Decision Making in Aviation

Decision Making

Its important for individuals within the aviation industry, from pilots to managers, to understand how the human brain works when it makes decisions.

Operators within aviation, such as pilots and air traffic controllers, need to(Aircare, 2006[3]):

  • Recongise the critical role of decision making.
  • Be more aware of when they actually make a decision.
  • Understand how the brain works when it makes decisions.
  • Recognise what helps and hinders decision making.

A Decison Making Model

There is a tendancy to make decisions automatically rather than taking a systematic approach. It is still important to monitor yourself, and when possible follow this decision making model (Smith, 2002[2]):

Detect - Detect that a change has occured
Estimate - Estimate the need for action to adapt to the change
Choose - Choose the most desirable outcome
Identify - Identification of actions which will successfully control the change
Do - Carry out the chosen actions
Evaluate - Evaluate the effect of the action/s

Factors Affecting Decision Making

Physical Fitness

There are many physical factors that can affect the efficiency of our brain. Pilots should follow the IMSAFE model, as a personal pre-flight inspection process.

I - Illness
M - Medication
S - Stress
A - Alcohol and Drugs
F - Fatigue
E - Eating and Drinking

One thing that is important to note is that many pilots do not realise how much dehydration can affect them. Take a water bottle with you in flight, and make sure you keep drinking water through out the day.


Stress can have a huge affect on our ability to process information.

There are many things that can help to reduce stress incuding:


  • Getting a good nights sleep
  • Looking after your physical fitness
  • Plan, Plan, Plan
  • Back up plans
  • Dont put yourself in a situation which may be stressful in the first place - Avoid weather such as thunderstorms/ Turbulence, fly a route which avoids certain stressful situtations.


  • Control the physical environment (E.g. Temperature, wear sunglasses, etc.)
  • Manage workload by using times of low activity to plan ahead and prepare.
  • Shed unnecessary work items during high workload times (e.g. general chatter among crew members is usually ceased during take off and landing. This is called a "sterile cockpit". Information specific to the task is the only thing discussed.)

Attitudes and Biases

Decisions are more commonly made based on how we feel, rather than logic. This can be affected by our attitude at the time. For example, many pilots are very goal-orientated, and tend to suffer from "get-home-itis".
Pilots need to be self aware, and make sure they are not displaying a hazardous attitude.
Another emotional factor that can affect our decisions is embarrassment. Once a decision is made (for example to take off into marginal weather) it can be easy to recalibrate your risk criteria, and accept larger risks than you would normally.

Confirmation Bias

(See confirmation bias.)
Gathering information to support your pre-formed conclusions about what is happening, rather than seeing the world as it is (Wikipedia 2009[1]).

Optimism Bias (Wishful thinking)

A tendency to be optimistic about the future, rather than logically assessing the facts. A common example would be pilots proceding into poor weather on the bases that "…it will probably improve" rather than thinking about the fact that it may get worse. (Wikipedia 2009[1])

Group Think/ Peer Pressure

(See Group Behaviour)
A tendency to conform to what other members of the group are saying rather than following your own judgement.

Hindsight Bias

This refers to our judgements about events that already have happened. This occurs when an event has happened, and we are overconfident that it would have happened inevitabley. The hindsight bias demonstrates that we often reconstruct the past so that it matches our present knowledge (Schacter, 2001 as cited in Matlin, 2009[5]).


Heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings and machines (Wiki, 2012[4])

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic supposes that whether we judge a sample as likely, depends upon how similar it is to the sample population from which it was selected. For example, a pilot may look at an altimeter reading and see a reading of 22430 and consider it normal, whereas a reading of 22222 may cause the pilot to double check that it is correct.

Availability Heuristic

We use this heuristic when we estimate a frequency or probability based upon how accessible it is to think of the relevant information. People judge frequency by assessing whether they can easily retrieve relevant examples from memory or whether this memory retrieval is difficult. (Matlin, 2009[5]). Matlin (2009) makes the example of a student at a university being asked whether there were more students there from city A or city B. The student doesn't know the exact statistics but personally knows more people from city A so speculates that as his answer.

Recognition Heuristic

This is similar to the availability heuristic, and operates usually when you have to compare the relative frequency of two options or categories. "If one of two objects is recognized and the other is not, then infer that the recognized object has the higher value with respect to the criterion" (Wiki, 2012[6])

Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic

This is where a person has an assumption or approximation (their anchor) and as we receive more information we 'adjust' is accordingly. This heuristic shows that people tend to stick to and build from their original idea or belief, as opposed to questioning it.

Tips for Good Decision Making

(Aircare, 2006[3])

  • Teach yourself to recognise when a decision is made and recongnise your personal accountability for every decision.
  • Try to follow a logical and systematic process when making decisions, such as using the DECIDE model.
  • Be nice to your brain - Give it rest, unload your baggage, and dont fly with residual alcohol in your system or while tired.
  • Dont overload your brain - Make as many decisions as possible before the flight
  • Prepare yourself for dealing with the unexpected - Plan before the start of the flight
  • Remember your priorities: Aviate - Navigate - Communicate
  • Have standard abort rules - In the air it is easier to persuade yourself to do something risky.
  • Follow company standard operating procedures.
  • Try and be as self aware as possible, monitor for hazardous attitudes.
  • Use technology to your advantage, but dont rely on it to get you out of a sticky situation.

Hazardous Attitudes in Aviation

(See Aviation Knowledge site: Hazardous Attitudes)

1. Wikipedia (2009). Decision Making Retrieved 08 October 2009 from the World Wide Web: Wikipedia
2. Smith, D. (2002) Introduction to Aeronautical Decision Making. Retrieved 08 October 2009 from the World Wide Web: ADM
3. Aircare (2006) An Aviators Guide to Good Decision Making. Welligton, NZ: Aircare
4. Wikipedia. (2012). Heuristic. Retrieved 17 August, 2012, from:
5. Matlin, M. W. (2009). Cognition. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
6. Wikipedia. (2012). Recognition heuristic. Retrieved 17 August, 2012, from:

Want to know more?

Wikiofscience - ADM
A scientific look at the theory behind Aeronautical Decision Making
Wikiofscience - Hazardous Attitudes
A scientific look at the theory behind Hazardous Attitudes.
Aviation Knowledge - Stress in Aviation
An indepth look at stress in aviation, and ways of coping with this.
Wiki: Representativeness Heuristic
Further infromation on the representativeness heuristic
Wiki: Availability heuristic
Further information on the availability heuristic
Anchoring-and-Adjustment Heuristic
Further information on the anchoring-and-adjustment Heuristic

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