“Ladies and gentlemen, we would like the next few minutes of your attention as we will be showing our safety demonstration and emergency instructions.”– said one of the cabin crew members shortly before flight OS356 took off. As the announcement started, I adjusted my noise-cancelling headphones and concentrated on the chosen take-off song playing on repeat: “Zombie”by Maître Gims.
For the next two hours, my life and safety would be in the hands of the airplane crew, but if something went wrong, I (and my life) depended on the key information delivered during those few minutes I deliberately disregarded.
Wait a sec! I deliberately disregarded a safety warning, which could eventually save my life? Why?
As the flight attendants kept on performing the safety demonstrations in front of me, I heard nothing but Maître Gims playing the following words in my ears:
“Ma raison somnolait. Ma conscience me conseillait.
Mon subconscient m’déconseillait. Mais mon esprit veut s’envoler”
( “My reason was asleep. My conscience advised me.
My subconscious advised me against it. But my mind wants to fly away” )
Something bugged me. So I took my computer out of the backpack and started writing some lines. In that moment, I wondered: Do I ignore safety warnings?
Four intense (really intense!)months passed since flight OS356 took off and safely landed back in Vienna. Eventful months these were and lots of thoughts have come and gone in respect to the question I asked myself. As I dwelled in the subject for a while, conclusions started to take shape.
Initially, it came to my attention that it is common sense that we, humans, have an innate instinct towards survival. However, while this instinct does exist, we are also vulnerable to a weakness in our psychological decision-making process, which consciously or not, leads us to a constant cost/benefit analysis of the decisions we take, including those involving risk-taking. That is to say, if the perceived danger is greater than the benefit, a person is more inclined to comply with the risk warnings; whereas if the benefit is perceived to be greater than the danger, a person’s compliance to these risk warnings are susceptible to decline.
Taking this concept a step further, I landed on some writings about the “Risk Homeostasis Theory”. Coined by Gerald Wilde, this concept suggests that a person’s calculation of risk is based on the so-called “target risk”, in other words, a person’s perceived acceptable level of risk. This theory states that we take into account the expected benefits and costs of both the risky as well as safe behavior and try to maximize our gain by taking additional risk in case the perceived risk is below the target risk as well as minimize our loss by behaving safely in case the perceived risk is above our acceptable level.
Taking this theory into account, we can note that a safety warning only influences us to act with care if it manages to convince us to perceive that our behavior would be more risky if we do not pay attention to it. Likewise, a safety warning can actually lead us to behave more risky or take less precautions if the warning sign is perceived as exaggerating the danger, for our perceived level of danger is below the actual level. (Sounded complicated? Read it once or twice again slowly before you continue!)
BAAAM! It kicked in! I suddenly found a parallel between the risk-taking thoughts I had been reading about and an ambivalent intimate struggle of mine: insecurity due to (a) failure and (b) perfectionism. And this is why.
[Reminder to self: read the last two paragraphs 3 times before continuing.]
Well, being the product of a single-mother/only-child upbringing, I went a long and lonesome way to learn how to deal with such insecurity issues. For instance, it caused me to spend a reasonable amount of time monitoring my body and my environment for signs that suggested that something was about to go off – that failure was imminent. I struggled to be able to find the balance between allowing my mind to rest and pushing it to do more to protect myself.
As a result of this condition, I unconsciously taught myself to identify warning signs of failure. Moreover, I learned to create my very own safety warnings as self-defence mechanisms. And this is, paradoxically, where I failed – for in doing so, I was too unkind to myself.
As the risk-taking theory indicated, safety warnings can lead us to behave more risky or take less precaution if the warning sign is perceived as exaggerating the danger. And this is where I failed big time – by allowing my defense mechanism to create exaggerated warning signs.
In doing so to overprotect myself, I ended up believing in the illusion that the risk was much lower than the actual danger and in terms pushed me to take even higher risks. Somewhat like a high-risk bet with high odds, the result was a substantial reward in case of success. On the other hand, I ended up maximizing my loss when failure did actually occur – which caused insecurity to take over, only getting me stuck in a vicious circle.
After dwelling in this topic for some time, I wrote this text as a reminder of the self-knowledge journey I went through. I always say I am not afraid of my weaknesses. I am afraid of not being able to see them, or even worse, of ignoring them. And this is exactly the stage I was in when I boarded flight OS356 – unaware of the fact that I was dealing with safety warnings the wrong way all along. As aforementioned, warnings can desensitize us by overstating the danger, decreasing therefore our precaution and increasing the likelihood of more risk taking. And this is exactly where I was: dealing with the wrong assessments of levels of risk, danger, reward and loss.
In doing this exercise, I am expecting to allow myself to be able to improve my cognitive skills to assess these from a more rational point of view and not simply letting my unconscious ability to calculate the benefits and costs of risk-taking give me the result to the equation. Moreover, I am looking forward to lowering the bars of my very own safety warnings, allowing myself to deal with real levels of risk and not gambling for unnecessary higher winnings. After all, the stake is high. The stake is ME!