Field of Science

Why a People Don't Panic During a Plane Crash

A lot has been made about the the crew and passengers of United Flight 1549 and their failure to panic when their plane landed in the Hudson. For instance, here is the Well blog at the New York Times:
Amanda Ripley, author of the book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why” (Crown, 2008), notes that in this plane crash, like other major disasters, people tend to stay calm, quiet and helpful to others.

“We’ve heard from people on the plane that once it crashed people were calm — the pervading sound was not screaming but silence, which is very typical ... The fear response is so evolved, it’s really going to take over in a situation like that. And it’s not in your interests to get hysterical. There’s some amount of reassurance in that I think.’’
On a different topic, but along the same lines, the paper's Week in Review section discusses the fact that most people are coping with the recent economic collapse reasonably well, all things considered:
Yet experts say that the recent spate of suicides, while undeniably sad, amounts to no more than anecdotal, personal tragedy. The vast majority of people can and sometimes do weather stinging humiliation and loss without suffering any psychological wounds, and they do it by drawing on resources which they barely know they have.
Should we be surprised?
This topic has come up here before. People are remarkably bad at predicting what will make them happy or sad. Evidence shows that while many people think having children will make them happy, most people's level of happiness actually drops significantly after having children and never fully recovers even after the kids grow up. On the other end of the scale, the Week in Review article notes that
In a recently completed study of 16,000 people, tracked for much of their lives, Dr. Bonanno, along with Anthony Mancini of Columbia and Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics, found that some 60 percent of people whose spouse died showed no change in self-reported well-being. Among people who’d been divorced, more than 70 percent showed no change in mental health.
This makes a certain amount of sense. Suppose the mafia threatens to burn down your shop if you don't pay protection money, and suppose you don't pay. They actually have very little incentive to follow through on the threat, since they don't actually want to burn down your shop -- what they want is the money. (This, according to psychology Steve Pinker, is one of the reasons people issue threats obliquely -- "That's a nice shop you have here. It'd be a shame if anything happened to it." -- so that they don't have to follow through in order to save face.)

Similarly, biology requires that we think we'll like having children in order to motivate us to have them. Biology also requires that we think our spouse dying would ruin our lives, in order to motivate us to take care of our spouse. But once we have children or our spouse dies, there is very little evolutionary benefit accrued by carrying through on the threat.

Finding the idea of a plane crash very scary: useful.
Mass panic and commotion during a crash: not so much.

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