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Beware of Cognitive Bias!

Why did an experienced crew of a JetStar decide to depart for the aircraft’s home base with known electrical anomalies; continue enroute as those electrical problems exacerbated crew workload and compromised navigation; and attempt an ILS approach at night to minimums just as a fast moving cold front was approaching their destination, even though a suitable airport with reasonably good weather was available nearby?

Jack Olcott   |   12th November 2014
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Jack Olcott Jack Olcott

Possibly the world’s most recognized advocate, if not expert on the value of Business Aviation,...
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There were no survivors.

Why did NASA management discount photographic evidence that a large piece of insulation foam struck the Columbia space shuttle during its fateful launch in January 2003, even though a knowledgeable NASA engineer and several associates expressed alarm and urged possible intervention? The Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry due to hot gasses entering the shuttle’s wing root through a large hole caused by the dislodged foam.

Why did a highly practical entrepreneur continue to own a large cabin business jet that he flew minimally while incurring significant costs that were largely driven by inactivity?

No Easy Answers

While hindsight is 20/20, decisions must be made in real time when many factors are at play. Decision makers often lack all the hard data they need to fully understand the situation, so they make assumptions which may or may not be appropriate. Past success may promote overconfidence. External pressures—particularly those associated with pleasing the boss—play a big role. Challenging group wisdom is always difficult, and deciding when an investment is not likely to pay off and should be liquidated takes toughness, often at the expense of swallowing one’s pride. Deciding how to proceed is challenging and frequently unclear.

A particularly interesting set of phenomena that impacts decision making is known as Cognitive Biases. Think of these thought processes as mental traps along your path toward reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Obviously Flight Department managers should avoid them.

Cognitive Biases range from mental short-cuts that surface because they are most familiar to the decision maker, to accepting the norms of the organization’s culture honed by years of following the “that’s-the-way-we-always-did-it” approach. When Flight Department managers become familiar with traps situated along their decision-making path, they are much more likely to avoid them and arrive at the right conclusion.

Consider the “Overconfidence Effect”, a classic cognitive bias derived from past successes. Such flawed reasoning can tempt the most proficient aviators as well as other seasoned professionals, even when failure can lead to tragic results.

In his book Into Thin Air, author Jon Krakauer refers to the overconfidence of two experienced mountain climbers who independently led their clients on quests to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Both elite mountaineers, along with members of each climber’s team, perished when the individual leaders took for granted that past successes to reach the summit had make the climb almost a sure thing.

One leader boasted to Krakauer that “[I’ve] got the Big E [Mount Everest] completely figured out...got it totally wired. These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.” When a worried client of the other leader expressed doubt about the team’s ability to reach the top of Everest, the organizer said “It’s worked 39 times so far, pal, and a few blokes who summited with me were nearly as pathetic as you.”

The clients themselves exhibited aspects of another mental trap—the “Sunk Cost” bias. Each had spent about $65,000 to join the climb to the summit of Everest and endured weeks residing in camps along the climb route becoming acclimated to the altitude. As one client stated, “I’ve put too much of myself into this mountain to quit now, without giving it everything I got.” Like the owner of the large cabin business jet, too much had been sunk into the program to give it up.

Both teams launched for the summit on the same day in the face of changing weather. Conditions worsened, safety precautions that had worked in the past were ignored, and both team leaders as well as three clients died. Some of the survivors will forever bear the scars of severe frostbite.

Cognitive Biases Abound

Business Aviation focuses on fulfilling the boss’s needs. The crew flying the ill-fated JetStar with electrical issues knew the boss had a medical appointment the next day in New York City to deal with a pressing issue of health. To what extent that knowledge biased their judgment is a matter of conjecture. But the pressing urge to complete the mission is a consideration for all Flight Department managers to address.

Beware of “Group Think” - that phenomenon where contrarian voices are not heard amidst shouts by superiors, peers or subordinates who dominate the conversation. Group Think has a momentum all of its own; once started, it gains credibility. NASA managers responsible for Columbia’s safety and many of their peers argued that most shuttle launches experienced insulation foam dislodging and impacting the shuttle. Those past flights were successful, so why should the Columbia flight be different even though the dislodged foam was the largest NASA had seen. In fact, NASA had been sufficiently content with the launch characteristics of that equipment to view the shedding of insulation during launch was not updated, and no special procedures to protect against impact had been enacted. Past performance seemed to assure future success. Remember, complacency also is a form of Cognitive Bias.

A close cousin of “Group Think” is the “Confirmation Bias”, where leaders are swayed by the answers they want to hear. When others support or confirm your position, it is easy to pay attention selectively to the arguments that re-enforce your thinking.

Flight Department managers, and indeed all aviators, are hired to make correct decisions. Such is not an easy task. Dealing with the many Cognitive Biases that exist is just one aspect of arriving at the right course of action. Being aware of their presence, lurking in disguise within everyone, is the first line of defense.

Ed Note:
Much has been written about decision making. A concise and highly instructive treatment is offered by Professor Michael A. Roberto, author of Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen and Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing Conflict and Consensus, in his Great Courses series entitled The Art of Critical Decision Making, published by The Teaching Company. Much of this article is based upon Professor Roberto’s writing.

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