Problem solvers are survivors

April 4, 1997

As the British Psychological Society meets this week, THES reporters review latest research

People with confidence in their own problem-solving abilities are more likely to survive aeroplane crashes than fellow passengers who are less self-assured.

This is the conclusion of psychology researchers at Nene College in Northampton, who carried out a plane crash simulation to find out the cognitive styles associated with crash survival.

One hundred and seven members of the public were selected for the mock crash. Volunteers were asked to fill in questionnaires, which monitored their problem-solving style, levels of psychological distress and their motivation to achieve or their leadership and status drive and competitiveness.

"They went through all the normal procedures," said Tony Cassidy, who will present the outcome of his research, undertaken with colleague Beverley O'Brien, to this week's conference.

"We recreated the captain's voice. The passengers heard the sound of the plane taxi-ing along the runway and then the take off. Then there was silence.

"Then the captain's voice came on sounding a bit worried, then he started shouting. The sounds of a crash came over the speakers. There was smoke. People had to get out as quickly as possible."

The crash was simulated four times with passengers sitting in different seats. Each participant's success in getting out of the plane was recorded, with the first 50 per cent to escape getting Pounds 5 bonuses.

According to Dr Cassidy, there was a relationship between speed of escape and chance of survival, and problem-solving confidence. "Presumably, they were able to translate their problem-solving ability into practice and act more positively in the situation," he said.

A relationship also existed between achievement motivation and success, with people who are more leadership and status-driven scoring more cash bonuses. "People with strong leadership drive may be more likely to act more quickly," said Dr Cassidy.

No relationship was found between level of stress before the exercise and effectiveness at escape. A third of rescue workers dealing with major disasters are thought to suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Slightly lower incidents of post-traumatic stress are found among rescue workers.

Dr Cassidy said the results of his experiment have important implications for the training of rescue personnel. Training schemes highlighting motivation skills and problem-solving methods were available. There "was a serious aspect" in using the research when selecting people for jobs such as the rescue services.

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