Ideas to “Cure Stupid!?”

It may be politically incorrect to state this so publically, but we all know that in our daily aviation world there are some people that endanger all of our lives with their unwise actions. Sometimes “stupid” is a one-off move (guilty as charged) that can be fixed. In other cases, “stupid” seems to be an enduring personality trait – and it does not necessarily imply a lack of intelligence.  Perhaps we should add an “S” to the O-C-E-A-N personality paradigm?

“Stupid” should not be confused with “dumb,” it is not a lack of intelligence that gets us into trouble; the smartest people often make the biggest mistakes.

Stupidity is a very specific cognitive failing…[it] is perfectly compatible with intelligence…Crudely put, it occurs when you don’t have the right conceptual tools for the job. The result is an inability to make sense of what is happening and a resulting tendency to force phenomena into crude, distorting pigeonholes. –Sacha Golob

Surprisingly, you would think that climbing the aviation ladder into the flight levels would distance a pilot from errors of this kind, but unfortunately, stupid is everywhere there are humans. Digging into this there is a researcher, Carlo M. Cipolla, who has cataloged the Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Since time immemorial, a powerful dark force has hindered the growth of human welfare and happiness. It is more powerful than the Mafia or the military. It has global catastrophic effects and can be found anywhere from the world’s most powerful boardrooms to your local pub. This is the immensely powerful force of human stupidity.

At the heart of “stupidity” is overconfidence combined with an unwillingness to admit error (or accept change). A component of this problem is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This well-documented psychological phenomenon demonstrates that the least skilled people are also the most over-confident (a sad combination). And though confidence keeps humans forging ahead and accomplishing amazing things, it also sure leads to a lot of fatal accidents in mechanized devices. The CFI’s Little Shop of Horrors is clearly illustrated in Dr. Bill Rhodes’s SlideShare “Warning Signs in Pilots (what scares the experts)”  Watch out for these people! and AVOID  these “committed stupid” activities for your safety.

Overconfidence is dangerous because it leads to illusions in the perceptual process commonly called “magical thinking.” We humans, are all emotional decision-makers and “predictably irrational” when we desire a specific outcome – the “mission mentality.” Add some overconfidence, and no amount of fancy technology screaming warnings will fix a pilot that believes they can “stretch fuel” or “cheat weather.” This is why SOPs and the curated counsel of friends are such powerful safety tools (“save me from myself!”). The “second opinion” of a crew flying along makes flying statistically so much safer. A little doubt and self-questioning can often break the accident chain. If a pilot is personally convinced something is true, they will inevitably fool themselves despite all kinds of evidence to the contrary. Our 20/20 hindsight in accident analysis continually demonstrates the flawed human decision process.

With a little therapy of honesty and humble reflection, our occasional “personal stupidity” (provided we survive) can be leveraged to create learning and improvement. Educators call this process  “productive failure.” This is the same process master educators use when allowing a learner to experiment (within limits) and self-correct their performance.  The essential (and difficult) ingredient here is “personal honesty;” the ability to accept responsibility rather than providing excuses. Ego-driven overconfidence and “bulldozing” of others’ opinions are common pilot traits but not productive for growth.

Another benefit of accepting failure as a possibility – and considering the cause might be personal – is a more vigilant posture and greater situational awareness. Better observation and after-action review promote continuous improvement. This procedure is documented as Kaizen Culture in Japanese manufacturing (think Toyota). This is a repeating cycle of reflection, self-criticism/critique, and improvement. Accountability and objectivity can also be helped by adding with the counsel of trusted friends (“hey dude, what are you thinking?”) – it keeps you vigilant and humble!

Every [person] needs people in [their] life who are willing to give it to [them] straight, who are willing to call [them] out when [they’ve] messed up, and who do it out of love. It’s tempting to avoid these people and retreat into your echo chamber of excuses, but they’re the kind of people who will truly help you thrive.

Part of what inspired this blog is our new SAFE initiative with GA News to review the accidents they publish. These occasionally read like the Darwin Awards. Watch for SAFE in the GA News accident section (and add your comments!)

We all love to go out and have fun in airplanes, but safety requires being honest, staying within sensible guidelines, and listening to trusted friends to calibrate your enthusiasm. “Friends don’t let friends fly stupid!”


Every new membership, renewal or Step-Up starting April 12th, will enter you into the sweepstakes drawing for a brand new Lightspeed Zulu Headset. Visit SAFE at Booth B22 and grab a chance for a new ANR headset. The first 25 CFIs to join will also get the ASA FAR/AIM App for free!

 

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

2 thoughts on “Ideas to “Cure Stupid!?””

  1. David,

    I’m a retired physician and part-time flight instructor for tailwheel aircraft. I just had a similar discussion with a few flight instructors and my view is that a few (probably more) pilots should not be flying. Unfortunately, economics being what they are, we continue to encourage these individuals to keep training. Since I don’t make my living training pilots, it’s easy for me to make that statement. I recently flew with a friend and new private pilot (I have flown with him several times previously) and I’m trying to find a way to let him know that it’s not a good idea to continue flying. I feel flying is just like other sports, some pick it up quickly and some never do. Many people in the flying community don’t like my view, but I it’s a fact. Some people don’t have the ability to fly. That includes the lack of physical skills and/or situational awareness (ADM). Thank you for making this truthful statement in this age of “political correctness”. By the way, George Carlin was/is my favorite comedian. He tells it like it is.

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