A new study finds that pilots may take more risks than most people, but those risks are “calculated” and include enhanced caution while flying.
That’s the takeaway from researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, who set out to study the relationship between risk-taking and aviation.
Led by Yassmin Ebrahim from the university’s School of Aviation, the researchers administered personality tests to 117 students, some from the School of Aviation and others from the university’s general population. The personality tests included the Big 5 inventory, which assesses openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism; a risk-taking scale; and a sensation-seeking scale.
The results showed that pilots scored higher on the thrill and adventure seeking part of the scale compared to the general population.
But pilots also scored higher in self-control factors, indicating they show more self-control than members of the general population.
The pilots in the study also flew a scenario in a Frasca flight simulator, where they were told they were flying to inspect an unsealed runway in a Diamond DA-40.
According to the researchers, the pilots were not given an altitude to inspect the runway, using that number as a measure of their risk-taking.
The researchers found that pilots who were assessed by the personality tests as more imaginative, creative, having an open mind, and having high-risk tendencies remained at a higher average altitude than their less risky counterparts.
“Actual risk-taking was the opposite of that predicted by personality scales,” the researchers noted.
“It is plausible that there are two distinctly different risk-takers — impetuous and calculative risk-takers,” Ebrahim said in the study. “Impetuous risk-takers appear to engage in risky behavior with little thought or concern regarding the potential for harm. They also view hazards less holistically, thereby underestimating the probability of specific risks, and see themselves as less vulnerable to misfortune. Calculative risk-takers, on the other hand, appear to engage in risky behavior, exercising constraint, thus minimizing the potential for harm. They also have an appreciation for the hazard, its potential for harm, and possess a more realistic view of their ability.”
The researchers added that flight experience and the number of hours logged did not affect the amount of risky behavior in pilots.
According to Ebrahim, the study’s results could be used when recruiting and training pilots.
“Knowing that propensity for risk does not always result in risk-taking behavior may allow such organizations to reconsider how they use psychometric scales. By extension, a better understanding of these two factors should also allow for targeted training and education for existing pilot populations, thereby actively increasing safety.”
The study was published in the November 2022 issue of The International Journal of Aerospace Psychology.