Opinion: recent incidents may have raised concerns about unsafe planes and flying, but it's really about human psychology and the availability heuristic

There has been a steady stream of stories in 2018 about depressurisation incidents in the air, often with scary, sometimes fatal outcomes. In April, Jennifer Riordan was killed in an accident on a Southwest Airlines flight when an engine failure caused shrapnel from the engine to break a window on her plane. The sudden decompression caused her to be partially sucked out of the plane and, despite frantic efforts from fellow passengers, it was impossible to save her life.

More recently, a broken windshield on a Sichuan Airlines flight caused a co-pilot to be partially sucked out of his plane and, luckily, this individual escaped with minor injuries. In a much less violent episode, a recent Southwest Airlines flight made an emergency landing after a depressurisation incident.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, David Gleave, aviation safety researcher at Loughborough University, assesses the recent Southwest Airlines incident

Are planes getting more undependable and is flying getting more dangerous? It certainly seems this way, but there is another explanation that is based on human psychology. We use a number of mental shortcuts when we process information, and one of these, the availability heuristic, helps to explain why these stories can have an outsized influence on perceptions of the safety of airlines.

The availability heuristic states that if something can be easily bought to mind or easily recalled, people tend to treat it as important and tend to base their judgments on things that are readily mentally available. Stories that are both recent and vivid, such as a person being sucked out of an airplane window, are certainly available. When you ask people to think about flying, it is hard for them not to think about these very scary incidents.

The best advice is that the world is rarely as scary as it is portrayed in the media

The media does a lot to magnify perceptions of particular types of risks.  For example, stories of shark attacks pop up frequently and these vivid stories usually lead to a great deal of concern being bitten by a shark. But the odds of being killed by a shark are about 90 times less than the odds of being legally executed

Because vivid stories like shark attacks sell newspapers and fill air time, availability creates a demand for related stories. That is, the first dramatic story of a woman being sucked out of an airplane window heightens everyone’s awareness of the possibility of this sort of dramatic event, and it makes subsequent stories of decompression failures seem more dramatic and more newsworthy.

In 2014, there was widespread panic over the possible spread of the Ebola virus after a case of this virus surfaced in the United States. Ebola is a particularly gruesome disease which causes extensive internal bleeding and has no known cure. The vivid nature of this disease fed a number of stories about Ebola, leading to widespread concern and the expenditure of a great deal of money on preventative measures for a disease that, in the end, led to four confirmed cases in the United States. It's clear that Jaws did much the same for public perceptions of the risk of being killed by a shark.

Perhaps the most sinister example of how news stories fed public perceptions of risk and harm and, in turn, lead to a new cycle of similarly scary news stories, is the wave of stories involving allegations of satanic ritual abuse by day-care providers in the 1980s and 1990s. The original case, at the McMartin preschool in California, began with fantastic allegations on the part of one mother who was subsequently found to be a paranoid schizophrenic.

Through a combination of badly handled investigations, a failure to understand how children react to questioning, and peer pressure, a series of fantastic charges were made. The vividness of this case appears to have spurred a number of similar accusations involving satanic abuse, all widely reported, and this cycle of cases took several years to die out. Almost all charges were later shown to be the result of faulty investigative techniques and emotional hysteria. 

Can we fight the tendency for vivid news stories to magnify the apparent danger of things like being sucked out of an airplane? The Marshall Business School at the University of Southern California has developed a "critical thinking initiative" designed to train students to avoid biases such as availability when making investment decisions or other important decisions in the workplace. This program includes modules designed to help students recognise the operation of these biases in their decision making. 

From RTÉ News, surfer Mick Fanning talks about being attacked by a shark

For example, one module shows how selective perception, overconfidence, confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, self-serving biases and groupthink all may have contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown. It also gives students tools and techniques for avoiding biases in important decisions. 

Will this sort of approach work? It is hard to be certain. On the one hand, it is an example of a careful and comprehensive effort to combat cognitive biases. On the other hand, it represents an effort to struggle with basic human psychology, and basic psychology often wins this sort of context.

The best advice is that the world is rarely as scary as it is portrayed in the media. "265 Passengers Successfully Fly from Shannon to Newark" is not the sort of headline that sells many papers. We are more likely to see stories about something that is both spectacular and unrepresentative (being sucked out an airplane) than about things that are boring and normal (on-time arrival, with a minimum of luggage lost or delayed). If you are still not convinced, ask for an aisle seat and keep your seat belt fastened. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ