Power Distance and Plane Crashes: The Gladwell Hypothesis

Travis Dixon Key Studies, Social and Cultural Psychology 2 Comments

Can plane crashes be explained by cultural dimensions? Malcolm Gladwell thinks so.
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I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Outliers.” In this book, Gladwell gives an interesting psychological explanation for why some countries have higher rates of plane crashes than others. The “Gladwell Hypothesis,” as it has come to be known, suggests that plane crashes can be explained by looking at cultural values. In particular, the cultural dimension of “power distance.”

Power Distance

Power distance refers to the extent to which people at the bottom of a culture’s hierarchy understand AND accept their position.

Power distance is one of Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions (alongside individualism/collectivism and others). Some cultures rank high in power distance, which means “…the order of inequality and hierarchy is well defined and one’s place in society is known and accepted. In such a society individuals are deferential to their leaders and have a high regard for them.” (Enomoto and Geisler, 2017). In other words, they are cultures with very strict power hierarchies and the people at the bottom know and accept their place. If you think of Britain in the 17th-20th centuries especially, with monarchies, lords, noblemen all the way down to common peasants, this was the epitome of a high power distance culture because the peasants knew they could never be equals to the monarchy and they accepted this.

In more modern societies, Arab countries score very high on power distance, as do many Asian cultures. This means that the people at the bottom of those cultures know and accept their place. On the other hand, countries with low power distance scores place a higher value on equality. People at the bottom of these hierarchies feel they have the power to rise to the top and they are more equal to others even if they are outranked. Generally speaking, European and Western cultures have lower power distance ranks (shout out to New Zealand coming in #4).

If you want to see how your culture ranks in power distance (or other cultural dimensions) compared to other cultures you can use this tool on Hofstede’s website. You can also see a complete list here. It’s interesting to note a loose correlation between power distance and individualism.

Plane Crashes

So how does this explain plane crashes? Gladwell argues that many accidents are avoidable and are actually caused by a combination of an error by the Captain and a reluctance on the behalf of the co-pilot to correct the captain’s error. Or it might be an error in the flight control tower and if the pilots in the cockpit are from a low power distance culture, they might not be assertive enough in telling the control tower what they need. For example, Gladwell recounts a plane crash in which a plane was flying in to New York City from Colombia. The plane was running low on fuel but the control tower at JFK airport in NYC told the pilots they had no space to land yet and they had to circle around the airport. This happened a few times and the pilots were not assertive enough in demanding being able to land. Eventually, the plane ran out of gas and crash landed in Long Island, 16 miles away from the airport. 73 of the 158 passengers died (Gladwell, 2008). This occurred, Gladwell argues, because the Colombian pilots come from a relatively high power distance culture (a score of 64/120) they did not feel confident enough to argue against the acerbic instructions from the control tower.

In this example, we are looking at how power distance influences communication. In high power distance cultures, people of inferior rank are less willing to openly communicate and even challenge their superiors. In a plane cockpit, this means junior co-pilots are less willing to openly communicate with their senior pilots. This increases the chances of miscommunication and when other factors also go wrong, it can result in the plane crashing.

In his chapter, “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” Gladwell summarizes numerous other examples of plane crashes that he hypothesizes are due to power distance values. But is this just anecdotal evidence, or is there some more empirical evidence to support these findings?

According to the Gladwell hypothesis, power distance influences communication in the cockpit and this can cause plane crashes. (Image Wikicommons, credit: http://www.roletschek.at/)

Key Study: Culture and Plane Crashes – A Cross-Country Test of the Gladwell Hypothesis (Enomoto & Geisler, 2017)

A 1993 study by Boeing found a correlation between cultural dimensions and plane crashes. They found that high power distance cultures had more crashes, whereas high individualistic cultures had less. However, these studies didn’t control for other factors like Gross Domestic Product (GDP – a measure of a country’s wealth) and weather conditions. In 2017, Enomoto and Geisler conducted another study to see if there was support for the hypothesis that culture is linked with plane crashes while  also controlling for other factors.

Some airlines have used cultural dimensions and their link with communication to improve safety. This is another example of the benefits of studying the origins of a problem to improve it.

Methods:

  • Plane crashes from 68 different countries between 1970-2012 were analyzed.
  • Data was also gathered for each country on their:
    • GDP
    • Levels of education
    • Aircraft maintenance
    • Cultural dimensions scores (including power distance and individualism/collectivism).
  • Multi-regression analyses were conducted to see if culture was related to plane crashes, even when other variables were controlled for.

Results:

  • The results showed that “…power distance was found to be significant and positively related to number of plane accidents, even after controlling for flights, per-capita GDP, and weather conditions.”
  • The results also showed that there was a negative relationship between individualism and plane crashes – the more individualistic a country was, the lower their rates of plane crashes.

Conclusions & Applications:

  • These findings can be used to explain how culture and cultural dimensions can influence behaviour. The behaviour in this case is “communication,” that is, communication between the junior pilots and senior pilots. As the researchers explain, “…the more deferential less experienced juniors are to more experienced seniors, the more mitigated the speech will be from the less experienced pilot and the greater the likelihood of miscommunication in the cockpit.” In other words, if junior pilots don’t have the confidence to contradict or challenge their superiors it increases the chances of an accident.
  • The researchers explain the relationship between individualism and plane crashes by also linking this to power distance, as countries “…that rank high in individualism such as the United States, individuals speak up and say what is on their mind, giving the U.S. its low score in power distance. Having junior pilots who are not afraid to point out the mistakes of their superiors, makes for safer flying.” (pg. 288). So individualism also affects communication between pilots, which reduces accidents.

Exam Advice: The above explanation of power distance and plane crashes could be used in IB Psychology exams as long as their is emphasis placed on the role of communication. If the power distance is only linked to plane crashes with no focus on communication, the answer becomes less psychological and more sociological. (Power Distances influences Communication which influences Plane Crashes). Personally, as a teacher I’d stick with other examples relating to individualism/collectivism, but if you’ve got disengaged kids this fascinating example might hook them in and keen them engaged.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • An assumption being made in the above study is that the plane crashes are occurring because of poor communication based on power distance. Why is this a risky assumption to make?
  • The above argument is saying the relationship between power distance and plane crashes is because of communication. Can you think of alternative explanations for this relationship?

Lesson Ideas

1. Testing the Hypothesis: Have students read the above blog post. This acts as the hook to set-up the lesson. They then try to conduct some of their own research to see if the stats on airline safety and plane crash records are consistent with the Gladwell hypothesis. Plane crash data is easily found online and can be correlated wtih data from Hofstede’s website used to see if there’s a link.

2 Explaining the Relationship: Before students read this blog post, introduce the connection between culture and plane crashes. This video makes for an excellent hook and you can introduce the hypothesis. Students then do research from only this summary of Power Distance (so they don’t find this blog post or other sites) and see if they can come up with an explanation of the connection between cultural dimensions and plane crashes by themselves. They can check their own explanations after reading this blog post and/or doing some more research.

3. Personal Power Indexes: If you’re a student and you want to know if you have a low or high power distance orientation, just think about this: how likely would you be to question your teacher over a grade they gave you on an assignment, if you thought it was unfair? If you’re very unlikely,  chances are you’re from a high power distance culture. If you’d do it without hesitating, it’s more likely low power distance. Does my hypothesis work? Let me know in the comments if you wish.

 

I’m pleased I know about Power Distance. It explained a lot as being a Kiwi living in Japan I often get raised eyebrows at the direct line of questions I submit to our Administration, as it is seen as being disrespectful. I had to explain in a meeting that “I respect people, not positions.”

 

References

  • Gladwell, M. (208). Outliers: the story of success. New York, New York: Back Bay Books.
  • Enomoto, C. E., Geisler, K. R.. (2017). Culture and Plane Crashes: A Cross-Country Test of The Gladwell Hypothesis. Economics and Sociology, 10(3), 281-293. doi:10.14254/2071-789X.2017/10-3/20

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  1. Pingback: Why Power Distance is the Deadly Poison? – Mind's Sanctuary

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