Learning from a Brush with Danger: Evidence that Pilot Learning from Dangerous Incidents is Enabled by Counterfactual Thinking and Hindered by Organizational Accountability

By Michael W. MorrisPaul C. Moore
1998| Working Paper No. 1492

We investigate learning from experience and how it is hindered by threatening accountability. We hypothesize that aviation pilots learn from a “close call” when they respond with self-focused upward counterfactual comparisons - thorughts about how the danger could have been reduced had they acted differently. However, we argue that these self-critical thoughts are less likely among pilots accountable for their performance to organizational supervisors. Converging suport for the hypothesized pattern - that accountability dampens learning from experience through its suppression of self-focused upward counterfactual thoughts - was obtained in experiments with novice pilots on flight simulators and in an analysis of a NASA database of pilot reports about actual dangerous incidents