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License to Learn: Managing our agreements

Does this serve your best interest?

Many years ago,I saw half a house moving down the street on a flatbed truck.

Rod MachadoMany years ago,I saw half a house moving down the street on a flatbed truck. My first thought was that divorce is a terrible thing. Then I wondered what the kids looked like.

The fact is that some people get married and file for divorce shortly after. No doubt more than a few agree to marriage knowing that they are not compatible with their future spouse. Assuming a shotgun isn’t involved, why do we make agreements with others despite knowing it’s not in our best interest to do so? The answer to this question will help all of us who fly airplanes better understand why we occasionally behave unwisely under the influence of our peer group.

In 1988, Dr. Jerry Harvey of The George Washington University wrote a book titled The Abilene Paradox. It centers on a family gathering in Coleman, Texas, where four individuals are playing dominoes. Things are going well until Harvey’s father-in-law suggests they all take a bus ride to Abilene, 53 miles north. The others agree and hop on the bus. After consuming a barely edible meal in Abilene, they hop back on the bus for a long, hot, dusty ride back home. Upon their return, the father-in-law (disingenuously) says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

At that point, everyone confesses that they would have preferred to stay home but went along just to make the others happy. The father-in-law says that he only suggested the trip because the others seemed bored.

We’re often reluctant to disagree with members of our group when we feel it threatens our inclusion or social standing in that group (a group is defined as a minimum of two people). Despite our individual nature, we depend on group association for good mental health. Psychology teaches us that we’ll occasionally enter into an improper agreement with others to prevent being shamed, rejected, or abandoned by our group.

Suppose you’re holding short of the runway for takeoff when the controller (a member of your aviation group) says, “Two-One-Three-Two-Bravo, you’re cleared for an immediate takeoff, traffic on short final.” If you’re not mentally prepared for an immediate departure, then don’t agree to take off. Reject the clearance. A pilot might reluctantly agree to quickly throttle up despite knowing he’s unprepared for takeoff. He does so out of fear that his aviation peer group—that means everyone listening on tower frequency—might think his lobes are defective or he is a quart low of the “right stuffing.” The problem is that as Rocket Pants races through a departure, he stands a chance of having his hair parted by another airplane’s Goodyear tire. Feeling shame in front of our group is a powerful motivator.

Disagreeing with the group also means there’s a chance that they might reject or abandon you, resulting in anxiety and depression—a real buzzkill. Let’s say you’re employed as a human cannonball. The new company policy now requires all human cannonballs to be shot into discount nets. You refuse to get fired this way and end up getting fired another way.

Acting sensibly by not agreeing to this policy can have real consequences. Unless a man of your caliber is willing to accept those consequences, then you must be willing to accept the consequences of making an unwise agreement. As Dr. Harvey might say, it’s often easier to get on the bus to Abilene (or get into that cannon) than to do what’s right in the long term.

Our fear of group rejection or abandonment can be lethal in the cockpit of an airplane. Many years ago, three men from a local firefighting company arrived at a nearby airport for a trip to the local ski resort in their friend’s Bonanza F33. This outing had been planned for several months. Unfortunately, extensive fog prevented a visual departure. Despite knowing better, the non-instrument-rated pilot loaded up his friends, departed, and promptly drove his airplane into the side of a nearby mountain. Most likely, the pilot’s “peak” experience resulted from his unwillingness to cancel the trip and risk being shamed, rejected, or abandoned by his friends (his social group).

Properly managing the agreements we make begins by recognizing how our group association influences our decision-making ability. Behaving rationally means asking ourselves if the agreements we’re about to make with others serve our best interest. It also means recognizing that there can be significant consequences to acting sensibly by refusing to get on that bus. Wisdom teaches us that while life might be unfair, it’s not as if death gives us some sort of advantage.

Rod Machado is a CFII who has been instructing for more than 40 years.


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