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On Being Human – Frailties, Vulnerabilities and Their Effect on Performance


In the last chapter, I proposed that a system is a configuration of assets directed at achieving a goal. We know that technology can fail, and it is clear that rules, regulations and procedures are not infallible either. In this chapter, I want to look at some general factors that affect the ability of humans to function within a system. We start by looking at a cluster of factors that, under the generic label of ‘Personality’, shape us as individuals. We then go on to look at two processes that inhibit performance. Usually labelled ‘stress’ and ‘fatigue’, we will see that, in fact, there are several factors at work here, not all of which are well understood. The outward manifestation of competence in the workplace will be mediated by the processes described in this chapter. There are, though, two sides to this particular story. On the one hand, there is the way the individual experiences and copes with the demands of the world. On the other hand, we need to consider how the workplace, itself, contributes to the problem. I will deal with aspects of the organisation in Chapter 9 but, for now, we will focus on the individual. In the discussion on fatigue, in particular, I will be drawing on findings from surveys I have conducted with line pilots and data collected using the line operations safety audit (LOSA) process (Klinect, 2005). LOSA, as the name implies, is an audit organised using a framework known as threat and error management. Trained observers identify elements in the operational environment that require additional attention on the part of the crew. Known as ‘threats’, these aspects bring complication to the planned task. The response of the crew to the threat is recorded by the observer. The next step is to record any errors made by the crew, how those errors are managed and, finally, whether the outcome of the performance is benign or result in the erosion of safety margins. ‘Error management’, in LOSA terms, starts to look a bit like efficacy in that it throws some light on how crew respond once the performance starts to degrade. Jim Klinect, whose PhD research underpinned the development of LOSA, describes it as ‘an anthropologically-rich narrative’ (personal communication) and that is very much its strength. I start the chapter by looking at the paradoxical concept of supposed individual differences in an apparently predictable framework: personality.

‘Personality’ – How Evolution Shapes Behaviour

Any discussion of human interaction in teams needs to begin with an examination of how evolutionary pressure on a social animal has resulted in consistent repertoires of behaviour. We recognise that humans apparently exercise agency - they can choose how to behave - but it is also a fact that our actions have a degree of predictability. To participate in a group, I have to be able to anticipate, to some degree, how others might respond to my actions. I can then decide whether I need to modify my behaviour based on that calculation. Evolutionary pressure has been at work on our predecessors for millions of years but Homo sapiens emerged just 300,000 years ago. We think that language emerged between 100,000 and 30,000years ago. With the demise of the Neanderthals about 40,000years ago, we became the dominant hominid. In evolutionary terms, it is likely that there has been little fundamental change to our genome in that time. Modern humans may be little more than smart apes in contemporary clothes but the forces that shaped us have been at work for millions of years.

When our predecessors adopted a terrestrial, as opposed to arboreal, lifestyle, they encountered a serious challenge. Weak, quite defenceless and diurnal, early homi- nids needed to form groups during the hours of darkness for protection. Sleeping on the ground left you vulnerable to nocturnal predators and being part of a group offered an element of the defence. Fish form shoals, birds flock together and savannah mammals congregate in herds for the same reason. Many species, though, when forced into proximity show signs of stress, get aggressive and even fight. Early homi- nids were no different. Competition for access to sexual partners and resources, such as food, created hierarchical, status-driven structures maintained by aggressive acts. To maintain social cohesion there was a need to defuse tension. Grooming, laughing, communal eating of cooked food (once we had harnessed fire) and communication all progressively allowed for ever-larger groups of hominids to come together, to collaborate, to hunt large animals or to fight against competing groups (Dunbar, 2014). Even religion can be seen, in its earliest Shamanistic forms, as a communal rebooting of the social system. The evolution of the human eye illustrates social selection in an evolutionary context. Over several millennia, the eye has been shaped to support social living. We have one of the largest ratios of the white sclera to the coloured iris of any animal, and as a result, we are able to derive information about the thinking of others based on our ability to detect the direction of their gaze. Knowledge of where you have directed your attention allows me to make a fairly reliable guess about what is on your mind (Graziano, 2013). Performance in a social group relies on predictability supported by anticipatory priming - our actions are formed by an expectation of what constitutes an adequate response. Therefore, having some idea of what you might be thinking about at the time makes that process more reliable.

The fact that people display fairly recognisable, consistent patterns of behaviour has been long understood. Unfortunately, how best to describe those patterns and how to even get close to a causal explanation has met with serious difficulties. Most people do not act in a random fashion. Behaviour is directed: people act in relation to their immediate environment. What we need to understand is how behaviour is ‘directed’ and for what purpose. The construct we call ‘personality’ is probably the oldest model used to explain this conundrum of consistent trends overlain with individual differences. Personality describes persistent behavioural traits but the rise of social psychology as a discipline gave rise to research into ‘attitudes’. Attitudes are seen as ‘proto-behaviours’: they are ‘tendencies’ to act in a particular way. They are malleable and can be changed whereas ‘personality traits’ are considered to be more enduring.

More recent thinking takes an evolutionary approach. Such models assume that behaviour is, primarily, intended to increase my evolutionary fitness, which is my likelihood of passing on my genes. To that end, the behaviour is adaptive in that the way I generally act, how I act within the social group or in encounters with outsiders, will all have an effect on my probability of survival. Of course, by positioning modern behaviour in an evolutionary timescale forces us to confront the fact that how we act today can only be understood in relation to how people needed to act in order to survive millions of years ago. As we will see with the stress mechanism, some aspects of our evolutionary development have left us maladapted to the modern world, but generally speaking, evolutionary selective pressure can still offer a useful framework for understanding modern behaviour.

Psychobiological models of personality (Zuckerman, 2012) contend that the fundamental template for behaviour is coded in genes and manifested through gene expression. Gene expression simply means that the demonstration of a property is not binary. For example, variation in the height of humans can partly be explained through diet and environment but, also, reflects the way in which the gene for growth is triggered in individuals. As a result, height can be expressed as a normal distribution that reflects the interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Similarly, differences in behaviour probably also reflect the normal distribution of a particular gene complex. A gene-based model of personality implies that behavioural differences can be recognised in physiological differences, and this is proving to be increasingly true. That said, as in the case of height, environmental factors will also have an influence on the manner in which behaviour develops. Schools of thought that assign differences between races and genders to some fundamental genetic force abuse the science with malicious intent. Table 4.1 presents a five-factor model of personality with examples of consistent behavioural expressions.


Personality and Behaviour (Opposite Expressions Implied)




Dominance, assertive, sociable, adventurous, forthright and outspoken. Linked to the functioning of the ascending reticular system in the CNS


Anxiety, depression, guilt and low self-esteem. Only dimension linked to a psychiatric disorder. Linked to seratonin


Impulsivity, sensation/novelty-seeking


Linked to socialisation, cautiousness, self-control v impulsivity, sensation-seeking and antisocial behaviours


Behavioural (fighting), emotional (anger) and attitudinal (hostility) emotional regulation

A psychobiological approach to personality reflects the fact that generic, persistent behavioural clusters are the result of adaptive responses that have, in evolutionary terms, enhanced fitness. These behaviours have proven useful in promoting gene survival. If you look at the dimensions of a personality, it seems that we can identify two broad dimensions: the degree to which we approach the world (exploration) as opposed to our desire to avoid the world (avoidance). Being approachable to strangers, seeking sensation or novelty, and coping with strangeness are all exploratory behaviours that increase the probability of discovering new resources or finding a mate. However, in the extreme, they expose us to risk. High levels of exploratory behaviour will probably be selected out of the gene pool simply because, millions of years ago, death was the likely outcome. On the other hand, excessively cautious behaviour reduced the probability of discovering new food sources, encountering prospective mates, etc. Again, excessively cautious behaviour will be selected out - you live a lonely life and eventually starve to death. We are left with the current repertoire of traits that allow us to engage with the world in a way that gives us a chance of survival, has a range of manifestations that allows us to adapt to circumstances but also afford sufficient predictability to support communal living.

Studies of pilot personality are remarkably rare, and any comparisons between reports are hampered by the use of different measures. Initially, studies were of military pilots, and the focus was on a better prediction of success in training. One recent study of commercial pilots (Mesarosova et al., 2017) found that, on a standard measure, there was a sufficient difference between a group of 591 airline pilots and norms constructed using the general United Kingdom (UK) population to suggest that there was a distinctive pilot personality type. This should not be a surprise given the selection involved in becoming a pilot in the first place. One consistent finding across this and other studies is that pilots tend to score lower on neuroticism than the general population. Mesarosova et al. also found in their study that pilots scored lower on extraversion and openness to experience, which was not consistent with other studies in which military pilots tended to score higher on extraversion. However, of specific interest in the context of this book is evidence of how personality might shape behaviour in an operational context. Behrend et al. (2017) looked at the trait of impulsivity and pilot decision-making. Pilots low on impulsivity were more likely to comply with procedures, but interestingly, high- impulsivity non-compliers reported that they sometimes made decisions outside of procedures in order to avoid worst-case scenarios. Impulsivity did not seem to be affected by training, but more experienced pilots expressed higher levels of indecisiveness which the authors attributed to the fact that the more experienced pilots ‘recognise the uncertain character of the decisive situation and its complexity by delaying their decision’. Finally, in a study of German military helicopter pilots, it was found that those who score higher on extraversion were more likely to continue flight into worsening conditions than those of a more introvert disposition. It seems, then, that aspects of personality may shape the efficacy of performance in a system’s context.

Behaviour is also shaped by the attitudes we possess. Personality traits are generic and relatively stable in disposition, whereas an attitude is a tendency to behave in a particular way in relation to some object in our world. Attitudes are short term and malleable: they are modifiers of behaviour. They possess three component parts: a cognitive component, a conative component and, finally, a behavioural response. The first describes what we know about the object; the second is what we feel; finally, the third is what we actually do. Attitudes can often be changed by providing information, which is to address the cognitive component directly. But, just as ‘personality’ is not a cast-iron guarantee of behaviour, attitudes are not programmed responses. For example, I know that smoking is a health risk, and I do not like smoking or being close to smokers, but I have tried cigarettes in the past, just to see what the fascination is. In a more rigorous experimental example, women who were provided with information about the health benefits of breastfeeding and who stated that they believed breastfeeding was the best method of weaning infants nonetheless still chose to bottle feed their own babies. In Chapter 6, we will look at pilots committing violations. In a sample of LOSA data, I found that some captains chose to continue using procedures they were familiar with when operating a new aircraft type (in this case, A-330 procedures were applied to the A-350 because the pilots were more familiar with the older processes). Those same captains would probably stress the importance of following standard operating procedures. This is an example of an attitude in an aviation context. Interestingly, it is typically captains who demonstrate this behaviour, not first officers (FOs). In a social context, captains have the status that affords them the opportunity to act unilaterally.

The topic of interest here is the idea of procedural compliance. All pilots know that procedural compliance is a requirement, often mandated in regulations, but pilots occasionally believe that ‘the old way was better’ or ‘we could do this a simpler way’. The outcome is labelled as ‘non-compliance’ or a violation, but it is actually a manifestation of the attitude held by the pilots towards ‘the rules’. It is also an example of ‘drift’ as discussed in the previous chapter.

Closely related to attitude is the concept of motivation. Motivation is described as those behaviours directed at achieving desired, or avoiding undesired, goals and can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is drawn from within the task or topic whereas, in the case of extrinsic motivation, the action is driven by external factors. For example, I once interviewed a class of sponsored students at a flight school about their reasons for becoming airline pilots. Some said that they loved flying and always wanted to become a pilot. Their motivation was intrinsic. Others made comments such as ‘my father and grandfather were airline pilots’ or ‘people look up to you if you are an airline pilot’. Their motivation was extrinsic. Studies of performance in education have found that students who possess an intrinsic interest in their subject perform better in exams than students with extrinsic motivation: the subject was chosen because it had to be done, not because the students wanted to do it. Like personality, motivation has clear psychological and physiological mechanisms. Risk aversion is a well-established trait and represents motivation at work. Later in this chapter, we will look at disruption in the workplace. Pilots who find disruptions, or variability, to be an enjoyable part of the job are probably intrinsically motivated by the challenges represented by a demanding work schedule.

Behaviour is also shaped by our level of self-esteem. Broadly speaking, selfesteem captures an individual’s belief in their self-worth. It derives from beliefs about ourselves as people, our relationships with others and our membership of larger social groups. The implication is that action will be moderated in relation to the potential impact on self-worth. For example, a common reason given by junior or inexperienced pilots and cabin crew (and nurses in a hospital setting) for not voicing concern at work is that they do not want to seem ignorant in the eyes of more experienced peers. Self-esteem is linked to subjective well-being and, therefore, is relevant to the discussion later about, among other things, work/life balance.

One final attribute we need to consider is self-awareness. Possibly, a dimension of metacognition, our ability to judge the impact of our performance on others and our willingness to reflect on the causes of unsuccessful interactions will influence our effectiveness. Self-awareness is an internal feedback loop that allows us to assess and modify our behaviour.

In the next section, we will look in more detail at the stress mechanism, and we saw in Table 4.1 that the personality trait of neuroticism is associated with aspects of stress. Those more disposed towards neurotic behaviour are more susceptible to stress. Furthermore, fear, a response to an extreme stressor, can be viewed as a negative incentive salience in a motivational model, that is, I avoid doing things that might expose me to fearful situations. These concepts can be difficult to disentangle, but they all contribute to a view of behaviour having physiological, and ultimately genetic, underpinnings.

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