Germanwings crash and the psychology of risk

A letter from our June issue.

I’d like to applaud the careful statement made by the BPS on the Germanwings disaster (News, May 2015), but I wish to draw attention to a site of psychological interest that is missing from this account.

When responding to such dreadful incidents as this, I’d like to recommend that more attention be paid to the wider psychology of risk perception with regard to flying and safety. The more recent history of transport safety is predominantly one of the promotion of fail-safe systems of automation to reduce human error, often as a result of disasters. As Professor De Croo of the European Transport Safety Council stated in 1999: ‘When technology became reliable, man proved to be unreliable’ (Rumar, 1999).

The BPS could actively endorse the promotion of automatic life-saving systems in aircraft, working towards the state where it is impossible for the pilot to fly the plane in a way that would crash it, given that the aircraft is still airworthy, so helping to protect against deliberate ‘unreliability’. Psychologists could insist that the focus of attention is more towards addressing the potential fear of automatic control in hazardous contexts (in this case, flying, but there are parallels with driverless cars) rather than towards personal mental health interventions, which, the article admits, will probably not help to avoid a deliberate act of homicide by a pilot.

A psychological focus would need to emphasise two related issues of this endorsement too. Firstly, the heightened perception of personal risk due to flying being identified as a dread risk (Slovic, 2000), a perception that may include issues of the association between automatic control and trust surrounding airlines, cost and safety. Secondly, a focus on attenuating the social amplification of risk (Pidgeon et al., 2003) resulting from a potential association between fear of flying and fear of mental health conditions, an amplification for which the media may be a contributor.

Such an emphasis could help to remind the public that flying is a hazard to be controlled rather than a dread risk to be feared when combined with dispositional attributions of mental health, which include the fear of the depressed, and the perceived madness of the terrorist hijacker. It may also remind psychologists and media that a probable psychological cause of a crash does not necessarily mean that personal psychological interventions would promote the most effective safety outcomes.

Dr Simon Harrison
Pidgeon, N., Kasperson, Roger, E., Slovic, P. (Eds.) (2003). The social amplification of risk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rumar, K. (1999). Transport safety visions, targets and strategies: Beyond 2000. Brussels: European Transport Safety Council.
Slovic, P. (2000). The perception of risk. London: Earthscan.

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