It hasn’t happened yet so it never will? Complacency can be a killer.
Imagine driving down a familiar country road, a route you’ve travelled countless times. As you approach an intersection, you cannot really remember ever seeing another car there.
“It’s never busy”, whispers your subconscious as you approach the intersection. “I’m not going to see another car, I’ve done this so many times. I am safe.”
However, one fateful day, as you pull out onto the intersection, without pausing to check, a car whizzes past in front of you, forcing you to slam on the brakes violently.
Alaska White, CAA’s Chief Advisor of Human Factors, says that just because something bad or negative hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t.
“The absence of stimuli (for example, coming across another vehicle or a negative event) reinforces the belief that nothing bad will happen, luring the person into a false sense of safety. Slowly, you begin to stop doing the checks and procedures that you would always do at a busy intersection, like slowing down and checking for oncoming vehicles. It’s only when you encounter an adverse event that you get a bit of a reality check.
“This complacency is why, for instance, despite the obvious oncoming vehicle, the driver’s attention isn’t directed to where it needs to be,” says Alaska.
Neither way of thinking is helpful
Organisational psychologist Keith McGregor – formerly RNZAF – distinguishes between two differing components of our thinking system, when we’re assessing risk.
“The ‘cognitive’ – or analytical – aspect involves us evaluating the risk in a situation, based on factors like our experience, the prevailing conditions, and how we assess our skill level. Unfortunately, we as humans aren’t very good at this – we tend to underestimate the risks but overestimate our ability to counter them.”
To reinforce this point, Keith discusses a study in Florida focussed on instructors, their students, and their perception of risk around flying. Surprisingly, the results showed 73 percent of instructors thought flying was not risky, and 60 percent of their students shared the same sentiment.
“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” Keith quips, quoting Mark Twain.
“On the other hand, the emotional aspect of our thinking system deals with factors like the pressure we face to fly. This is where get-there-itis can creep in. Our personality type also comes into play, here, like a ‘macho bravado’ type approach to getting the job done.
“When we switch to emotional thinking our capacity to think logically is diminished, a state often described as ‘porridge-brainism’.
“One study looked at pilots who continued VFR flight into IMC after making inaccurate assessments of visibility early in the decision-making process. These assessments were compounded by their poor risk perception, overconfidence in their flight skills, and a reduced sense of vulnerability to weather hazards and pilot error. To break this pattern, when feeling under pressure, a simple trick is to think, ‘What would I tell a student pilot to do right now?’”
Even experienced pilots…
Alaska says many fatal accidents involve ‘local’ pilots who knew their crash sites very well, having considerable experience and local knowledge.
“People assume that very experienced pilots are infallible, but that hasn’t stopped very experienced pilots having accidents.
“While experience and training will undoubtedly better prepare you for handling unexpected challenges, the environment you operate in is dynamic and unpredictable.
“The conditions you fly in today aren’t the same as those 10 years ago, 10 months ago, or even yesterday.
“You need to ensure you’re not blindly accepting and using yesterday’s conditions to justify your decisions for today. Each flight is unique and needs to be treated as such.”
Keith recommends, no matter how experienced you are, taking five before the flight.
“Take five minutes just to review what’s going to happen, what the risks are, and how you’re going to manage those risks. You can build this into your pre-take-off checklist and eventually it will become as routine as checking the fuel,” says Keith.
Alaska explains that human factors impact on performance, regardless of what your role is, and don’t exist in isolation.
“What I mean is that the ‘human factors’ (for example, attention, workload, stress, sleep quality, fatigue, pressure, teamwork, decision-making, complacency and so on) all affect each other. And that applies to experienced pilots as much as inexperienced pilots.
“For example, quality of sleep affects your attention (including situational awareness). It contributes to fatigue. It affects how you cope with daily stressors and your decision-making abilities, as well as how effectively you communicate, and your relationships.
“Then these factors affect each other, influenced by things like your personal life, work conditions, finances, mental and physical health, and age.
Prepare your mind for success
Drawing on his insights from sports psychology, Keith says ‘visualisation’ can be just as effective as physical practice in improving and maintaining performance.
“With clients, I employ a process I call ‘embedding’ – literally because it happens in bed.
“During moments of quiet reflection before sleep, take an event from a flight you handled poorly, identify what you should have done differently, what the result should have been, then repeatedly rehearse the improved response mentally.
“Our behaviour is heavily habit-driven and those habits help our brain conserve energy.
“Learning a new skill does take a lot of conscious effort and practice while your brain works to make synaptic connections. However, once you’ve learned the new skill, it becomes habitual.
“By visualising a behaviour properly, and mentally practising it, you’re more likely to default to that behaviour in the future, especially under pressure.”
When visualising, make sure you emphasise what you could have done better to improve the situation. This is called ‘upwards counterfactual’ thinking. For example, you could say, ‘If I’d re-checked my altitude beforehand, I would not have busted airspace.’
This type of thinking leads to positive behavioural changes – learned from mistakes.
In contrast, ‘downwards counterfactual’ thinking involves regretful thoughts, such as, ‘I shouldn’t have done that – if only I hadn’t...’. This type of thinking does not lead to behavioural change.
Keith emphasises the significance of this reinforcement process and its impact on our beliefs and behaviours.
“When I run workshops, I ask, ‘How many of you have problems remembering names?’ Most of them put their hands up.
“I get them to all say out loud, ‘I’m brilliant with names’, even though many of them initially don’t believe it. But guaranteed, if they repeat each day, ‘I am brilliant at remembering names’, that positive reinforcement will make the synaptic connection, and they will become better at remembering names.
Bizarre scenarios can help
An Australasian study involved airline pilots dreaming up bizarre scenarios and pitfalls during flight, quizzing each other about what they would do. When surveyed after the study, 95 percent of respondents expressed the opinion that they had learned from the exercise and would be better prepared in the future as a result, and 98 percent indicated that they would continue to discuss novel scenarios, even after the project had finished.
“Reading some really far-fetched occurrences,” says Alaska, “that may have happened to a pilot over in the United States or Europe might not appear directly relevant to you, but you can probably guarantee the people affected thought these far-fetched things wouldn’t happen to them either.
“The exercise of thinking about the ‘what ifs’ and contemplating how you’d respond to such situations, can prove beneficial in avoiding an incident or accident.”
Having hard conversations
For those concerned about a family member’s flying behaviour, Keith has some advice on how to broach difficult conversations. This advice comes from his experience in intervening with farmers, whose families and friends were worried about their emotional wellbeing.
“You could start with, ‘I have a problem I need your advice on’, thereby framing the conversation in a collaborative tone.
“A follow-up to this could be, ‘My problem is that I am not sure of the best way to raise my concern without causing offence?’
“Most people will respond with something like ‘That’s fine, just go for it, tell me’. The critical aspect here is that they have given their permission to discuss the problem.
“You could follow this up with, ‘My problem is that lately, I’ve noticed this behaviour – I’m worried about you and your flying. What is the best way for me to discuss this with you?’
“This way, the pilot feels that their wellbeing is the primary focus, rather than getting defensive.”
For pilots who operate in more isolated settings, such as small husband-and-wife operations, Keith suggests conducting monthly audits of the past month’s flying.
“Setting aside time specifically for reflection and selfimprovement will help you identify problem areas.
“However, make sure you analyse flights that went well too, not just the problematic ones.”
Overseas research has shown that if problem areas exist, the same mistakes and patterns of behaviour will be revealed during investigation of flights you think went well. You’ll identify that the negative outcome has been avoided only through sheer luck.
“This highlights the importance of thoroughly evaluating all flights to identify potential risks, and assessing the effectiveness of your existing defences against those risks,” says Keith.
You could break your analysis down into:
- What are the foreseeable risks of flying to that place, today, in these conditions?
- What checks and balances are in place to manage those risks?
- Will those checks and balances actually work?