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Sunday, 21 February 2010

Fear of Flying

Somewhat later than the in-crowd, I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers'. The book (for those that don't know) is a really interesting study of success, filled with vignettes that highlight the deeper stories behind individual successes.

One chapter sticks out though, a study of plane crashes that argues on how cultural background has a profound relationship to accidents. Gladwell looks at something called the 'Power Distance Index' and describes how this means that the crew subordinate to the captain have difficulty in warning him or her of any incipient danger. Most accidents happen from a sequence of minor mishaps escalating into a major catastrophe.

The transcripts to two of the crashes Gladwell refers to are heartbreaking, listening to the attempts of the crew to warn the captain of their situations. The inability to communicate clearly the danger seems to be related to deference, whether it be cultural, national or for whatever reason.

But what is this to do with a history of emotions?

This transcripts are also interesting from an emotional point of view in the sense that it appears a fear of authority is overwhelming the fear of death, which sounds quite astonishing but perhaps isn't when one considers this may also be a strong theme in a military environment. Gladwell's argument also suggests this is the case in countries where there are very hierarchical social structures which lead to a high Power Distance Index. If you asked me I would have imagined we'd all fear death far more than we'd fear the irritation or even wrath of our boss. I'm not saying it was a straight choice in those cockpits but as the problems escalated and the seriousness became more evident, death was becoming a more realistic possibility.

In a strange way it's useful reminder of where our emotional priorities are not what we might expect of them and how they might be influenced indirectly by national culture. Does it suggest high power distance indexes equals a bad thing? That is another question, as a hierarchy may have value for a culture in other ways. But that it shapes our emotions and in particular our fears in some disturbing ways appears clear.


オテモヤン said...
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Anonymous said...

Having worked with an airline for several years, i encountered a few close calls. One that i particularly remember was when we were losing hydraulic fluid mid-air. In this instance, the communication was not related back to us by the cock-pit, for reasons I'm not exactly sure of ( perhaps they didn't feel it necessary )..We only knew of the danger once we had landed and were surrounded by a fire-crew. I really don't see what cultural background has to do with the relationship to accidents...Surely it depends on each individual and how well equipped they are to deal with impending dangers.

ID Pending said...

Speaking of cultural differences and social hierarchy, you might want to read Gladwell's article on the role of societal norms in the integration of drinking into culture. It seems that physiology is not the greatest factor in human alcohol consumption.

scot in exile said...

Gladwell noted from various studies on aviation accidents that there was a clear correlation between national cultures with high power distance indexes and frequency of plane crashes. this manifested itself in the ability of the crew to communicate across the hierarchies of the cockpit.

he made clear it wasn't the only factor, not least as most crashes are caused by a variety of failures, and individual errors were sometimes part of it.

as for the new yorker piece, i was keen to see it though sadly online i could only see the first few paragraphs before it required a subscription. looks very intriguing though....