Friday, March 21, 2014

The hard part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

So much has been said speculating about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight that may or may not have crashed, or been hijacked, or been deliberately flown into the ocean, or god knows what else. I think a lot of people were surprised to find out that in this day and age it is possible for a jet to simply go missing for this long without anyone having a clear idea of what the hell happened to it.

What struck me about the story, however, is how particularly devastating it must be for the relatives of those who were on the plane. In the first place, it's hard to see many ways that their loved ones came out of this alive. If the plane crashed into the ocean due to some mechanical failure or pilot suicide, they're long gone. And the possibility of what that ending might have been like would surely be a haunting one. The most optimistic scenario is a hijacking, but given the plane hasn't turned up and there haven't been any announcements, either to gloat over prisoners or demand ransoms (does anybody even do that anymore? I dunno), any group that wanted to just steal the plane would probably not want to leave hundreds of potential witnesses around afterwards. Bottom line, it's looking pretty damn grim.

But the scenario gets made significantly worse even relative to a normal plane crash by the fact that humans are incredibly bad at dealing emotionally with probabilistic scenarios. What does it mean for there to be a 0.5% chance that your dad is still alive somewhere and being held hostage, a 30% chance he got smashed to pieces in a crash and a 69.5% chance he got killed by terrorists? How should you feel about that? 30% of the time you might be philosophical about bad luck, 69.5% of the time you might be outraged by the depravity of human beings and demanding vengeance. And 0.5% of the time, you should be very nervously hoping that somehow things can be negotiated to a satisfactory conclusion, and doing everything in your limited power to make that happen.

In other words, 99.5% of the time you should be trying to move on with your life. This is made possible by the fact that it's very hard to know how to move on since you don't know what lesson to learn. And 0.5% of the time, you should be hanging on to the hope that they're still coming back, because they may have had an incredibly lucky escape.

Unfortunately, most people's emotions don't work this way - they can only feel one thing at a time. To make this work, they have to round all bar one of these probabilities down to zero - maybe at the crude level of dead or alive, but maybe even at the level of which scenario among the various cases. Either you decide that your Dad is dead, for sure, or you decide that he's alive for sure. Obviously given these odds, most people should go with 'dead', but you would need to be very hard of heart to not understand why people are reluctant to let go of hope when it comes to their loved ones.

I hate the word 'closure', as it's associated so much with feel-good claptrap that's just a cover for narcissistic emotional exhibitionism. But if the term means anything useful, it's that people find it hard to deal emotionally with events where they only know the outcome probabilistically, and different outcomes are associated with very different emotions. James Bagian can probably deal with them. I flatter myself that I can probably deal with them. This would test to your very core whether you can actually feel statistics, or just know them intellectually.

But most people can't. They just get torn up over and over with no end. Affective forecasting says it takes about 3 months to get used to most things. The families here don't even get that, because the clock doesn't even start running properly.

What a terribly sad circumstance to have to deal with.

No comments:

Post a Comment