Making fewer energy-draining decisions

It has been suggested that autumn is a much better time to make resolutions than the New Year. In the New Year, we tend to hit a natural slump following the festivities and financial consequences of Christmas. Add in the impact of a couple of months of dark nights and short days and the circumstances are not conducive to making good decisions and sticking to them. Making resolutions in the autumn avoids these negative influences. Typically, we feel more upbeat following summer days and holidays. Nature is making preparations for winter and subsequent rejuvenation in spring. Being in tune with this natural cycle, we would probably make better resolutions and have the motivation to keep them.

We are continually making decisions: some unexpected and forced upon us; others of our own volition; some with major consequences; others more trivial. Yet, how much time do we devote to preparing ourselves, making sure we are in the right frame of mind and understanding any subsequent outcomes? Excluding major decisions, my answer is not a lot – I just bounce from one to the next as they present themselves. That was until I read about the views of a runner and coach.

The coach’s comments were aimed at more serious runners, but the advice can be transferred to other situations. When you look at your watch during a run you see some data. You then immediately have to decide on how to respond. Do you do nothing? Can you do nothing? If not, what do you change? This takes brain power, which uses up valuable energy and the need to make a decision distracts you from your actual running. I have a GPS watch, which also links to a heart monitor, and I will collect all of this data whenever I go out on a run. I am at the stage where I am trying to slow the rate of deterioration in my running and so use this data as a guide, although I tend to look at it only after the run. This prevents the watch from causing me to burn up energy I cannot spare, but looking at the data later on still affects my mood and I have to decide what to do about my next run.

NDT operators have to make many decisions in discharging their role. There have been any number of reliability studies, which refer to decision-making and the environmental, organisational and personal factors that can have an impact. Many years ago, I was involved in a study that looked at the benefits of 3D data presentation over 2D. The information available at the time led to the conclusion that the only benefit of 3D was cognitive off-loading, ie the operator could better see the shape of the defect rather than working it out. So, my interest was piqued by a recent equipment (not NDT) manufacturer’s statement that their AI software looked after critical items, providing cognitive off-loading by removing certain decision-making activities and allowing the operators of the equipment to concentrate on their main task. I know that there has been work carried out on this aspect within the NDT community, but it raises the question: are we doing enough?

Have you heard of apophenia? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago. It is the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful patterns between unrelated or random things. An example given was of looking for clues to a puzzle in a room with pieces of wood scattered on the floor and falsely identifying three sticks as forming an arrow pointing in a particular direction. So, random data leads to an interpretation, which in turn leads to a false conclusion. It is not hard to envisage how this might occur in the analysis of NDT data. We get a hit of dopamine when we solve a puzzle, leading to self-satisfaction in our performance. The sad thing is that we get the same effect if we believe we have solved a challenge but have in fact arrived at the wrong answer. This belief in our solution means we are invested in it: we see the logic and seek to reinforce this with other data. I do not play video games but those of you who do will no doubt see that game designers try to encourage apophenia.

An additional challenge for NDT is that it is not just the operator who is invested in their decision, but also their supervisors who put them to work and potentially the wider industry through certification schemes. In summary, it is important for operators to be supported and allowed to concentrate on their key decisions. In addition to technology aiding cognitive off-loading, maybe the answer was provided by a recent event looking at the impact of climate change: success comes from partnership, which provides a diversity of perspective. I know that I was only able to write this article by calling on a diversity of perspectives.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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