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Posts tagged ‘value attribution’

How to Explain the Disaster at Tenerife

On March 27, 1977 the deadliest disaster in aviation history took place on the Spanish island of Tenerife. In the midst of take off, going approximately 160 mph, KLM flight 4805 collided with Pan Am flight 1739 half way down the runway, killing 583 people. The KLM captain was Jacob Van Zanten, KLM’s chief flight instructor who had just returned from a six month safety course for commercial pilots. The subsequent investigation concluded that Van Zanten took off without clearance, thereby causing the crash. How could such a credited and experienced pilot make such a catastrophic mistake?

The events that preceded the accident were a recipe for disaster. A terrorist bomb had exploded at Gran Canaria International Airport, forcing several planes to divert to Tenerife, a small airport not used to handling large commercial jets. The control tower was understaffed, their English was weak, and a heavy fog had set it that prevented Van Zanten and his crew from seeing no more than 300 meters. All of these inputs contributed to Van Zanten making the fateful decision to takeoff without permission from the control tower.

The accident was also very preventable. Van Zanten could have doubled checked with the control tower or waited for the fog to lift. However, his emotions got the best of him and his lack of patience cost him his life, and the lives of others. An expert with years of experience makes a rookie mistake and turns out to be flat-out wrong. Why?

It turns out that there are a lot of answers to this question (mistakes and errors, especially those having to do with the aviation business, are hot topics in the popular psychologist literature), and I have seen the Tenerife disaster comes up in three books: The Invisible Gorilla (p. 20), Being Wrong (p. 303), and Sway (p. 10-24). While Invisible Gorilla and Being Wrong mention Tenerife anecdotally, Sway spends several pages explaining the anatomy of the disaster with three principles:

Loss aversion (our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid possible losses), value attribution (our inclination to imbue a person or thing with certain qualities based on initial perceived value), and the diagnosis bias (our blindness to all evidence that contradicts our initial assessment of a person or situation).

Sway’s explanations seem good enough, but it bothers me to see something like an airline disaster be explained by a few psychological principles. In isolation, each of the three principles make sense and have been empirically demonstrated a number of times. However, when it comes to something much more complex, like an airline disaster involving a huge number of inputs, I am skeptical of the explanatory power of a few psychological tendencies. In other words, aren’t there more forces at work than loss aversion, value attribution, and the diagnosis bias?

What about confirmation bias – the tendency to look for what confirms our beliefs and to ignore what contradicts our beliefs while disregarding the truth.You could say that in the minutes before van Zanten took off he only looked for indications of a safe take-off and ignored indications of a dangerous take-off.

Then there is cognitive dissonance – the tendency to hold on to an erroneous belief in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence i.e., doomsdayers. You could also say that as van Zanten became more committed to taking off, it became increasingly difficult for him to change his mind.

Could there be more? Or are we missing something?

The point I am driving at here is similar to the one I made a few posts ago regarding Joshua Bell. That is, what does it mean for psychology to explain real-world phenomena? Put differently, what does it mean for something to be “explained” or “understood?” (and keep in mind van Zanten wouldn’t be able to help us nearly as much as you think, self-reports are almost never accurate.) I don’t know; but it is important that the popular psychology literature doesn’t get too gung-ho with their psychological explanations. 

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Explaining Joshua Bell

In January of 2007, the Washington Post asked world-renown violinist Joshua Bell to perform the 43-minute piece Bach piece “Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin,” in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station – one of D.C.’s busiest subway stations – during the heart of rush hour. Joshua was used to performing in front of sold out crowds, filled with ambassadors and state leaders, in the finest concert halls across the globe. He is generally considered one of the best violinists alive, and his talents pay him substantial dividends. However, as over a thousand morning commuters passed by Joshua on that cold morning in January, his credentials were humbly irrelevant. To everyone’s surprise, The Post found that, “of the 1,097 people who walked by, hardly anyone stopped. One man listened for a few minutes, a couple of kids stared, and one woman, who happened to recognize the violinist, gaped in disbelief.” Many were expecting Joshua to cause music pandemonium with his free subway appearance, but his performance garnered no more attention than any other street musician. Gene Weingarten, the author of the piece, went on to win a Pulitzer prize, but psychologists and laypeople alike were left asking the same question: why didn’t people stop and listen?

Bell’s Washing Post story is intriguing, unique, and mysterious, but the most interesting aspects of it are the psychological explanations that proceeded it. Psychologists love to explain things, and Bell’s story was ripe for the picking. So it’s no surprise that popular psychology literature has used his story in a number of ways to make a number of different points.


One instance comes from the 2008 New York Times Bestseller Sway, where authors Ori and Rom Brafman argue that people did not notice Joshua Bell because of a psychological phenomenon called “value attribution.” Value attribution is our tendency to attribute the value, goodness, or authenticity of something to its context instead of the thing itself. It explains why we would not recognize a million dollar work of art if it was not in a world-class museum or, conversely, why we would take a forgery to be authentic if it was placed in the MET. Like art, the Brafman’s contend that it because the DC commuters don’t attribute world-renowned musicians to a street preforming setting that Bell went unnoticed.

Another instance comes from the 2009 book The Invisible Gorilla, which is centered around the famous “Invisible Gorilla experiment,” done by psychologists Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons. In it, subjects viewed a 30 second clip of two teams of four, one dressed in white and the other in black, passing around basketballs. The task was simple: count how many passes the white team makes. Most people got it correct – 15 passes. However, this is not what Chabris and Simons were testing. While the two teams are passing basketballs to each other, a student dressed in a full gorilla suit walks into the middle of the scene, stops, faces the camera, thumps his chest a few times, and walks off. When subjects were asked if they noticed anything unusual, roughly half said nothing of the gorilla. Chabris and Simons argue that people did not notice Bell for the same reason they did not notice the gorilla. That is, although it does not feel like it, “we experience far less of our visual world than we think we do,” as they assert.

Don’t think so? In a similar experiment, researchers approached pedestrians with a map asking for directions. While the pedestrians were busy looking at the map, two other researchers carried a large painting between the researcher asking for directions and the pedestrian providing assistance. When they passed, the researcher asking for directions crouched behind the painting, only to be replaced by a researcher who was carrying the painting. Even though the replacement researchers were of different, age, height, and in some cases, gender and race, many of the pedestrians failed to notice anything different (video here).

Joshua Bell illustrates just how difficult it is to understand brain and behavior. The descriptions in Sway and The Invisible Gorilla make sense – we do tend to assess things relative to their context and our attention is much more limited than we think – but they make you realize how complicated human behavior is. When psychologists try to describe human phenomena, their explanations come from a whole number of avenues. This is because unlike a math problem, human phenomena such as the Joshua Bell case do not have objective answers. 

Perhaps it is possible to describe human behavior in the same way that we describe an addition problem. What would such an explanation look like? Would it have to include every neuron and atom? What more can be said about Joshua Bell? Food for thought, you tell me.

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