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Interview with Leon James

Wall Street Journal  Scott McCartney April 30, 2008

Psychology of Passenger Behavior on Flights

Dr. Leon James interviewed by Scott McCartney who covers the airline industry for The Wall Street Journal, writing a weekly column called ``The Middle Seat.'' April 29, 2008


I'm working on a story about disgusting things that happen on flights -- people seem to do things and leave things on planes that they'd never do in other public settings. I know your field is more about road rage and air rage, but I'm wondering if you might have some thoughts on more general behavior aboard flights - why people do disgusting and disruptive things, why they sometimes seems to have little regard for fellow passengers or why people have little patience for fellow passengers and their needs?


How people behave in various places constitutes a social practice. Some behavior practices today are polite and public spirited in orientation, and others are rude and brutish. For example, some students on our campus don’t flush in restrooms, while others do. Some husbands and male children don’t lower the toilet seat after use, while others acquire the new practice of lowering the seat in deference to the next user. One practice I have had to acquire in my home is to leave the sink dry and spotless after each use. Why did it take me years to acquire this new practice? Why do passengers on board trash their seating area and mess up the lavatories?


After years of research and thinking about this, I have found that the answer has to do with training for caring. Or rather, the lack of it. We acquire most of our basic and general practices during our socialization years as toddles, children, and teenagers. The adult is a consequence of the child and adolescent. Such as is the child, such is the adult in manners and civility. For instance, in the area of driving manners behind the wheel in traffic, we are socialized into aggressiveness, competition, and hostility, even violence, during our childhood and adolescence years. The back seat of the car is what I call road rage nursery. Infants in the back seat absorb the verbal road rage and emotional hostility in the voice of the parent or adult who is behind the wheel. Children on board an airplane are socialized into the behavioral practices that they witness around them. But more than that: they are socialized into the affective practices that are responsible for these negative and anti-social behaviors.


The act of entering a lavatory on board of an airplane and finding it in a repelling used condition creates an emotional and psychological shock. We are not only repelled and annoyed, but we also we feel aggressed on. When people don’t clean up after themselves, they are not only breaking rules, norms, standards, and expectations. Lavatory bandits are aggressive, hostile, dangerous passengers. They create a serious and scary health issue for others. Not caring about imposing dangerous risks on others, is the definition of being an aggressive driver and an aggressive passenger. These are hostile acts that endanger the life of others. They are also anti-community spirited, thus evil.


The solution is universal training for caring. We need a Civility Curriculum from K through 12. George Washington wrote in his diary that “Civility is the glue that holds the nation together.” A Civility Curriculum consists of teaching affective skills that include caring and respect for others in public places. Without such training in childhood people grow up with a resistance to being trained for caring. This erodes the forces of community building and integration in a nation. So it is essential. For the current adult population training for caring has to be implemented through social networks, including work, home, social groups, etc. Institutions and government need to offer incentives for people who maintain high cleanliness and friendliness standards in public places.


People can also do this on their own, if they are motivated. I recommend the Three Step Method that I use for driving personality makeovers – AWM. First, you acknowledge (A) that you have bad manners and exhibit aggressive passenger behaviors. Second, you witness (W) yourself being an aggressive passenger by monitoring how you mess up the seating area or the lavatory, including being noisy or disruptive. You need to make notes in a diary about the details. For example, you see yourself stand up and block the line of vision to the TV screen. Now instead of acting like you are hurrying to get out of the way with an apologetic smile, as some polite and caring people do, you see yourself taking your time and thinking, “Hey, I am paying for this flight. And it’s not cheap.” Later you will have to get to the third step and modify (M) this uncaring tendency that we often use as form self-validation. People act like they are getting less for their money if they have to spend effort in keeping a place clean and comfortable for others. This comes from a socialized practice, but people are not aware of this. They just think that that’s hoiw they feel and have the right to feel.

See also: The Psychology of Air Rage Prevention

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