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Knowledge of Individual Events vs. Statistics

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  • Knowledge of Individual Events vs. Statistics

    Every fearful flier has done this: Investigate and dwell on the details of individual incidents/accidents even while keeping in mind that, statistically, plane travel is exceedingly safe. The thing is, the causes of an individual fatal event are so seemingly ordinary--a maintenance oversight or a simple pilot error--leading to catastrophe that I can't help but dwell on those things. The Alaska flight, for instance, from 2000 caused by a simple, stripped jackscrew or the Air France stall in the Atlantic from 2009, the wake turbulence event from November 2001, the Buffalo, NY stall/crash, the TWA 800 explosion in 1996, these were horrendous and tragic events that should NEVER have happened. Never. Yet they did. Some attention of maintenance, better pilot training, simple things could easily have prevented them. And the fact that they did means, in my mind, that they could just as well happen again! What's preventing these things from happening when I'm on board? It makes one angry at the necessity of having to surrender one's sense of independence and control to some anonymous entity. Statistically, it's unlikely anything will happen, but the fact that these awful events happened to innocent people really takes a toll on my wanting to trust a pilot or an airline. And after Germanwings, a pilot psychological health is another matter of concern. I do fly, a couple of times a year, and I do OK. But losing one's life in a needlessly catastrophic event due to preventable causes seems like the height of tragedy.

  • #2
    The problem is this: though most persons can use their high level thinking (termed Executive Function) to predict - and imagine - what is highly probable, anxious fliers do not use their Executive Function in that way. They engage in "black-and-white" or "all-or-nothing" thinking. If something is not 100% safe, it is considered unsafe or dangerous.

    If there is one chance in a hundred, one chance in a million, or one chance in a billion of something going wrong, they focus - not on what is the most likely outcome - but what is possible. If disaster is possible - no matter how unlikely - they cannot avoid focusing on that one instance.

    Focus on that one instance triggers the release of stress hormones. The stress hormones cause their Reflective Function (the ability to look inward and recognize what is imagination/conjecture and what is perception) to disappear. To know this ability to look inward and reflect on their thinking has disappeared, they would need ability to look inward to see it has disappeared. So, with the disappearance of Reflective Function goes the disappearance of ability to know imagination/conjecture is now being treated as reality.

    Thus, the one chance in a hundred/million/billion takes over the person's mind. It pushes aside the person's ability to predict what is highly probably. Loss of Reflective Function results in what is termed "psychic equivalence" (what is in the mind is equal to reality). The person cannot escape the belief that the one in a hundred/million/billion disaster can be escaped unless they avoid the activity though it is 99.9999% disaster-free.

    In most cases, a person whose Reflective Function collapses easily and who engages in black-and-white thinking believes their thinking is logical and rational. It is logical and rational in terms of the fact that something that happens rarely is possible. It is not logical and rational to regard what is takes place once in a great number of instances as certain or as near certain. It is the combination of black-and-white thinking and lack of Reflective Function that illogically and irrationally shifts possibility into certainty.

    The answer to dealing with this is to (a.) recognize black-and-white thinking, (b.) inhibit the release of stress hormones so as to safeguard Reflective Function so that (c.) Executive Function does not fall into psychic equivalence.

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    • #3
      Not to make you feel worse, but I'll add the one about the Concorde going down in flames in Paris after some piece of debris on the runway was sucked into the engine. The plane was perfect, the pilots were well trained, the ATC was doing its job, but one piece of junk left on the runway from the preceding plane brought it all down. I think it is random events like that that scare me the most, too.

      Oh yeah, and a defective O-ring brought down the Challenger!
      Last edited by Amelia Chickenhart; 08-24-17, 10:13 AM.

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