In the aviation sector, five dangerous attitudes have been shown to contribute to tragic accidents. What are these attitudes and how can they help us avoid bad habits, be more creative and collaborate well with others?
Normally I’m good at getting some sleep on long overnight flights. I’ve done a lot of them and have a routine that usually works.
My last flight from Tokyo to Melbourne wasn’t like that.
We hit turbulence several times during the night. Each bout came right as I was dozing off. It wasn’t bad turbulence. Nothing to complain about. Nothing truly scary. But enough for my body to switch gears and keep me awake.
I landed on a Sunday. With no commitments, I could spend a day just napping, recovering, and relaxing. That afternoon I fell down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos. There was something soothing about watching people fly restored old planes.
As always happens, the more I watched, the darker the viewing recommendations became. Pretty soon, YouTube was serving up plane crash videos. Those crazy algorithms.
The Five Hazardous Attitudes
I did watch one video. A very passionate flight instructor talked about how two people, a student pilot and his instructor, had flown into a bad storm and crashed. What made it worse is the flight instructor was posting videos of the pre-flight check, and the flight, to his Snapchat account. He was mocking the student. And then they both died.
The maker of the video, Josh Flowers, read from a prepared statement because he didn’t want his emotions to overtake him as he discussed what went wrong. He mentioned something called the “5 Hazardous Attitudes in Aviation”, which he listed as:
1. Anti-authority: “Don’t tell me how to…”
2. Impulsivity: “Do it quickly.”
3. Invulnerability: “It won’t happen to me.”
4. Macho: “I can do it.”
5. Resignation: “What’s the use?”
These five hazardous attitudes were defined by the US FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) and cited in many articles and on the websites of flight schools. A paper entitled The Five Hazardous Attitudes: A Subset of Complacency by Peter S. Neff in the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics, and Aerospace explains the attitudes in depth, with lots of examples of flight incidents and disasters caused by them.
Why This Matters
I’m not training to be a pilot, and I’m no expert on aviation. So why did these attitudes catch my attention, and why am I asking you to think about them?
First, because we encounter them often. They are programmed into our DNA. It’s pretty hard to go through a day without hearing (or at least overhearing) them. If they’re hazardous, then it pays to consider the role they play in our lives.
Second, because we can often find ourselves coaching or advising people who express these attitudes. Parents will be particularly familiar with them because kids, especially teenagers, typically express these attitudes as they try to navigate their path to independence and an understanding of their abilities.
Third, these attitudes don’t just lead to dangerous and risky behaviour; they also have implications for our ability to learn, work with others, and be creative.
Let’s look at them in more detail.
Being rebellious can feel cool. It certainly does when you’re a teenager. That’s because you’re trying to discover your identity, assert yourself, and figure out which social norms really matter.
Building your adult identity around rejecting authority can be problematic, however, especially if you have to operate in a shared environment where the risks are high and the safety of others is paramount.
Someone who is being anti-authoritarian can engage in risky behavior as a way to prove their non-conformity. They can feel uncomfortable with rules that keep everyone safe, or restrictions that ask them to limit their behavior for the safety of others.
They can reject rules or fail to comply when that would be the safest and best course of action. But rules usually exist for a reason, and processes make hazardous tasks safer. Not everything needs to be disrupted.
For creative souls, anti-authoritarianism casts a beguiling spell. We want to break free from constraints. But we risk cutting ourselves off from others, be they potential teachers, mentors, or collaborators. We might miss out on learning from the experience of others, from accumulated knowledge, from timeless ideas, or from the historical context that can inform our work.
Pushed too far, being anti-authority becomes being anti-wisdom.
It’s easy to see how impulsivity can lead to dangerous behavior. An impulsive person is unlikely to take their time over important decisions, consider all important factors, or reflect on the possible consequences of their actions.
Impulsivity messes with our relationship to time, making it hard to delay gratification in the face of important challenges that require deep concentration. Being impulsive locks us in the present moment, which means we never fully learn from our experiences or achieve our potential in the future.
Trusting your gut, or making quick decisions, might work sometimes. But in complex situations, the risks are not always immediately obvious. Same with people. Their qualities don’t always shine or ring alarm bells on first meeting.
Managing risk also means managing your emotions. Impulsive behavior is often driven by an inability to regulate strong emotions and avoid discomfort. Impulsive people want to shortcut the uncertainty, ambiguity, or other feelings that accompany decision making. It can also make people prone to substance abuse as a way to regulate emotions, or simply chase short-term pleasure.
Being impulsive might seem central to the “eureka” moment or “lightning-in-a-bottle” idea of creativity. Sometimes it is. But it can also make it hard to focus long enough to complete big creative projects. It can encourage cutting corners and short-term decision making, producing inconsistent results. It can blind you to helpful feedback and make it hard to be a reliable collaborator. And it can encourage burnout as you engage in magpie-like pursuit of every shiny creative idea.
Some people believe they are immune to danger. The risks, they think, are always greater for others. Things just work out for them. Their optimistic bias leads to dangerous overconfidence.
Teenagers most clearly display a belief they are invulnerable. They have rapidly increasing abilities and strength. But their world is also still regulated and safe. And they haven’t fully developed the ability to engage in long-term thinking and risk assessment. They feel invincible. So they engage in risky behaviour.
Cultivating a sense of invulnerability can seem appealing as a way to combat emotions. For some people, this seems like strength. But emotions play an important role in decision making. Fear, for example, isn’t something to be suppressed. Fear can motivate us to act, sharpen our focus, even improve our memory and cognitive processes.
It can be hard to work with people while maintaining an air of invulnerability. Being emotionally shut off makes you hard to relate to. It leads to an unwillingness to hear new ideas or bad news.
Great art comes from vulnerability. Think of that song lyric that captures exactly how you feel, that painting that always moves you, the poem you can still remember after all those years. These all come from an artist getting in touch with their own fragility, which is another way of saying their deepest humanity, and allowing that vulnerability to speak.
Invulnerability – or, more accurately, a sense of invulnerability – feels like a superpower, but really, it’s the opposite.
Blockbuster films flood us with the idea that hyper-masculinity is the solution for every dangerous predicament. What you need in a crisis is rippling muscles and a limited vocabulary. But being macho can’t fix everything.
Being macho is a social game, one fixated on control, dominance, and status. That means in a difficult situation the person trying to be macho is focussed more on how they look while handling the situation than on the situation itself.
For this person, solving a problem is not enough. They have to solve the problem in ways that demonstrate their bravery, fearlessness, and strength. This will often mean choosing a riskier option simply to give them more space to be macho.
This mindset also makes collaboration and conflict resolution difficult. Every relationship becomes a competition for dominance. Winning the argument becomes more important than reaching the right decision.
Hyper-masculinity can limit our creativity because it shuts us off from having full emotional experiences and embracing our vulnerability. This limited emotional intelligence makes it hard to feel the weight of new ideas, relate to collaborators, or understand what audiences feel when they experience our work.
Being macho also limits creativity because it is a very conformist way of being. Hyper-masculinity is all about imitating existing stereotypes and rejecting diverse ways of thinking and new ideas.
Hyper-masculinity is a fear-based response to the world. And this fear is enough to stifle creative expression because the person gripped by macho isn’t judging their work based on how creative, innovative, or artistic it is, but rather, whether or not it fits some external ideal of manliness.
Giving up when facing a tough situation is an obvious gateway to hazardous outcomes. If we lose the will for self-preservation or would rather numb ourselves than save ourselves, something is clearly wrong.
Resignation can be caused by many things, from loss of purpose, feelings of hopelessness, self-destructive behavior, or deeper mental health issues.
Resignation might feel like a different attitude to the other four behaviours. But like the others, it’s a limiting mindset, to borrow the language of Caroline Dweck. While the others create a comfort zone by assuming things will go your way, this one creates a comfort zone by assuming things won’t work out and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Resignation hits our creativity hard because it finds us losing touch with self-efficacy and our ability to do things. It disconnects us from others. We become unable to access our emotions fully. Or find meaning in life and the work we do.
The Risk Of Complacency
In his article, Neff links all five hazardous attitudes to an underlying tendency towards complacency. This isn’t the “not caring” kind of complacency but rather a specific kind of complacency that comes from “overconfidence gained through the repetitive performance of a task”.
Neff mentions a fatal plane accident where the flight crew didn’t work through their preflight checklists thoroughly and were distracted by conversation while performing their checks. Alarmingly, that crew had failed to perform the tests properly on “98% of their previous 175 flights.”
This kind of complacency can afflict anyone who becomes good at what they do. Talent and success can blind us to the need to keep paying attention to the small details or keep working on the simple things. We can be seduced by our own ability to just turn up and make things work.
This is risky and hazardous – for ourselves, and for anyone who relies on us. Over time, complacency will hurt our performance, erode our skills, and diminish our enthusiasm for what we do.
The best way to avoid complacency is to stay curious and open minded. Explore new ideas and fresh perspectives. Don’t just stick to the classics or the familiar great ideas and masters in our field. Be familiar with new work and emerging talent.
Notice where we feel resistant to change and ask why that is. What do we fear? What makes us uncomfortable, and why? Make time also to think about our assumptions. Where we have become rigid. What stories we tell ourselves to avoid the discomfort of evolving.
Finally, keep working on the basics. You’re never too good to not benefit from time spent on the simple skills you use over and over again. Finding ways to bring focus and joy to the routine is often at the core of elite performance. Often the biggest and most complex tasks are made up of many small routine actions that have been performed countless times before.
And, next time I take an overnight flight I’ll be checking my own pre-flight habits. Maybe I’m forgetting something in my routine. Maybe I’m blaming turbulence when I had too many cups of coffee that day or didn’t relax and mediate in the lounge before boarding? I might not be piloting the plane but I am the captain of my own night’s sleep.