Aug 5, 2019
Rushing to get in the air, make your destination on time or beat the limits of daylight hours can be a deadly mix for pilots of any age or level of experience. This determination to continue with the original plan in spite of a change in circumstances, constraints or flying conditions is what is commonly referred to as ‘Get There Itis’ or ‘Plan Continuation Bias’.
Essentially the influence of situational pressure based circumstances causes the human brain to make more intuitive decisions influenced by cognitive biases, such as Plan Continuation Bias. This means the brain completely disregards the more reliable analytical decision-making process based on rational and logical reasoning that forms the very basis of any pilot training.
What Is Cognitive Bias?
While the human brain is capable of some very impressive calculations in order for us to function and carry out tasks such as flying a plane, the limitations of our accessible memory can cause it to cut a few corners when it comes to decision making under pressure. These pressure filled situations can lead to what is known as ‘Cognitive Bias’.
The term cognitive bias is used to describe the brain’s distortion of perception where it blocks or filters the true nature of the situation. This distortion can lead to the brain making illogical interpretations and inaccurate judgments when under pressure, particularly when faced with difficult time constraints. This unconscious cognitive bias is a factor in many aircraft crashes around the world and as a result, the loss of lots of lives each year.
4 Common Factors That Lead To Cognitive Bias In Flight
- Time Constraints
- Unexpected Weather Deterioration
- Fuel Management/Calculation Errors
- Reduced Situational Awareness
Common Types Of Cognitive Bias That Affect Pilots
Plan Continuation Bias is just one of many cognitive biases that have been identified to describe this distorted thinking process, in any given situation these cognitive biases can combine with each other in an attempt by the brain to make sense of the situation for you. Understanding how the different types of cognitive bias can affect your decision making is the best way to reducing the likelihood of them having any impact during flight. These are some of the common cognitive biases pilots should be aware of.
Ambiguity Effect. Making a decision based on an intuitively clear outcome rather than selecting the less certain option. For example, continuing with an approach under questionable weather conditions verses diverting to an alternate airport and facing unknown circumstances.
Anchoring Bias. Making decisions based on a pre-determined reference. For example, a baseline fuel requirement being used regardless of the need for more or less fuel.
Attentional Bias. Allowing past emotional experiences to influence decision making. For example, a previous scare regarding a lack of fuel may cause the pilot to make the decision to attempt a risky landing.
Attentional Tunnelling. Losing focus of the overall purpose or task due to too much focus being placed on a specific smaller task, neglecting your entire duties. For example, being so preoccupied with instrument malfunctions and forgetting to fly the plane, make expected turns or monitor flight conditions.
Automaticity. Making a decision based on the repetitive nature of the task in an automatic nature rather than actually carrying out the task correctly. For example, having performed pre-flight checks on the same aircraft every day for 2 years may cause the brain to automatically assume everything is fine even when faced with obvious signs of malfunction.
Availability Heuristic. Decision making based on the over or under estimation of an event based upon previous emotional influences or personal experiences. For example, the pilot placing too much focus on the potential loss of instrument functionality and not enough on the actual situation at hand.
Availability Cascade. Making decisions based on repetitive information that is not fact. For example, if pilots are told certain aircraft have the tendency to be difficult to control and this becomes ‘common knowledge’, other pilots will begin to accept it as a fact, potentially leading to inaccurate flight decisions.
Base Rate Fallacy. Making decisions based on specific events rather than general statistical data. For example, just because the pilot was aware of a previous occurrence of landing gear failure in a specific type of plane he assumes all planes of that type have dodgy landing gear. This distortion of facts can lead to the inability to accurately assess risk.
Confirmation Bias. Making decisions based on preconceived ideas rather than facts. For example, the common phenomenon where the pilot is unable to tell whether the plane is descending or not, forming an incorrect mental model of their situation in the mind and being unable to change that view even when faced with obvious physical cues.
Optimism Bias. Believing everything will be okay even when it’s not. For example, a pilot thinking they have landed in these conditions before on this runway and it was fine last time.
Overconfidence Effect. Over estimating your abilities as a pilot when making decisions. For example, a pilot thinking because they have been flying for 20 years they will be fine to fly through this bad weather.
Prospective Memory. Forgetting to perform tasks due to distraction. For example, the pilot forgetting to report a problem during a pre-flight inspection due to being distracted by having to take a phone call etc.
8 Tips for Overcoming Get-There-Itis
While many of these tips may help with managing any of the cognitive biases listed above they were written with overcoming Get There Itis or Plan Continuation Bias in mind.
- Be Aware. Take note of your behaviour and look out for signs that you are too fixated on getting to your destination no matter what. Understand that plan continuation bias gets stronger the closer you are to your destination.
- Always Have A Backup Plan. Mentally prepare for having to abort/divert the flight. Having a number of other already established alternative options takes the pressure off the need to stick to the original plan.
- Respect The Weather. Every pilot knows that weather forecasts are only a guide, when you are in the air it is up to you to constantly assess weather conditions. You cannot fly under IFR conditions if you are only VFR rated.
- Think Ahead. Be sure to evaluate potential negative outcomes when making your decisions. What are the worst possible things that can happen if you continue on? Consider loved ones, passengers and your career – sometimes a bit of a reality check can help overcome the reluctance to turn back or divert.
- Avoid Procrastination. Make up your mind to divert, go-around or change course earlier rather than later.
- Take Command. As the pilot you are in charge, not some pushy passenger who insists they have paid you to do the job, or even an instructor who tells you “she’ll be right” – stand up for yourself and make sure safety is your number one priority.
- Understand Your Limitations. Are you being asked to do something out of your comfort zone? Be sure your skills are up to the task, over-promising is not going to be good for anyone. Making sure passengers are aware of the limitations of the aircraft and weather restrictions is also a good idea to avoid extra pressure.
- Take Your Time. Spend extra time reviewing your route, all possible approaches and potential factors that may affect the flight along the way. Don’t forget to include the return trip in this – it’s not all about getting there, you need to get home again too!
The struggle between intuitive and analytical cognitive thought processes is ongoing, not only for pilots during flight, but all through everyday aspects of life. Learning how to recognise these cognitive biases and manage them allows us to establish a clearer understanding of what is actually occurring leading to safer decision making all round!