The influence of fear

Looking in my rear view mirror, I did a double take. I have seen a number of odd dashboard ornaments, but two football boots sticking vertically upwards, with their orange soles facing forward, was a new one. Further glances in the mirror clarified the situation somewhat: a young person was slouched in the passenger seat with feet up on the dashboard. Nothing else was visible apart from mum, evidently driving to Saturday morning football practice. This immediately gave me a dilemma.

Some weeks earlier there had been a safety moment at work, which had described in grisly detail the horrific injuries likely to be received by a passenger whose feet were up on the dashboard when the airbag activated. This had an immediate effect on me and I sent emails to my offspring to make them aware and to ensure that they and anybody riding in a car with them would not suffer the same fate. I know that it had a similar effect on my colleagues.

Hence my dilemma. Do I just ignore the car behind and carry on with my Saturday morning errand? Or do I stop the car and go and tell the lady driving that she should not allow her son, or daughter, to put their feet over the airbag? The weighing up of the pros and cons begins. If I stop, get out and approach the car behind, what sort of reception will I get? Will they listen to what I have to say or will they just tell me to mind my own business or, worse, give me verbal abuse? Of course, having had the safety moment, there was no real dilemma: the consequences of not stopping, albeit with a small probability, could have been life changing for the young person in the passenger seat of the car behind. Traffic lights, a short distance up the road, offered a non-dramatic opportunity for my intervention. Unfortunately, but somewhat to my relief, the situation was resolved as the car behind turned off and disappeared down a side street before we reached the traffic lights.

A relatively trivial incident, which illustrates the influence that our basic human emotions have on our decisions. What should have been a simple, conditioned response of “you don’t want to do that” was restrained by modest fear of how the message would be received. These emotions have developed over the centuries as evolutionary mechanisms to protect the species and they have been reinforced by our own experiences, as well as through the wider media. No doubt you will all be able to recall or have heard about incidents where interaction with a stranger has elicited an aggressive 

I have previously written that the two main underlying drivers in business are fear and greed. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it often bears scrutiny. NDT can be adversely affected by both of these drivers; however, the impact of fear is probably the most clear cut. Back in January, I referenced a thesis by Casper Wassink who, in explanation for the long time it takes to get NDT products to market, identified that codes and standards play a role in keeping NDT conservative. It is easy to understand why, historically, NDT relied on codes and standards: capability assessment relied on empirical evidence and practical experience. So collecting this information from across industry and integrating it in a standard made perfect sense. This no longer applies. There are computer models for predicting performance in support of practical evidence and there are well-established processes for probability of detection assessment, performance demonstration and inspection qualification in different industries and geographical locations. In my view, and I am open to be persuaded otherwise, the continued insistence on the production of codes and standards, before the adoption of new techniques and equipment, is based on fear: fear of not being able to use a standard as protection if a defect goes undetected; fear of not being able to claim the application of ‘industry practice’; fear of a company’s investment being subsequently used for the benefit of 
Another key fear, which the NDT profession has to counter, is the fear that NDT will find a defect, with the consequential problems that will bring. Once detected, every defect has to be dealt with, but if an inspection can be avoided, everything can carry on as planned. The worries go away. Just as they did when the car turned into the side street. By being aware of how innate and powerful emotions influence what we consider to be cool, logical decisions, we can at least pause and wonder if they are leading us down the correct path.
Last month, I offered to provide evidence to support my ramblings on how behaviours prevail over technology. Well, you did not disappoint: despite the ease of submitting comments using 2018 technology, compared to that available in the earlier years of this column, there has been no increase in the number of comments received!

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 Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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