sometimes do things we normally wouldn’t to get along or for others to like us. Often called normative social influence, it can encourage us to make an unsafe dive in an attempt to be liked by others. If someone suggests diving deeper than you are trained to, you might feel pressure to say yes if you want to be liked by that person. Although putting your life in danger just to be liked might seem strange, normative social influence is powerful and should be taken seriously.

Informative social influence is a bit different. This is when we do as others do because we think they know what is best. We learn from them and follow their lead. This is a good thing as long as the person we are learning from is doing things properly. Unfortunately, novices often look toward anyone with more experience, but not every diver is a worthy role model.

The good news is that we can counter these unwanted influences in many ways, including reading articles like this one. The simple act of learning about these influences can be enough to weaken them. We can also do the following:

  • Take control. Don’t assume somebody else will say something is amiss. Review your training, and stick to it. If someone suggests doing something outside of your training, say you aren’t comfortable doing it. Chances are that someone else in the group is similarly concerned but is too shy or uncomfortable to say so.
  • Slow down. We tend to act impulsively around other people, so slow down and think. Rarely do we have to make split-second decisions before we dive. Taking a minute or even just a few seconds to think things through can effectively counter errors due to impulsiveness.
  • Play devil’s advocate. It’s natural to blindly go along with the crowd at times. To counter this, think about what might go wrong. We won’t always identify plausible concerns when we play devil’s advocate, but sometimes we may notice potential problems.
  • Rely on your training. Part of safe diving is recognizing unsafe diving. If you are unsure, consult your manual or ask a diver with knowledge, experience and a commitment to safe diving. You can often tell who these people are: They tend to talk about safety, have advanced training and help novices before dives.
  • Model good behavior. If you are an experienced diver, lead by example. Don’t be afraid to go out of your way to make it clear you are a safe diver. For example, you might invite novices to plan their dives with you. This helps create a climate that benefits everyone.
  • Role-play. Practice with a friend what you would do if someone pressured you to make an unsafe dive. We often make poor decisions because we are put on the spot and don’t have time to think things through properly. Practicing what you would say and who you would say it to can make it considerably easier to make the safe decision. Prior to doing something exciting like diving, we tend to respond with our dominant response, but a beginner’s dominant response is not always the correct one. Through role-playing and practice you can make your dominant response one that supports safety.

Most of us understand, intellectually at least, the risks associated with cutting corners, rushing dives and not being fully prepared. By learning to recognize factors that lead to unsafe decisions, we can help keep ourselves out of dangerous situations.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2015