Aeronautical Decision Making and ‘Being Wrong’

By Scott Spangler on March 27th, 2017

Image result for being wrong bookAeronautical decision making is a key ingredient in aviation safety, but I’ve just finished an excellent book that has revealed a side to this important topic that’s little discussed. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz takes an in-depth look at why humans find being right so gratifying, and how maddening it is to realize we’re wrong, and wrong so often.

This is not a book for pilots, and the author doesn’t offer any aeronautical examples. But as an aviator, on almost every page I could relate the her examples to aviation, pilots, and the decisions she makes. Perhaps the most important advice she gives, which applies to all human endeavor, is this: “Regardless of age, we are more alert to the errors of others than our own” and “pointing out the errors of others give those people little reason to change their minds and consider sharing our beliefs.”

She starts by exploring human factors and error studies and makes the point that not all errors are the same. Being wrong on where we left our car keys, she says in one example, is not the same as being wrong on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. She then goes on to show that “error is the borderland between vigorous mental life and dementia,” that error is vital to the process of creation and invention, and that error is often the start of adventure (good and bad).

Continued VFR flight into IFR conditions is an all too common example of this. If you’ve ever wondered why pilots make such ill-advised decisions, Being Wrong offers a logical explanation: Sunk costs. Schulz used the example of someone buying a car, finding it a lemon, and continuing to invest money it is repairs rather than deciding to stop adding to the financial loss and junk it.

We humans are bad at cutting our losses because we can’t believe we’re wrong, and the more we invest in the belief that we are right, whether it is the repair of a lemon or that the weather, regardless the what the briefing or changing conditions suggest, will get better (or not get worse, take your pick), the harder it is to extricate ourselves from that belief.

As she explains in the later chapters of the book, in many cases we do, ultimately, acknowledge that we were wrong. Unfortunately, this almost seems to be a snap decision that in aviation, often comes too late in the process to change the outcome.

In the book’s final section, “Embracing Error,” she offers suggestions for making our mistakes work for us, before it is too late. I won’t spoil it for you. Besides, to appreciate this section, you need the foundation of error that she logically and methodically lays in the sections that precede it. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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