Being strapped down in a tin can while racing and experiencing things that are not working out for you is emotionally challenging. You see a competitor slip ahead, you fall out of the band, the sky starts deteriorating; all these situations can have powerful emotional effects that can distract you from dealing with these challenges. Being able to minimize negative emotions is therefore quite advantageous to one’s soaring performance.
Psychological research in Emotion-Regulation has some useful insights in this respect. Two commonly studied emotion-regulation techniques are suppression and reappraisal.
Suppression is the act of taking a negative emotion and attempting to minimize it. This is the equivalent trying to contain yourself when you get angry. Studies had shown that trying to minimize the effect of an emotion after the fact is an ineffective strategy.
Reappraisal is the act of reframing your situation in a different light. For instance, if you see high cloud cover move in, you might think that this is an opportunity for you to excel at your weak weather flying while everyone else is going to be scared and suffering.
Research has shown that reappraisal is overwhelmingly a much more effective emotion-regulation strategy. This is because reappraisal has a tendency to take the bite out of the emotional response before it happens; it minimizes the total emotion experienced. As a result, reappraisal strategies could greatly improve performance.
The risk management work that John Bird and I did actually relates to reappraisal. It helps the pilot look at the sky ahead and reason that due to the risk level exceeding a certain threshold, that they must change their strategy. By being able to base risk strategy on something measurable, it allows the pilot to easily reappraise a situation. When it comes time to get into a “risk-minimizing” mindset, it isn’t painful to watch a couple other pilots drive ahead and leaving you behind. Sure, you might be missing out on an opportunity, but looking at the sky ahead, you can just write off those pilots as taking an excessive gamble. As a result, you don’t feel the emotional pain associated with them leaving you behind.
Like many things in aviation, emotion-regulation and reappraisal is part of overall situational awareness. If you judge your priorities correctly and are ahead of your situation, then you will not be as emotionally affected. Conversely, if you are experiencing strong emotional reactions in the cockpit, this is likely to be due to a lack of situational awareness at an earlier point in the flight.