It’s a fancy name for “get-there-itis” — plan continuation bias, which is an unconscious cognitive bias to continue the original plan in spite of changing conditions — and it can be deadly for general aviation pilots.
Plan continuation bias was identified in a NASA Ames human factors study from 2004 which analyzed 19 airline accidents from 1991 to 2000 that were attributed to crew error. Out of those, almost half involved plan continuation bias.
The problem is in how it can manifest itself. The study offered that it becomes stronger as you near completion of the activity (e.g., approach your destination). It essentially impedes pilots from recognizing that they need to change their course of action and, because it’s unconscious, it often goes undetected.
It can also block subtle cues that conditions have changed. Situational awareness can become compromised in these scenarios, blinding the pilot from the outcome he is rapidly marching toward. It is probably no surprise that rapidly changing conditions also played a major role in many of these cases.
The NASA study highlighted critical decision-making breakdowns, like the resistance to divert to an alternate airport or the refusal to go-around. Remember, plan continuation bias gets stronger the closer you are to home.
A study done by the University of Illinois discusses the coupling of plan continuation bias with other biases, such as confirmation bias. The confirmation bias is best described as an inclination to seek out cues that support previously established hypotheses and disregard cues that support a competing belief. You can start to see how these human factors maladies can begin to stack up against you.
Plan continuation bias also hitches up with another problem, which is the human condition that says, “reactive responding is easier than proactive thinking.”
So once you get too far down the wrong road, the biases get stronger, task saturation kicks in, situational awareness goes bye-bye, and you are totally defensive, no longer thinking ahead of the airplane.
If we had the resources we could certainly detect this in a significant number of general aviation accidents from our past and present. There is no doubt that “get-there-itis” has brought down many an airman.
We all know that flying is as much cerebral as it is stick-and-rudder skills. These studies highlight the need to spend an equal amount of time making sure we are just as prepared mentally.
Here are some mitigation strategies that I have found useful. It’s all about awareness and resisting human nature – easier said than done.
Know before you go: Know that you can suffer from plan continuation bias and look for signs that you are too fixated on getting there
Have good options: Having alternatives takes a great deal of the pressure off of needing to stick to the original plan. Always leave yourself an out.
Think ahead: Evaluate the possible negative outcomes when making your decisions. Think about what could happen if you pressed on.
Don’t procrastinate: Make decisions earlier, not later. Making the call to change course, divert, or go-around earlier is almost always the safer option.
Be responsible: Think about your passengers or your loved ones on the ground. Sometimes a little reality check can help overcome your instincts when that decision to discontinue needs to be made.
Plan continuation bias is an internal threat that we can manage if we maintain the correct mindset regarding the consequences of our actions.
Being a pilot is an awesome privilege, but we must be constantly striving to improve our craft.