Photo: World War I Army Biplane, from Upper Arlington Archives (Creative Commons).
We are being paid to avoid hazard, but there are still many unexplored crevasses in our reservoir of knowledge. Our zeal for air transport is always soured when we so easily reflect on failures involving certain late comrades, who proved in the final analysis to be, like ourselves, only the tip of the arrow. We are obliged to recognize our possible epitaph — His end was abrupt.
— Ernest K. Gann
Fate is the Hunter
As an engineer I am at high risk for discounting anything that cannot be described with formulas prematurely. As a pilot, I am prone to prefer procedure over technique and mechanical facts over empathy and "feelings." Both of these facets of my personality serve me well in some areas but put me at risk in others. So into the breach we go, here it is, my own version of Pilot Psychology 101.
As I understand it, psychology has four goals. We can use those:
- To Describe — Describing various Pilot Personality Types can be useful because it helps us to predict crew synergy in an attempt to avoid crew resource management issues and capitalize on strengths.
- To Explain — Each personality type has its Strengths and Weakness that pilots should recognize in themselves and their peers.
- To Predict — When dealing with more than one pilot you are bound to have Conflicts and Synergy that can either harm or help the pilot team.
- To Change — We cannot always choose our flying partners and it is important to have a Pilot Adaptation Strategy.
What follows are mostly my thoughts from dealing with this over the years. I will cite a few references along the way.
Pilot Personality Types
Photo: Sigmund Freud, public domain (Creative Commons).
When I was in the Air Force a few of the "touchy feely" types realized that if they could give every lieutenant colonel pilot a personality test they might be able to typecast the future leaders from those who were destined to be, shall we say, the led. Somewhere along the line they signed up to the Myers & Brigss Foundation and subjected those they thought had command potential to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory.
The theory was only one type of individual was meant to be an Air Force commander, and only lieutenant colonels who were "ESTP" would be offered the chance to command flying squadrons. I think that theory is flawed but the exercise might help when it comes to figuring out how to make a flight crew work well together. All we really need to do is discuss the four personality preferences.
- Favorite World — In the Myers-Briggs world, the extravert and introvert are of equal value. In the Air Force command structure, however, introverts were considered not worthy of command. What they didn't anticipate was that some introverts could fool the test and that they ended up was with a lot of extraverted commanders and a smaller number of commanders smarter than the test. In the world of non-military cockpits, however, the two personality types are equally valid.
Information — On the surface, pilots would seem to gather all of their information from machines, computers, and other tangible means. You could argue that only sensing people become pilots or that pilots need to be sensing people. But that isn't entirely true.
- E - Extraversion. You are talkative, outgoing. You like to work out ideas with others and think aloud. You want to be the center of attention.
- I - Introversion. You are reserved, quiet. You like to contemplate and think things through alone. You would rather observe than be the center of attention.
Decisions — In a perfect world, all cockpit decisions would be made using a thinking, dispassionate, and logical process. The problem, however, is that we have so much to know that we cannot know it all. There are often times that a "feeling" overrules the thinking and ends up being right.
- S - Sensing. You focus on the reality of how things are. You pay attention to facts. Your prefer practical ideas. You like to describe things n a specific, literal way.
- N - Intuition. You like to imagine how things can be. You look at the forest (as opposed to the trees). You enjoy ideas as concepts. You describe things figuratively.
Structure — Some parts of aviation bear no resemblance to others. I was invited along for a Sunday flight with a cousin and was appalled by the lack of precision in altitude, airspeed, and heading. Of course he would have looked at the kind of flying I do as little more than computer programming.
- T - Thinking. You make decisions dispassionately, using logic. You value fairness. You enjoy finding flaws in arguments. You are reasonable and level-headed.
- F - Feeling. You make decisions based on your feelings. You value harmony and forgiveness. You like to please others and tend to see the good in everyone. You are empathetic.
- J - Judging. You like having things settled. Your think rules should be followed and deadlines met. Your prefer detailed, step-by-step instructions. You make plans and want to know what you are getting into.
- P - Perceiving. You like keeping your options open. You think rules and deadlines are flexible. You prefer to improvise. You are spontaneous and enjoy surprises.
The next step in a standard psychological evaluation using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator would be to give yourself a letter from each of the four personality preferences so you could forever call yourself an ESTP or an INFJ or one of the fourteen other possibilities. Then they would show you a grid of the sixteen possible outcomes and tell you "all sixteen are equally valid." In the Air Force the powers that be would get your score and pretty soon it would become obvious, that just as with George Orwell's "Animal Farm," some animals are more equal than others.
For the purposes of examining pilot psychology and making sure we work together effectively, we don't need to do that. It will help to know that each personality trait carries with it strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths and Weakness
Is there an ideal pilot personality type? Or are any of those four personality preferences better answered one way or another? Is a thinking pilot always better than a feeling pilot? I think there are times when one type works better than the other. But not always.
- Pilot strengths: stimulates communications on the flight deck, brings out ideas and solutions from the team.
- Pilot weaknesses: may overwhelm other crewmembers with personality, can cause others to withdraw.
- Pilot strengths: can come up with solutions to complex problems and avoid pitfalls from tricky situations.
- Pilot weaknesses: may intimidate junior crewmembers or "underwhelm" those senior.
- Pilot strengths: can take in lots of information and apply technical solutions.
- Pilot weaknesses: can miss "outside the box" solutions that solve problems beyond what is given in the flight manual.
- Pilot strengths: can tap into a broad range of experiences to come up with ideas others would miss.
- Pilot weaknesses: might miss standard, workable solutions while contemplating others, can "miss the trees for the forest."
- Pilot strengths: usually gets the problem solved right, the first time.
- Pilot weaknesses: might alienate others while striving for technical perfection, can "win the battle but lose the war" when dealing with fellow crewmembers. The brain has many congnitive limits, some you may not be aware of: Brain's Data Limits. Do not discount the power of intuition to overcome many of these limits: Pilot Psychology / Decision Making.
- Pilot strengths: brings the best out of the crew, encourages others to contribute and may produce solutions any one individual would have missed.
- Pilot weaknesses: can miss obvious, technical solutions, sometimes "all of us are dumber than one of us."
- Pilot strengths: less prone to making mistakes, tend to get things done as they had been practiced and flight tested.
- Pilot weaknesses: may fail to improvise when problems are compounded or outside the known envelope of solutions.
- Pilot strengths: able to improvise and come up with solutions to complex problems and multiple emergencies.
- Pilot weaknesses: prone to making mistakes when ignoring tried and true solutions.
Conflicts and Synergy
In each case, mixing personality preferences can bring out the strengths of each type and overcome the weaknesses of the other. If one pilot is sensing and the other is intuitive, for example, the team should be able to solve problems out of the textbook while being able to come up with innovative solutions to nonroutine problems as well.
There is also danger that a pilot with a very strong personality trait can overwhelm a pilot with the opposite trait. An overt extravert, for example, can cause an already introverted pilot to withdraw from the team. The extravert might take offense to the introvert's failure to engage in conversation.
Pilot Adaptation Strategy
Where there is a conflict in personality preferences, both pilot should know how to adapt to avoid conflicts and to maximize synergy provided by the difference. Pilots should be aware of their dominant personality preferences and how that might affect others of the opposite profile. They should also know how they might be adversely affected by strong personalities of other types.
- Extraverted pilots should realize their power to overwhelm others who are not so outgoing. If the other pilot fails to engage at the same level, be willing to "tone it down" a few notches. Do not take the other pilot's silence as a rebuke. When trying to solve problems, try asking questions that require more than a yes or no. Instead of "have you ever seen this before?" try "what do you think is going on here?"
- They should also realize that if the other pilot is also extraverted, they need to throttle back now and then to allow time for reflection. Two pilots of the same mind can suffer from "group think" and get sent off in the same, wrong direction.
- Introverted pilots should realize that others with strong, outgoing personalities may be uncomfortable with silence and may need to voice their thoughts as a part of their problem-solving method. Realize they may take your silence as quiet hostility and you may need to set them at ease from time to time. A quick smile and comment can serve you well when the other pilot becomes overbearing. "That's pretty interesting, give me a minute or two to think about that."
- Introverted pilots should also realize that if the other pilot is also introverted they will both need to verbalize hypothesis and play the "what if" game to stimulate alternative thoughts. Two introverted pilots with similar backgrounds may never consider "out of the box" solutions because they never verbalized the thoughts in the first place.
- Sensing pilots should realize that problems can sometimes masquerade as problems of another kind, that some problems have never been before catalogued, or that their memories can fade. If the other pilot has an intuitive idea, you should entertain it fully before responding with cold, hard facts. If your initial ideas were wrong, you may never get a course correction if you don't allow the other pilot to speak up.
- They should also realize that if the other pilot also has a sensing personality, they may both fail to see solutions outside the flight manual or conventional wisdom. "What aren't we thinking about?" would be a good question to ask as time permits.
- Intuitive pilots should realize that sometimes, most of the time, a problem does come right out of the flight manual and that the obvious answer is the right answer. If the other pilot is spring loaded to the text book answer and you either have the time to explore other options or strongly believe the other's pilots first reaction is wrong, don't shut the idea down but offer suggestions in the form of a question. "I can see that, but what about this?"
- Two intuitive pilots should realize they can "miss the trees for the forest" by trying to be too clever by half. "Is there a book solution we should think about?" would be a good way to redirect any wayward discussions.
- Thinking pilots should realize that the "egg head" approach can force feeling pilots to withdraw, for fear of looking stupid. Spouting out the right answer immediately can shut down the other pilot's creative side and rob you of any ideas from that pilot that you might have overlooked.
- Two thinking pilots should be on alert for group think and failing to fully analyze a problem because both have clamped on to a technical solution too early.
- Feeling pilots should realize that some problems, especially time sensitive problems, do not permit long think sessions and that the quick solution might be right. They should also realize the other pilot's apparent book knowledge can be flawed and sometimes another view is needed.
- Two feeling pilots should be alert for the need to pull out a checklist or do some research before trying a mutually agreed upon ad hoc fix. While not as common, two feeling pilots can be guilty of "group think."
- Judging pilots must realize that the other pilot's improvisational approaches can yield fruit now and then and should be entertained as time permits. If convinced your solution is the correct one, try convincing the other pilot with a little praise for the alternative approach. "That would work well in some cases, but in this case the book answer might just do the trick."
- Two judging pilots may fail to come up with the right answer when faced with multiple emergencies and should be on the look out for improvisational ideas. "What are we missing here?"
- Perceiving pilots should realize they can be seen as sloppy or unknowing by other pilots. Sometimes it is best to start an idea with an admission it is "coloring outside the lines" or by verbalizing the book answer. "I know the book says A but maybe we should consider B."
- Two perceiving pilots should be on the lookout for missing the tried and true while trying to be creative. "What does the books say? That should work here."
The Brain's Data Limits
[Lehrer, pg. 150.]
- The biological reality of the brain, however, is that it's severely bounded, a machine subject to all sorts of shortcomings. This is particularly true of the charioteer, who is tethered to the prefrontal cortex. As the psychologist George Miller demonstrated in his famous essay, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," the conscious brain can only handle about seven pieces of data at any one moment. "There seems to be some limitation built into us by design of our nervous system, a limit that keeps our channel capacities in this general range," Miller wrote. While we can control these rational neural circuits — they think about what we tell them to think about — they constitute a relatively small part of the brain, just a few microchips within the vast mainframe of the mind. As a result, even choices that seem straightforward — like choosing a jam in the supermarket — can overwhelm the prefrontal cortex. It gets intimindated by all the jam data. And that's when bad decsions are made.
- Consider this experiment. You're sitting in a bare room, with just a table and a chair. A scientist in a white lab coat walks in and says that he's conducting a study of long-term memory. The scientist gives you a seven-digit number to remember and asks you to walk down the hall to the room whre your memory will be tested. On the way to the testing room, you pass a refreshment table for subjects taking part in the experiment. You are given a choice between a decadent slice of German chocolate cake and a bowl of fruit salad. What do you choose?
- Now let's replay the experiment. You are sitting in the same room. The same scientist gives you the same explanation. The only difference is that instead of being asked to remember a seven-digit number, you are given only two numbers,, a far easier mental task. You then walk down the hall and are given the same choice between cake and fruit.
- You probably don't think the number of digits will affect your choice; if you choose the chocolate cake, it is because you want cake. But you'd be wrong. The scientist who explained the experiment was lying; this isn't a study of long-term memory, it's a study of self-control.
- When the results from the two different memory groups were tallied, the scientists observed a striking shift in behavior. Fifty-nine percent of people trying to remember seven digits chose the cake, compared to only 37 percent of the two-digit subjects. Distracting the brain with a mental task made a person much more likely to give in to temptation and choose the calorie-dense dessert.
- According to the Standford scientists who designed the experiment, the effort required to memorize seven digits drew cognitive resources away from the part of the brain that normally controls emotional urges. Because working memory and rationality share a common cortical source — the prefrontal cortex — a mind trying to remember lots of information is less able to exert control over its impulses.
Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 2: Advanced Flight, Chapter 6.
Gann, Ernest K., Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot's Memoir, 1961, Simon & Schuster, New York
Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide, Mariner Books, New York, New York, 2009.