The Folly of Fools:
The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life

by Robert Trivers

Hierarchy & safety

Consider now an interesting case from a different culture. Fatal accident rates for Korean Airlines between 1988 and 1998 were about seventeen times higher than for a typical US carrier, so high that Delta and Air France suspended their flying partnership with Korean Air, the US Army forbade its troops from flying with the airline, and Canada considered denying it landing rights. An outside group of consultants was brought in to evaluate the problem and concluded, among other factors, that Korea, a society relatively high in hierarchy and power dominance, was not preparing its copilots to act assertively enough. Several accidents could have been averted if the relatively conscious copilot had felt able to communicate effectively with the pilot to correct his errors. The culture in the cockpit was perhaps symbolized when a pilot backhanded a copilot across the face for a minor error, a climate that does not readily invite copilots to take strong stands against pilot mistakes. The consultants argued for emphasizing copilot independence and assertion. Even the insistence on better mastery of English—itself critical to communicating with ground control—improved equality in the cockpit since English lacked in-built hierarchical biases to which Koreans responded readily when speaking Korean. In any case, since intervention, Korean Air has had a spotless safety record. The key point is that hierarchy may impede information flow—two are in the cockpit, but with sufficient dominance, it is actually only one.

A similar problem was uncovered in hospitals where patients contract new infections during surgery, many of which turn out to be fatal and could be prevented by simply insisting that the surgeon wash his (or occasionally, her) hands. A steep hierarchy—with the surgeon unchallenged at the top and the nurses carrying out orders at bottom—was found to be the key factor. The surgeon practiced self-deception, denied the danger of not washing his hands, and used his seniority to silence any voices raised in protest. The solution was very simple. Empower nurses to halt an operation if the surgeon had not washed his hands properly (until then, 65 percent had failed to do so). Rates of death from newly contracted infections have plummeted wherever this has been introduced.

Trivers, Robert (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (pp. 188-189). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Self-Justification (Social Psychology), excerpt, Elliot Aronson.
Cognitive Dissonance (Social Psychology), excerpt, Elliot Aronson.
• Other excerpts coming soon

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