“Cautious to Cocky;” Avoid the “6C Progression!”

“Cautious to cocky” is a normal progression of human adaptive behavior, built into our DNA. “I don’t know about this” quickly transforms into “I got this!” This is how humans conquered the globe, expanding to 8 billion people and wedged many less adaptive creatures into extinction. Experiences that are initially “weird” or “scary” inevitably become the “new normal.” This adaptive behavior is called “normalizing.”

As pilots,  experiences that are initially frightening soon become “every day OK.” Some degree of risk acceptance is necessary –  we have to adapt and overcome initial fears to successfully learn to fly. But we also have to be wise enough to stop at “confident” rather than proceed all the way to “cocky.” Needless to say “normalizing” past a critical tipping point, paves the way directly into an accident. Where and how do we draw a sensible line to maintain safety? What level of confidence and risk acceptance are appropriate?

It is important not to confuse this process with Dr. Diane Vaughn's "Normalization of Deviance" famously described in her analysis of the NASA accidents. This is a more extreme form of adapting behavior that leads to accepting an inherently dangerous activity. Normalization of deviance as Dr. Vaughn describes it is most commonly exhibited in a group and even operates at a cultural/political level.

A second factor in adapting along this continuum is the loss of awareness and the assignment of habitual behavior to perform repetitive processes (this is where the “complacency” comes in). 90% of our daily activities are habitual, by necessity, in our busy world. We are increasingly overwhelmed by data input and task requirements. Habits automate common tasks and work well when appropriately applied in a predictable environment.  The real danger here comes with the associated loss of awareness. Habitual behavior, by definition, quickly slides into complacency. It is critical, as pilots to practice metacognition. This is the higher-level awareness constantly monitoring our behavior, to ensure each habit is appropriate to the situation. “Cognitive bias” is another normal “efficiency tool” of the human mind that leads us into problems. This process works by assuming the future always resembles the past. Unique and challenging situations can easily get misinterpreted as “reruns” with inappropriate behavior and unfortunate results.

It is almost impossible to draw a safety line independently without an objective standard. “Standard Operating Procedures” are an important starting point” “why do I know better than the rest of the wise pilots that developed these rules?” An external trusted arbiter (CFI or mentor) is often a solid source of wisdom.  If you are in doubt (thank goodness for introspection and metacognition), consult an outside source; this is why mentoring is so valuable. A good pilot is always reflecting on their personal performance, asking questions and grading every flight. This is the only way to stop our natural progression all the way to stupid (take it from a guy growing up with several brothers). The smartest people in the world (NASA’s “High-Reliability Theory”) are the poster children for “normalizing” something incredibly stupid. If they can do it, it is even easier for us. Awareness of this problem should always be handled intentionally, complacency is never OK. Humility is the antidote to inappropriate normalizing. Stop at “confident,” and leave the “incredibly stupid/cocky” for YouTube stars. Fly safely out there (and often)!

This blog is directly drawn from Todd Simmons's presentation at Redbird Migration 2022. The accident he describes was covered in detail in AOPA ASI's ‘Real Pilot Story from the Field’ series about his Carbon Cub crash. https://youtu.be/NGt6TmkYdUw

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Author: David St. George

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

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