Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Normalcy Bias: Why Asiana Passengers Stopped to Get Their Luggage

The web is erupting with outrage at images of passengers from the crashed Asiana Flight 214 carrying luggage they took off that plane while in the midst of an emergency evacuation.  The passengers report that they don't believe the time they took to get their luggage impeded anyone's escape. They report they did this because they were feeling an eerie calm and just did what you normally do, you get your bags and then leave the plane.

It's almost certainly true that everyone on that plane would
have been off that plane more quickly if absolutely no one had stopped for luggage. But the fact that so many passengers did slow down the evacuation has important implications for how we should train ourselves and airline personnel to deal with emergencies.

First off, before I seem to be judging anyone too harshly, I acted incorrectly myself while in an emergency. On two occasions when I was in Iraq, mortar attacks targeted the base where I was. And, despite having been trained in what I was supposed to do in the event of an emergency, I acted incorrectly both times. 

The first time, I actually saw a mortar shell spinning end over end before landing outside our perimeter wall and exploding. And then I saw another. And then they stopped. And then, and only then, did I suddenly tell myself I needed to run for
cover. The second time, while the booms of mortars were deafening to my ears, I stopped to lock my door before running to a blast resistant building. The time I spent locking that door could have been my end, this despite the fact that I had been told quite clearly that I don't lock the door in an emergency.

But the reason I locked the door is the same reason those passengers got their bags. It's what I always did when I left that little building. We had all fallen victim to what is known as the Normalcy Bias. In short, you've never been a crisis before. Therefore, you probably aren't in one now. So you continue to act business as usual. 

The chances that the passengers on Asiana Flight 214 will ever again be in a plane crash are the same as yours and mine--virtually zero. It's been pointed out that you have a greater chance of dying because the roof on the supermarket collapses on you than you do of being in a plane crash.

Imagine if every time you entered a store, you had to listen to a three minute safety speech about what to do in the unlikely event of a roof collapse. We would consider this a ludicrous waste of our time. Most people would just accept that, in the unlikely event of a roof collapse, we're all going to just deal with it best we can.

I'm suggesting that, in light of the likelihood that the Normalcy Bias will make the majority of passengers behave incorrectly in an emergency evacuation, airlines devote energy into disaster planning that accounts for this, plans for it even. Passengers took their luggage because they saw other passengers doing it. Flight attendants should be aggressively disallowing any luggage being carried, telling passengers to just drop it back onto their seats and leave the plane. If passengers see that no one is taking luggage, no one else will take it. Maybe they tried to do this and the people ignored or resisted them. But it is a protocol to consider. But, at the same time, none of those flight attendants had ever been in an emergency before either. And, by all accounts, they reacted admirably in the face of the crisis.

Finally, however, it would seen the Normalcy Bias can be counted on to prevent the most serious potential problem of a mass evacuation--a stampede. Even if people in an emergency do stupid things like lock the door or take their rolling luggage, they seem to calmly move to the exits. 

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