This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on Marine Café Blog on 10th June 2013.

Tighter regulations and increased training requirements will not lead to a culture of safety. The MV Rena (2011), Costa Concordia (2012) and SS El Faro (2015) incidents offer the best proof. Sadly, the list of 21st-century maritime disasters is far from finished.

On the other hand, who can deny the fact that shipboard safety is a matter of habit? All living creatures are “bundles of habit”, wrote Ameican psychologiest and philosopher William James in his 68-page treatise simply entitled Habit.

James’ paper was published in 1914 and contains some scientific and psychological jargon. However, he explains the principles of habit in terms that can be understood by ordinary folks. In addition, he offers some practical suggestions that are relevant to the education of young people today.

James makes the incisive observation that “habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue” (itals by the author). He goes on:

“Man is born with a tendency to do more things than he has ready-made arrangements for in his nerve-centres. Most of the performances of other animals are automatic. But in him the number of them is so enormous, that most of them must be the fruit of painful study. If practice did not make perfect, nor habit economize the expense of nervous and muscular energy, he would therefore be in a sorry plight.”

Habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue.

— William James

There are some precious lessons in James’ seminal work for maritime mentors, safety experts and others interested in marine safety:

Education boils down to instilling good habits.

“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.”

Training requires persistence and dedication.

‘As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.”

It is best to learn good habits whilst one is young.

“For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.”

 It is high time that the shipping world discarded old ways of thinking and adopted new approaches to marine accident prevention. William James has shown one path.

Click here to get a free copy of William James’ Habit!

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