Raphael Magnus (IEng MIET, LCGI, AQE, NCRQ), MD at Safe-Electric, ponders the psychology behind why individuals choose price over safety.
I had an interesting conversation the other day with a highly qualified psychiatrist friend of mine regarding our electrical industry. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems engineers face on a regular basis is trying to get people to accept the truth in what they’re being told. After decades of drip feeding and illusion, however, trying to change mindsets overnight is not an easy task.
The facts first
Engineers work on the facts first and their minds work on the basis that once you can prove the facts and establish them you can then form an informed opinion. Right…? Wrong!
Cognitive psychology and neuroscience studies apparently find the complete opposite is often true. People form opinions based on fear, emotion, anger, and content, rather than relying on facts. The fact that you can prove your point still doesn’t often change an individual’s mindset, which to an engineer is very frustrating, as the laws of physics tend to be fundamental.
Even in the case where you present new information that can categorically prove you’re correct, individuals really don’t like being proven wrong. Then again, most engineers I speak to really can’t understand how people think ice cream will hold up a bridge just because the internet says so! (A bit of flippancy never hurt anyone).
Our beliefs are formed by the things we see and hear. The media and the internet all have a place in forming our opinions, together with schools and the environment in which we grow up. Opinions are reinforced over time by the social groups and friends that we make, which can influence the way our brain perceives things and our interactions with the world, as well as the way the world interacts with us.
The old saying that ‘your perception of the world is the reality you tend to see and receive’ is a very true statement.
My psychiatrist friend went on to explain that ‘cognitive bias’ can kick in very easily when evidence contrary to one’s own beliefs is presented. Instead of re-evaluating the new evidence presented, individuals will often reject this ‘incompatible evidence’ if it doesn’t fit what they already know or believe. I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past.
There’s also another form of cognitive bias which can slow down the process of changing an individual’s mind and it’s known as ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency to seek out information or interpret things in a way that supports our existing beliefs.
An example from our industry
Let’s now ut this into some context that makes sense for the electrical industry:
If someone believes that inspecting and then testing an electrical circuit can be undertaken for £3 – £10 per circuit (which is absolutely ridiculous), attempting to convince that person otherwise is like trying to row up Niagara Falls without a paddle – no matter how hard you try, you’re fighting a losing battle.
So, what can be done about this situation? As engineers, we have a duty to try and inform people of the facts, and change simply has to come from within. I’m a member of the Engineering Council, and as part of this I signed up to and accepted the principles that guide engineering professionals. These are listed below, as taken directly from the Engineering Council website.
PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE ENGINEERING PROFESSIONALS
1. Honesty and integrity
Engineering professionals have a duty to uphold the highest standards of professional conduct including openess, fairness, honesty and integrity.
2. Respect for life, law, the environment and public good
Engineering professionals have a duty to obey all the applicable laws and regulations and give due weight to facts, published standards and guidance and the wider public interest.
3. Accuracy and rigour
Engineering professionals have a duty to acquire and use wisely the understanding, knowledge and skills needed to perform their role.
4. Leadership and communication
Engineering professionals have a duty to abide by and promote high standards of leadership and communication.
Yet, I still see so many people selling an illusion that simply can’t be achieved safely for the costs they’ve stated to a customer. In many circumstances, the only way the price quoted can be achieved is by cutting corners, which will ultimately compromise safety, and this is just not acceptable to me. In fact, I believe it is morally unethical.
As an industry we are better than this! If an individual comes to me (or any other competent engineer, for that matter) I will tell them what they NEED to hear, not what they WANT to hear. Can the individual be open-minded enough to receive and process this information when for decades they’ve been told the complete opposite?
When we introduce our business to customers, we explain that they’ll be getting a competent, informed opinion (the truth, basically), and if they decide that we’re not for them we still insist that they seek out other properly trained and competent engineers to carry out what is potentially life-saving work.
The more I speak to like-minded engineers in the industry, the more I realise I’m not the only one who has these frustrations. I believe that the danger here is that genuine competence and expertise will eventually disappear from this sector as ‘cowboy’ operators take a firmer grip.
But why should those who want to do the job with integrity and pride be priced out of a market in which they’ve spent years honing their expertise and competence?
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