There’s a behavioral phenomenon that explains the outbreak of plane rage

The seat-back goes in the upright position.
The seat-back goes in the upright position.
Image: Courtesy of Jary Romero/via Reuters
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Consider this series of events which took place in the month after a video of a man being dragged off of a United Airlines flight went viral:

Perhaps it’s not surprising that there is the occasional airline-related outburst. Flying has devolved over time from being a genteel way to travel, to a mode of transportation more likely to invoke the feeling that cows have while being herded back to the ranch.

What is different about the examples above, however, is the serial nature of their outbreak combined with the fact that they all came after similar incidents widely seen across TV or social media. To understand the rash of rage on planes, it’s instructive to look through the lens of “behavior contagion.”

Behavior contagion is the phenomenom in which a behavior that was previously socially unacceptable travels from person to person, prompted by exposure via some form of media. Generally, the people who act out already have tendencies towards that behavior. And not all behaviors are equally contagious, if at all.

Early studies on contagion looked at the cumulative effect that watching films with stars who smoked had on young adults. (Think of a dose-response reaction in medicine; the greater the dose, the greater the impact.) To gather data, researchers used what is called the Beach method, named for the Dartmouth statistician who invented it.

In the Beach method, a group of smokers are given a list of movies and asked how many of them they have seen. The movies are scored based on the how much smoking is in each. The results? Multiple studies found that the more a person watches a smoking movie star, the more likely they are to light up.

Researchers have also looked at other trigger behaviors, like portrayals of suicide in movies. Applying the Beach method in a 2013 study, Steven Sackler, one of the top suicide specialists in the world, found that for every additional movie subjects watched that contained a death by suicide, the probability that they had attempted suicide increased by 47%. “This remained the case even after controlling for other confounders,” Sackler told Quartz, “including depression, religiosity, gender and burdensomeness.” (The feeling of being a burden to others.)

An outbreak of behavior contagion is among the reasons that 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s 13-part cliffhanger on teen suicide, has mental-health experts and parents concerned that the show may act as a trigger for teens already at risk.

As for fighting on planes, no one has yet studied whether videos of fist fights on planes are actually triggering people to fist fight on planes. To be sure, this variety of bad behavior is not entirely new. Prior to the United debacle, in December 2016, a flight leaving Minneapolis turned around after 20 minutes to disgorge a couple who had been disruptive to flight attendants. This year in February, two lawyers nearly got more than litigious over an armrest on a flight from Gatwick to Malago.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, the airlines have trained flight crews how to de-escalate tense situations. While they’re at it, they may want to give some extra thought to what’s playing on in-flight entertainment.