I’ve been reading a somewhat interesting book by Laurence Gonzales called Everyday Survival. It has its good moments but then he goes on and on about atoms, molecules and DNA which frankly are way too microscopic to belong in this book. He looks at where our base actions and reactions come from (fight or flight) and he examines new thought processes we make for ourselves. He calls our understanding of specific situations around us mental models. for instance, you have information and experience locked in your brain in order to react to a fire drill at work. You don’t have to think consciously. You just leave without running and avoid the elevator. tada!
He gave the saddest example about a plane crash where the pilot was at fault. The pilot was paranoid about flying into the wake of the plane in front of him (a blast of air). It made him panic to the point where he slammed on the controls of the plane putting the plane at risk every time he did it. One day the pilot braked in mid-air, tore off the rudder and the engines and the plane crashed only minutes after take off because he had encountered the wake of the plane in front of him. When a committee listened to the black box later the conversation was strange and Gonzales thought it was based on a mental model he probably formed in childhood. When the pilot made his first error he looked at his co-pilot and asked him if this was okay? and then a couple of minutes later just before the plane got into serious trouble he asked the co-pilot if they were both happy.
What the pilot should have done was to contact the tower before or during the wake and get instructions rather than turning to his co-pilot for reassurance. Gonzales explained when the poor guy was a kid and he was learning how to fly a cessna with his father he made those exact comments possibly over and over. It was a script that had passed between them years ago. G didn’t explain the wake issue just the conversation. Perhaps some of his anxiety came from wanting to please daddy. He was running on an old mental model and he killed 255 people, himself included.
In other words when we write off accidents as merely stupid, often they aren’t. They are based on mental models that served us well in the past but when confronted with this new situation our mental model fails us since it isn’t right for the new situation.
So. I learned something new. Cool.
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