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Avoiding Cognitive Biases in Aviation

by Tori Williams 1. April 2016 20:30
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The human brain is an immensely complicated and fascinating system. It has information processing capabilities far beyond that of any computer. It is impossible to understand every single process that the brain is constantly doing on a daily basis. However, there are parts of the brain process that are terribly flawed. In being so quick at information processing, some major mistakes are also constantly being made without notice.

Recently in my Crew Resource Management class we have been talking about cognition and cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are psychological tendencies that cause the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions. There is a really good video on Youtube that goes into more detail called “Cognition: How Your Mind can Amazing and Betray You.” Basically, your brain is so good at processing information that sometimes it processes the wrong information and causes terrible misunderstandings that you may never realize you have had.

The reason we have been discussing this in my Crew Resource Management class is that this can have a huge effect on pilots. They often have to make split-second decisions completely based on the information immediately available to them. It could be extremely dangerous if they are subconsciously making poor choices because of a bias.

I have compiled a few examples of cognitive biases that would have a negative effect on flight operations. It is important for pilots to understand how these work so that if the time comes that they are in a situation where a cognitive bias is clouding their judgment, they will be able to see through it and make the best choice.

Attention Bias

Humans have a tendency to pay more attention to things that have an emotional aspect to them. If a pilot has a traumatic experience during training, they will likely be more concerned about that issue rather than other issues. A good example of this is a pilot who fixates on avoiding bad weather without paying attention to the rapidly diminishing fuel supply. They likely had a bad experience during training where the weather crept up on them, but they can end up with total fuel starvation without even noticing it.

Confirmation Bias

A person will ignore facts or information that does not conform to their perceived mental model, and will only acknowledge information that agrees with their perception of the situation. This can be particularly hazardous when dealing with emergency situations in an aircraft. Perhaps a light is on that should not be, or an alarm is sounding that you have never heard before. It is easy to ignore other warning signs when you have an idea in your mind of what the issue may be.

Gambler’s Fallacy

This is the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged. Some pilots are very superstitious, and this could go to two extremes. A pilot could believe that because they have had thousands of accident-free hours then they will never have any type of accident. On the other hand, a pilot could get in an accident and assume that they are bad luck, or they will never be able to fly safely again.

Never take a dangerous gamble when you are unsure, especially in the world of aviation!

Clustering Illusion

This is the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist. When a pilot is attempting an instrument approach late at night into an airport with extremely low visibility, they are making some of the most vital decisions possible. A pilot suffering from clustering illusion may believe that they see a pattern in the approach plate and follow that when really there is none.

As stated eelier, it is extremely important for pilots to be aware of any subconscious biases that may be affecting their decision-making skills. I believe that every pilot should research cognitive biases and figure out which ones they personally experience the most. Our latest homework assignment in class was to write a paper about which biases we are most prone to and what we can do to overcome them. This is a valuable activity and one that even the most seasoned pilot could benefit from trying.

Stay safe out there, and never let your judgment be clouded by a false perception!

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