This week the press is full of pictures showing people stopping to collect bags before evacuating a London bound BA flight on the runway in Las Vagas. Some pictures show people who seem to be prioritising the taking of ‘selfies’ over their own safety.
The accompanying public commentary includes comments like: “disgusting, these passengers value their own hand luggage over the lives of other passengers” and shock that “people were ignoring the instructions not to open the overhead lockers that were being shouted at them”. The sense of outrage and disgust in some is so strong that there have been calls for the arrest of the individuals involved.
However, this behaviour and the reaction to it, doesn’t surprise me at all. It is all perfectly predicable. There are great volumes of both serious research, and pop neuroscience publications, that explain exactly the two phenomena that are going on.
Firstly – the affect of adrenaline on the brain. In a panic, high stress situation, the affect of adrenaline on your brain will totally inhibit your ability to think clearly. Physiologically your field of vision will narrow, and even your ability to process audio input diminishes. It has been observed repeatedly as a phenomenon in fires that people will ALWAYs try to leave the way they came in, even if that is not the most sensible or safest way, because under pressure your brain simply can’t ‘see’ the other options. Unless you rehearse a different behaviour, it’s unlikely that you’ll behave differently under pressure. In this situation – every time these passengers have got off a plane before, they stopped to collect their bags and check their phones. This is their rehearsed response. Unlike fire drills in buildings where we practice walking and leaving things behind and going out a different route – passengers on planes have never practiced this. Under stress they are behaving on auto-pilot.
Secondly – humans are rubbish at understanding the weakness of the human brain, or for having empathy for others in situations that are different from their own. This is why the vast majority of us think we are better than average drivers (a fact which simply can’t be true). We all like to imagine that in that situation we’d behave differently or ‘sensibly’ – we probably wouldn’t.
I teach this stuff – and even I can’t get it together when I’m genuinely under pressure! Faced with an emergency situation recently I fumbled with my phone, desperately trying to remember the pin number, completely and utterly forgetting that I didn’t need the pin to dial 999.
This is why those who need to react well under pressure, repeatedly rehearse the actions and procedures they will need to take. The flight crew (by all accounts) reacted quickly and brilliantly. However, if they are trained to expect that the passengers will do the same, there is clearly a weakness in their procedure. Fire Services have been investing in research into disaster behaviour in the public and adjusting their training to compensate, perhaps airlines should do the same?