Learning for a Brush with Danger: How it is Enabled by Counterfactual Thinking and Suppressed by Organizational Accountability

By Michael W. MorrisPaul C. Moore
1999| Working Paper No. 1603

We investigate when and how aviation pilots respond to a near accident by drawing lessons for improved future performance. We hypothesize that individuals learn from a “close call” by imagining how the danger could have been reduced had they acted differently, that is, by constructing a self-focused, upward-directed comparison to the actual outcome. Furthermore, we hypothesize that this mechanism is involved when accountability to organizational superordinates dampens individual learning by making individuals less likely to entertain complex, self-critical thoughts. Support for these hypotheses was obtained with two complementary methods-first, an analysis of responses by experienced pilots to dangerous incidents and, second, experiments measuring responses by novice pilots, randomly assigned to accountability conditions, to dangerous incidents on a flight simulator.