Can psychology help solve the MH370 mystery?

As relatives and friends endure the agonising wait for news of their loved ones, more than a fortnight after the disappearance of Flight MH370, could psychology have anything to offer? Today we turn to the Digest and The Psychologist archive to see whether research can help in understanding what might have happened or finding the missing plane.

In last month’s cover feature of The Psychologist on aircraft safety, Don Harris explained that as the reliability and structural integrity of aircraft has improved, human error is now the principal threat to flight safety: it is estimated that up to 75 per cent of all aircraft accidents now have a major human factors component. ‘As commercial aviation is a “system-of-systems”, aviation psychology must respond with a similar systemic approach,’ he wrote. ‘There needs to be greater integration between the various subdisciplines – selection, training, equipment design and organisational pressures do not exist in isolation. They combine to contribute to accidents so they should be tackled in an integrated manner.’ We also met an aviation psychologist, Robert Bor, in 2012.

One of many theories about the fate of Flight MH370 is that the pilots got lost. In a Digest post from 2012, we reported how even experienced pilots can fall foul of an elementary error in navigation based on confirmation bias. ‘Were they to commit this error whilst flying, it would endanger the plane,’ we reported. ‘Indeed, such a scenario has unfolded in real-life incidents.’

Depending on if, how or where Flight MH370 came down, survival psychology may have come into play – The Psychologist considered this in a 2011 article. And if the worst is confirmed and the plane is at the bottom of a deep ocean, incredibly psychology does have a track record of helping to locate such objects. In this post from 2011, we described how insights from research into memory transmission were used to analyse the testimony from the German survivors of a ship, HSK Kormoran, which had battled with the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney II before it was lost in deep water off the west coast of Australia in November 1941. By combining the best fit approach from seven source statements with two further physical landmarks – drift objects lost from Kormoran and an emergency signal sent by Kormoran just prior to battle – two psychologists identified a recommended search area. On 16 March 2008, the Finding Sydney Foundation located Kormoran just 5km from their best prediction of where she lay. Five days later, Sydney was found 21km away. “The method we developed in response to the problem that was placed before us was necessarily tailored to the specific details of that problem,” the researchers said. “Nevertheless, it may provide a blueprint for potential solutions to other similar problems. Such problems may include, but would not necessarily be restricted to, search problems for missing objects.” Could a similar approach, combining possible sightings of the plane with technological data and any drift objects located in the current search, at least provide some much-needed clues in the MH370 mystery?

Of course, until we have a more complete account of what happened to the plane, conspiracy theories will abound. This is another topic which we have covered in both the Research Digest and The Psychologist.

If all of this makes you scared to fly, you are in good company. Thankfully, psychologists have been using virtual reality to tackle this for more than a decade now.

Our thoughts go out to the relatives of those on the flight, who may well be in need of professional psychological help to deal with the trauma they are experiencing. This Digest post from 2012 considered the debate over the merits of post-trauma psychological debriefing, and in both the Digest and The Psychologist we have considered the controversial ‘EMDR’ technique. But we would be interested to hear from our readers (via the comments below) of any evidence-based approaches that are in fact being used with those affected, or in the continuing bid to solve the mystery of Flight MH370.

Post written by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist, for the BPS Research Digest.