The Neurobiology of Safety Behaviour: Conditioning and Reinforcement with Scratchie

This blog post breaks down the principles of our biology and brains shared with animals and explores how the innovative safety app Scratchie is leveraging these to cultivate positive safety behaviours in the construction industry.
July 17, 2023
Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.
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One day in 1891, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment that would forever alter our understanding of human psychology. It was a moment that revealed the intricate workings of our minds and unconscious motivations, and surprisingly, it all started with a humble dog.

Picture this: Pavlov's lab, filled with the anticipation of discovery, as he presents a simple bell to his faithful canine companion. Each time the bell rings, Pavlov follows it with the appearance of food. Naturally, the dog salivates at the sight of the food—a typical physiological response.

But here's where it gets truly intriguing.

After repeated pairings of the bell with the food, Pavlov decides to test the dog's conditioned response. He rings the bell, absent of any food, and to his astonishment, the dog still salivates. The mere sound of the bell alone triggers the dog's automatic physiological reaction, even in the absence of the food.

This groundbreaking experiment, known as classical conditioning, revealed the power of associations in shaping our behaviours and responses. And just as Pavlov's dog demonstrated the profound impact of these associations, we too are powerfully influenced by the workings of our own biology and brains in ways that shape our day-to-day behaviour, motivation, and goals.

Merging Biology and Safety: Exploiting our Animalistic Brains

Modern thinking tends to distinguish us humans from our early ancestors and the many creatures that surround us. This can make it hard to appreciate how much we’re still driven by brains and biology sharing much in common with other mammals.

A failure to recognize our enduring, animal-like nature also misses a valuable opportunity to leverage it. By humbling ourselves to an awareness of our evolutionary hardwiring, we can maximise our efforts in pursuit of society’s most important values, such as human wellbeing.

In the construction industry, this means applying what we know from neurobiology to strengthen our attention and motivation in pursuit of better safety outcomes for all. In this post, we explore how leveraging our biological and neurological makeup can enhance safety behaviours in the construction industry, focusing on their application within the innovative new Scratchie app.

Understanding Reward and Punishment

As with animals, us humans are wired to be sensitive to the anticipation of reward, and this sensitivity can be leveraged to help motivate desired behaviour in the workplace. To understand how, we must begin with an example of what precisely characterises a reward.

According to evolutionary scientists, objects and events in the environment can be either punishing or rewarding based on the behavioural reactions they elicit. In either case, we perceive such objects and events as holding significant motivational value, affecting our welfare, survival, and reproduction.

To illustrate, consider a worker who receives a safety violation notice or witnesses a workplace accident. These are examples of punishing events.

The negative consequences of the accident, including physical harm or potential legal repercussions, create an aversive response. The worker becomes more cautious, increasing their adherence to safety procedures to prevent future accidents and ensure their wellbeing.

In contrast, consider a worker who receives recognition or a bonus, such as that awarded through Scratchie, for demonstrating positive safety behaviour by reporting a potential hazard. This is an example of a rewarding event.

This positive reinforcement encourages them to maintain vigilance and actively contribute to a safer work environment. Likewise, their motivation to continue engaging in safe practices increases.

Classical Conditioning with Rewards

Rewards play a crucial role in shaping behaviour. They increase the frequency and intensity of actions that come immediately before an anticipated reward, helping humans and animals learn and maintain those behaviours.

Considering animals first, suppose your pet dog wagged its tail at the sight of its leash, or drooled upon hearing you clamour in the fridge. These behaviours would indicate a learned association between the sight of the leash and the sounds of the fridge, and the anticipation of a pleasurable reward (i.e., a walk or food).

Now suppose you began commanding your dog to ‘sit’ before putting on its leash, or handing it a nub of cheese. Do this enough times, and you might notice your dog begin to sit without being asked, anticipating that this behaviour will yield the reward of a walk or food.

This is the basics of classical conditioning; the rewards act as positive reinforcers, strengthening the connection between stimuli and behavioural response. Humbling though it may be, we humans are consciously or unconsciously driven by the exact same processes.

It's why we’re often encouraged to remove tempting stimuli from our environment when we’re trying to unlearn a bad habit. For example, when we’re trying to diet, we might put the cookie jar toward the back of the cupboard where we can’t see it.

In the same way the visual stimuli of the leash prompts the behavioural response of sitting from the dog, the sight of the jar prompts us to unlatch its lid, grab a cookie, and take a bite in the anticipation of pleasure—a conditioned response we’ve unconsciously developed out of habit.

The Role of Dopamine in Conditioning Behaviours

The reason these processes play out for humans in the same way they do animals is due to our shared neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in the brain's reward system. When we encounter a stimulus that we have learned to associate with a reward, such as the sight or smell of our favourite food, dopamine neurons in our brain become activated.

Exposure to a stimulus associated with a reward triggers a pleasurable surge of dopamine in our brains, creating a sense of anticipation.

It is this surge of dopamine that contributes to the feeling of excitement and eagerness we experience when exposed to stimuli associated with rewards. This anticipation can manifest as increased attention, motivation, and a desire to engage in behaviours that will lead to obtaining the anticipated reward.

For example, imagine a person who loves coffee. As they walk into a café and catch a whiff of freshly brewed coffee, their brain recognizes the familiar smell and associates it with the rewarding experience of sipping a delicious cup of joe. The brain's reward system is triggered, leading to a release of dopamine. This surge of dopamine creates a pleasurable sensation and heightens the person's anticipation and desire to enjoy that cup of coffee.

Leveraging Conditioning and Dopamine to Increase Safety Behaviours

Luckily for us humans, we’re aware of our capacity to be conditioned. We’re not at the mercy of tempting stimuli like the cookie jar, but can make changes to our environments and routines to condition ourselves to positively anticipate more adaptive and desirable behaviours.

In other words, we can harness the same motivational machinery that has created our not-so-good habits to train ourselves in more desirable ones.

To illustrate, imagine you were trying to establish a new habit of jogging to improve your fitness and health. To help cultivate a positive association between jogging and pleasure that creates motivation via dopamine, you might reward yourself with a warm bath or an episode of your favourite TV show after each run.

Given this neurobiological architecture, it's not hard to see how construction site supervisors can leverage the same brain-based machinery to instil positive safety habits on worksites. In fact, the principles of dopamine, classical conditioning, and stimulus and reward lie at the heart of our rewarding safety app, Scratchie.

Here are just a few ways that Scratchie utilises these principles to promote positive safety behaviours throughout the construction industry:

Dopamine and Anticipation

When a supervisor observes a worker engaging in safe behaviours on a construction site, such as reporting a hazard or following safety protocols, they can use Scratchie to instantly recognize and reward that worker. This triggers a surge of dopamine, creating a sense of anticipation and motivation to repeat those safe behaviours. The consequence is that the worker associates the performance of safety actions with the pleasurable experience of receiving rewards through the app.

Classical Conditioning

Through Scratchie, the supervisor links specific safety actions with rewards. They create a reward category, such as "Fall Prevention," and choose it when issuing an award. The supervisor then generates a unique QR code through the app, which the worker scans using their Scratchie app. This establishes an association between the act of scanning the QR code with the positive outcome of receiving the award, reinforcing the desired safety behaviours.

Stimulus and Reward

When a worker receives an award, they not only gain immediate recognition but also tangible rewards such as points or bonuses that can be claimed and ported to their bank account. These rewards act as positive reinforcements and stimuli, strengthening the connection between the safety actions and the desirable outcomes. Through them, the worker becomes motivated to continue performing safe behaviours to obtain more rewards through the app.

By integrating the science of dopamine, classical conditioning, and stimulus and reward, Scratchie transforms the process between supervisors and workers on construction sites. It instils a culture of safety by recognising and reinforcing positive safety behaviours in real-time.

The Motivational Power of Reward Over Punishment

Motivational approaches characterised by punishment abound in the construction industry. Unfortunately, this misses the unique opportunity to leverage the powers of reward and positive conditioning we’ve discussed to create safer worksites.

In particular, there are at least five downsides of a punishment-only approach to improving safety.

Increased Motivation vs. Fear-based Compliance

The brain’s reward system, with its focus on positive reinforcement, taps into individuals’ intrinsic motivation. It motivates workers to actively engage in safe behaviours by offering incentives and recognition.

In contrast, approaches based on punishment rely on fear and negative consequences to enforce compliance. While punishment may yield short-term compliance, it often fails to generate genuine motivation or a proactive safety mindset.

Positive Safety Culture vs. Negative Environment

Rewards and positive reinforcement create an environment where workers feel valued and appreciated for their safety contributions. This positive culture encourages cooperation, collaboration, and shared responsibility for safety.

In contrast, relying solely on punishment can create a negative work environment, leading to resentment, fear, and a culture of blame rather than proactive safety practices.

Proactive Safety Behaviours vs. Reactive Compliance

By rewarding and reinforcing positive safety actions, such as hazard reporting or proactive risk assessments, workers are motivated to take ownership of safety. They become more inclined to actively identify and address hazards before incidents occur.

In contrast, punishment-based systems often result in reactive compliance, where workers merely adhere to safety rules to avoid penalties. This reactive mindset may lead to a lack of initiative in identifying and preventing hazards.

Long-Term Behavior Change vs. Temporary Compliance

The brain’s reward system, through consistent rewards and positive reinforcement, promotes long-term behaviour change. By reinforcing safe behaviours, workers develop positive safety habits that become ingrained over time.

In contrast, punishment may produce temporary compliance, as workers may revert to unsafe behaviours once the threat of punishment diminishes. Without ongoing reinforcement, the desired safety behaviours may not be sustained.

Improved Morale and Retention vs. Negative Effects on Wellbeing

Leveraging the brain’s reward system enhances worker morale and job satisfaction. Recognising and rewarding safe behaviours contribute to a positive work environment where workers feel valued, leading to higher levels of job engagement and satisfaction.

In contrast, relying on punishment can have negative effects on wellbeing. Fear-based environments may lead to increased stress, anxiety, and decreased morale. This can result in higher turnover rates and a negative impact on overall worker satisfaction and retention.

Make Safety Second Nature with Scratchie

Understanding our innate motivational systems can have powerful impacts on promoting positive safety behaviours in the construction industry. By recognising our shared biological nature with other mammals and embracing the science of our biology and brains, we can maximise our efforts in pursuit of better work and safety outcomes for all.

Scratchie, the rewarding safety app, embodies these principles and offers a digital solution that is revolutionising safety in Australia's construction industry. By utilising the power of dopamine and anticipation, classical conditioning with rewards, and stimulus and reward mechanisms, Scratchie promotes a culture of safety and encourages workers to engage in safe practices. 

Ready to take the next step toward a safer worksite? Don't miss the opportunity to enhance your worksite’s feedback and safety culture.

Join us for our live Procore webinar in early August, where we’ll dive deeper into Scratchie's features and demonstrate how we’re spreading the science of safety throughout Australia’s construction industry.


How does positive reinforcement influence behaviour?

Positive reinforcement is a technique that involves providing rewards or incentives to encourage and strengthen desired behaviours. By associating the behaviour with a pleasurable or rewarding experience, positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated in the future.

Can conditioning and reinforcement be used to improve workplace safety?

Yes, conditioning and reinforcement can be powerful tools to enhance workplace safety. By linking safety behaviours with rewards, recognition, and positive reinforcement, organisations can motivate employees to consistently engage in safe practices and create a culture of safety.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal drive or desire to engage in an activity for its own sake, without the need for external rewards or punishments. It arises from a genuine interest, satisfaction, or enjoyment derived from the activity itself.

What are the advantages of a reward-based approach to safety compared to a punishment-based approach?

Reward-based approaches to safety, such as Scratchie, foster proactive safety behaviours, encourage a positive safety culture, promote long-term behaviour change, improve morale and retention, and tap into individuals' intrinsic motivation. 

In contrast, punishment-based approaches often result in temporary compliance, a negative work environment, reactive safety practices, and potential negative effects on employee wellbeing.

How does Scratchie leverage conditioning and reinforcement to improve safety in the construction industry?

Scratchie leverages conditioning and reinforcement principles by providing immediate, on-the-spot rewards to workers who demonstrate positive safety behaviours. The app creates associations between specific safety actions and rewards through features like categorised rewards, QR code scanning, and integration with safety platforms.

By utilising these mechanisms, Scratchie motivates workers to engage in safe practices, strengthens positive safety habits, and enhances safety culture on construction sites.

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