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Germanwings 4U9525 Crash: How will Andreas Lubitz’ Suicidal Actions Affect the Safety of Air-Travel?

Doesn’t it just beggar belief the utterly self-centred, horrific acts some people are capable of?

Today we’ve all been confronted with the almost unthinkable, very uncomfortable reality that a pilot – Andreas Lubitz – felt such a sense of self-entitlement that he was able to justify wiping out the lives of 149 human beings as he deliberately slammed an Airbus 320 at 450 km into a sheer face of the Alps.

Was this a heat of the moment act of total loss of control and sanity that resulted in lethally aggressive behaviour?

Although it would still be an incalculably evil act if that was the case, I think we could more easily come to terms with what he did.

But his actions seemed cool, calculated, and indifferently rational.

This guy – in the ultimate position of trust and responsibility – waited for just the right circumstances to occur.

He waited for the plane’s captain to leave the cockpit, locked the door and then coolly refused re-entry for the full 8 minutes it took for the plane to dive, under full control, from 38,000 ft. into shattered oblivion.

At this point in time, those seem to be the incomprehensible, overwhelmingly distressing facts.

Of course, Lubitz’ unbelievable actions unlock a Pandora’s Box worth of questions…

How could such an emotionally unstable individual gain such a position of trust? How could such an obvious omission in flight protocol – that led to one individual barricading themselves into the cockpit – have arisen? What does it say for human nature that any one of us is capable of such malevolent, selfish act? How can we prevent such an unnecessary and utterly tragic event from ever occurring again?

I won’t attempt to answer any of those questions. Quite frankly I’m too dumbfounded to do so.

But as a frequent flyer – one who had an unshakeable faith in the safety of EU aviation until a couple of days ago; and who would quote to nervous, Valium-stoned passengers the infinitesimal odds of being involved in a fatal aviation incident – I have to admit my feathers have been ruffled.

Despite the protests of various patronizing day-time psychologists and aviation experts that air travel is by far ‘the safest form of travel’ I really am beginning to question the safety of air-travel; particularly when one’s safety can be sabotaged by a single individual in a supposed position of trust.

And here’s the crux of my problem:

Yes, air-travel maybe the safest mode of transport usually, but what about right now?

What effects could Lubitz’ insanely selfish and murderous acts have on air travel in the immediate future?

Social Proof

The problem is we human beings have an innate flaw: like sheep, we’re easily led.

Stick a test subject in a waiting-room with a bunch of seemingly indifferent by-standers, light a fire under the door and what happens? The test subject chooses to ignore that the room is on fire because he sees that no one else is responding.

Someone collapses on the street and pleads for help… what happens then? If one person walks by, the chances are everyone else will too.

Someone’s heard screaming and is then stabbed to death in a residential area of New York… what do the residents do? They close their curtains… no one calls the police.

These are behaviours that have all been documented.

The unsettling truth is that we base our decisions on what we see other people do; we use the previous actions of others to mould our own behaviour.

We’re influenced by what’s termed ‘social proof’.

Social Proofing Suicide

You might be wondering what this has to do with aviation and one deranged pilot.

Well here’s the unsettling part; suicides tend to social proof suicides. In other words, if one person decides to top themselves then others are quick to follow.

But not only that, the manner in which an individual kills him / herself tends to be emulated too.

If a sole-suicide makes the headlines, you’ll find a spike in the number of similar sole-suicides… people will emulate by jumping off buildings, driving into trees, overdosing on sleeping pills and drink.

But if some deranged individual decides to take others with them – for example, some depressive co-pilot with a God-complex flies an Airbus into sheer side of a mountain – then it’s likely others will follow suit too…

This is the profoundly unsettling behaviour Robert B. Cialdini, PH.D highlights in ‘Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion’.

Now, because it’s late, and because this is such a time sensitive issue, I’m going to do something I would never usually do… simply quote text.

I hope I don’t get sued, but this really is that important:

Cialdini writes:

“To my mind the most telling illustration of this impact [of social proofing] starts with a seemingly nonsensical statistic: After a suicide has made front-page news, airplanes – private planes, corporate jets, airliners – begin falling out of the sky at an alarming rate… [And] The increase is not limited to airplane deaths. The number of automobile fatalities shoots up as well.”

“Newspaper stories reporting on suicide victims who died alone produce an increase in the frequency of single-fatality wrecks only, whereas stories reporting on suicide plus murder incidents produce an increase in multiple-fatality wrecks only.”

Cialdini quotes the work of David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego as evidence.

Phillips’ initial research had examined U.S suicide statistics between 1947 and 1968. Alarmingly, he noted that every front-page suicide between those dates had led to a spike of fifty-eight individuals more than usual taking their own lives.

Cialdini continues, with reference to Phillips’ extensive research:

“Upon learning of another’s suicide, an uncomfortably large number of people decide that suicide is an appropriate action for themselves as well. Some… then proceed … in a straightforward, no bones about it fashion. Other’s however, are less direct.”

“For any of several reasons – to protect their reputations, spare their families the shame and hurt, to allow their dependents to collect on insurance policies – they do not want to appear to have killed themselves. They would rather seem to have died accidentally. So, purposefully but furtively, they cause the wreck of a car or plane they are operating.”

“A commercial airline pilot could dip the nose of the aircraft at a crucial point of take off or could inexplicably land on an already occupied runway against instructions from the control tower; the driver of a car could suddenly swerve into a tree or into oncoming traffic; a passenger in automobile corporate jet couldn’t capacitate the operator, causing a deadly crash…”

“People trying to kill themselves will likely arrange for the impact to be as lethal as possible. When Phillips examine the records to check on this prediction, he found that the average number of people killed in a fatal crash of the commercial airliner is more than three times greater if the crash happened one week after a fan page suicide story but if it happened one week before.”

He concludes:

“The greatest danger exists 3 to 4 days following the news story’s publication. After a brief drop-off, there comes another peak approximately one week after the story. By the eleventh day, there is no hint of an effect left. This pattern across various types of data indicates something noteworthy about secret suicides. Those who try to disguise their imitative self-destruction as accidents wait a few days before committing the act – perhaps to build the courage, to plan the incident, or to put their affairs in order. Whatever the remarkable regularity of this pattern, we know that traveller’s safety is most severely jeopardised 3 to 4 days after a suicide-murder story and then again, but still a lesser degree, a few days later. We would be well advised then, to take special care in our travels at these times.”

Being On-Guard

The above may come across as alarmist, melodramatic or sensationalist. But unfortunately, according to one of the world’s preeminent authorities on human influence, it’s a stark reality.

As someone about to fly in the near future I’m alarmed by the potential risk that Andreas Lubitz’ actions may have caused to my own and countless other people’s safety.

Equally, instead of palming such an incident off as a one-off act of a crazed man, airlines, aviation regulators and psychologists should fully appreciate the potential impact of social proof suicides and do everything in their power to guard against the occurrence of a catastrophic domino effect.


Content of this post quoted extensively from Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, PH.D

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