Why Are People Jerks On Planes? There’s A Scientific Explanation

Anyone who travels often has seen them (or been one of them). Jerks on planes abound in the stressful world of air travel, and now scientists say there is a rational explanation for this irrational behavior.

Several reasons contribute to people behaving like jerks on planes. One of them is the less than comfortable accommodations offered. Cramped quarters, less than ideal bathroom facilities, no food, and generally awful surroundings where one gives up their dignity puts people in a bad mood — even before they arrive at the airport.

The folks at Thrillist decided to ask the experts — two psychologists and a veteran pilot — why people behave the way they do in the age of the Knee Defender. The findings are not surprising.

When people are not in control, the result is chaos. Not knowing how long security lines will be, wondering if your luggage will arrive at your destination with you, removing your shoes, and having your belongings inspected by x-rays are just some of the things that make travelers feel out of control. Not to mention the mere fact of getting on board one of the millions of aging planes that make up the American aviation industry.

“Few things can leave you feeling less in control than flying — someone else is driving, you can only get up when you have permission, there’s a lot of noise, you’re often left in the dark,” clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula told Thrillist. “When we feel out of control, our emotions get out of control too, and anger and frustration are going to lead the fray. It’s a recipe for rage.”

Dr. Michael Brein, a self-proclaimed Travel Psychologist, says that not respecting boundaries in the confined space of our seats can bring us over the edge. Brein adds that not having an escape route makes matters even worse, and can even turn a perfectly pleasant person into a major jerk.

“You’re forced into unwanted intimacy and forced to adapt. You try to withdraw as much as you can, but in an aircraft and with the frustrations and anxiety that accompany flight, all the stress and pent up anxiety and frustration on top of having your personal space infringed upon leads to rage.”

Brein also suggests that bad behavior is contagious, and may lead to more or worse bad behavior. It has happened to all of us. Someone starts yelling at the flight attendant, and we either join in and pile on them or others do.

“Humans naturally mimic their surroundings to fit in,” Brein says.

According to Patrick Smith, who has first hand knowledge — as an airline pilot since 1990, who now blogs for Ask the Pilot — says that this behavior is nothing new, even if it is making headlines in news reports. Smith suggests that cheaper airline tickets have led to a change in demographics of the flying public.

“In previous decades, when flying was a lot more expensive and exclusive, you didn’t have gangs of inebriated college kids flying off to Cancun for the weekend. Right or wrong, passengers don’t feel an obligation to behave as politely as they once did.”

One of the biggest culprits for badly behaved passengers is alcohol consumption and prescription medication, according to Smith. Brein agrees, and adds that the combination will only bring out more jerks on planes.

“Booze and airplanes are not a good idea. It’s like having a bar where there isn’t quite enough oxygen; the effects of alcohol tend to be potentiated at altitude,” Dr. Durvasula explains.

Finally, as airline carriers are running a business and want to be profitable, they cram more people than they can in their planes, and are probably planning to charge you to use the toilet in the near future. Passengers can become jerks as they are reminded how much that plane ticket cost, plus all the ridiculous fees they are forced to pay, which keep increasing.

“Just like people have road rage, and lose control, I think the loss of personal control on planes causes rage. Airlines are violating personal space. Grossly,” Brein says. “They are overstepping it and it’s becoming dangerous. It’s almost a crime.”

As with any stressful situation, there are certain things you can do to help yourself when traveling. First of all, just take a moment to breathe. Yes, it’s hard, but possible. Make sure you have a snack, which is approved by TSA regulations, since being hungry will only make you crankier. Staying hydrated is a must to keep yourself on track, and finally listening to some relaxing music is bound to make you feel a lot better in order not to become one of those jerks we see on planes.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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