Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 16, 2014

Cognitive biases

Our flight to New York last month involved a plane change in Charlotte, N.C. As we approached the airport, the ride became a bit bumpy and soon the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign came on. The turbulence became stronger and the captain informed us that it was stormy near the airport and there was nothing that could be done but to tough it out as we made our approach to land.

As the plane bounced up and down and pitched, the idle chatter of the many youngsters in the Kansas State University choir we were accompanying on the trip steadily quieted. By the time we had the airport in view, it was as quiet as a late-night flight.

It is not exactly news that our emotions and rational thinking often diverge. When I was younger, flying in a bucking plane didn't seem to bother me too much. But as the years pass, I've become more anxious about flying. And when I can see the wings flex, I'm not a happy camper.

I wish I could be like my engineer husband Art who considers the times riding through turbulence as the only enjoyable part of a flight. Well, that's not exactly true. Whenever we fly anywhere, if the flight is smooth, he'll be sleeping - and he does enjoy sleeping. But if it isn't smooth, he'll be smiling. His explanations about the margins built into airplane designs and how the wings are meant to flex in bumpy weather do little to quiet my emotions.

I know many other people have similar reactions. In fact, before our "adopted" German daughter Nadja flew back to Germany three weeks ago, she was sitting on our couch and smiled slightly nervously when she said, "I don't want to die alone." Art wasn't much help when he said, "That's silly. The planes today are fairly full, so there will be many others with you."

But it isn't just plane rides that can raise our anxiety. Two days before Nadja was to leave, a stormy day was predicted. "Will there be tornadoes?" Nadja asked. Again, being the helpful one, Art said, "Oh, I imagine so. We haven't had one near us for a while so it will probably come right through here." He followed up by referring to the evening meal the night before as "our last supper."

In reality, per mile traveled, a person is 60 times more likely to perish in an automobile than in an aircraft. If the calculations are done on the basis of hours traveled, a car is still four times more dangerous. In an average year, 35,000 people will die in automobile accidents and none in a commercial airliner. In comparison, 50 will die in an incident involving a tornado and 40 will die from a lightning strike. In fact, every year for every tornado fatality in the United States, 100 pedestrians die by being hit by a motor vehicle. But who considers taking a walk as a dangerous undertaking?

Still, for many of us, these facts just don't seem to calm our nerves much. This is due in part to what psychologists call the Baader-Meinhof effect. Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were leaders of a minor urban terrorist group in Germany. Exactly how they became connected to the effect is uncertain. One story is that someone had seen an article about the group and shortly after saw another. By encountering two references so close together, the brain's pattern recognition mechanism assumed it must be important. This mechanism belongs to a group of phenomena called cognitive biases - distorting the truth due to some oddity in our mental functioning. Plane crashes and tornadoes are rare and so make big news. Automobile accidents are common and so don't make the headlines. As a result, our brain thinks fatalities from plane crashes and tornadoes are a far bigger threat than they are.

On our return trip from New York, we traveled through our nation's capital. And midway through the first leg to Ronald Reagan airport, we again hit some choppy air. The seatbelt signs came on and our cabin service abruptly ended amid many apologies from the cabin staff.

But just as it makes no sense to me why I am nervous flying when I know how much more safe it is than driving home from the airport, I also don't understand how the front part of the airplane can experience so much less turbulence than the rear part. Or I assume that must be the case for while the drinks and snacks ended abruptly in our part of the plane when the seat belt sign came on, they continued to flow freely in the first class cabin. Maybe that should be called the money effect!

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