Everyone Knows That Arousal Leads to Bad Choices, Right?

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s think about the concept of psychological arousal. Arousal is a much broader concept than its sexual connotations. It simply expresses the degree to which the mind or body is stimulated. Whenever one seeks to perform a given task to the best level, it is usually optimal to have a moderate degree of arousal, just enough to be stimulated and alert but not to be overloaded and stressed or anxious.

Flying gliders is tremendously stimulating and it takes quite a long time to be able to control and balance the emotions of controlling the craft. Anyone who has been in the sport long enough will experience times that are beyond comfort in terms of stress, be it in the context of landing-out or some unexpected encounter with another aircraft. These situations will certainly put your mind and body into overdrive and into a high level of psychological arousal, which is essential to be able to handle them effectively and safely.

While a high degree of arousal is necessary to deal with immediate situations, it can also have negative consequences on judgment, particularly if it is due to the pilot’s own choices. When a person enters a “hot” aroused state, they’re much more risk-seeking and their limitations are much less inhibited. Furthermore, the pilot does not realize they are affected. Consider it the hypoxia of the mind! In psychological parlance, this is referred to as the “hot-cold empathy gap”. This concept explains the observation that people grossly underestimate how their decision-making will be in a “hot” aroused state. Within society, this causes a myriad of issues, such as unprotected sex, drunk driving and temper tantrums that cause things to be stated that a person would never dream of.

How does this relate to flying? Well if a pilot gets into this hot state, their judgment will be much more compromised than they otherwise would imagine. Many pilots that state they would not commit a given decision are much more likely to be sucked into making a bad choice than they would otherwise give themselves credit to. The spate of low-thermalling incidents in off-field situations are great examples. Pilots who would never imagine thermalling below 800ft are trying to scrape out from 400ft AGL, on base leg. Ask them what they were thinking and they would tell you they just felt compelled to try it and damn it worked! It is much easier to be tempted into making such a decision when already in a highly aroused state.

Another relevant concept is “excitation transfer theory”. The idea is that if a person is in an aroused states at one moment, it is likely to affect them in a different fashion shortly thereafter. A classic study was done in a place where men were asked questions by a rather attractive female surveyor following crossing a rope bridge as opposed to a control group that did not cross. The males that were experiencing a higher degree of excitement crossing the bridge were much more likely to make advances on the female surveyor. In soaring, this also can affect how one type of excitement can affect judgment in another action. For this, I can relate two personal experiences, both concerning ridge transitions.

The first story was earlier in my 1-26 days, flying on a weak ridge day. I came up to Wind Gap SW bound and promptly got stuck. Back and forth I went, frustrated to no end. Later, I saw three glass birds come in 100ft higher and just gracefully cruise right over. I was boiling over in my frustration, promptly rationalized that “Schwartz crosses from here at 1900ft and goes for the back-ridge” and went for the crossing. While indeed I was at 1900ft, more or less abeam of Cherry Valley, Schwartz actually crosses from that altitude about another half mile further. Big difference in a 1-26.

The moment I dumped it over the back-side, a feeling of intense dread overcame me. It looked like I was completely committed to flying a back-double ridge and that I wouldn’t be able to make the field-with-one-tree. Dry mouth, adrenaline, blood pounding, the whole works. Finally I make it across and the adrenaline starts to subside. Away I go driving away on the ridge SW bound.

Now here’s the kicker. Every rational person would think that after having survived an incident driven by intense stupidity, he would not tempt fate once more. But on the contrary, the incident simply drove my mind into a psychological overdrive. This became rather evident at Snyders. Coming around the transition, I drove on on a weak ridge at 2000ft MSL. I got lower and lower and attempted to reconnect with the ridge at the “rocks”. I was too low and started falling off the ridge at the flattest spot. Barely out-gliding the terrain, I dumped into a field, overshot my desired spot and ended up in the hay, with a very slow ground-loop at the end.

Stupid!

Flash forward to this year, flying the LS3 from Wurtsboro on my 1200km mission. Going across to Sharp, I found a nice line from Blue Mountain and was cruising right across. About in the middle, the bottom drops out from under me and I dump the nose heading for Second Mountain. I judged I had enough to do a straight-in to the field following the gap, let the nose down and the speed rip and drove around through the gap halfway below the top. It’s a flat ridge there and it certainly got my heart-rate up.

Now what do I do getting over abeam of the mine at 1750ft? I look across, say “What the hell, I’ve got it made” and go for it. I zip across the top of the ridge 50ft above and hang a left on Sharp, thinking what the hell did I just do?”

Stupid!

The most surprising aspect of these incidents was not so much that I necessarily made a bad initial choice in the first step of the chain. Competitive soaring is always a blend of judgment, aggression and conservativeness. Inevitably, one will end up a bit further on the scale than one is comfortable and it is essential to readjust appropriately. What surprised me most of all was the steep correlation between making one bad choice in the heat of the moment increases dramatically the likelihood of making a bad choice immediately after due to my emotional state at the time.

Seeing how the hot-cold empathy gap and excitation transfer theory apply to explain how I successively was more likely to make a bad choice followed by repeating it again, the question is what to do about it. I have determined for myself that I needed to readjust my boundaries to avoid getting into a state of increased arousal. Since those flights, I now routinely take several hundred more feet before transitions to increase the buffer. Secondly, if I am approaching a transition and it requires tighter margins, I don’t let it arouse me in the same way. Lately, I sort of sigh and look at the ridge I am to cross and think, “Ugh, I don’t do this stuff anymore. But I’ve totally got it made. Fine, let’s give it a go.” Clearing a ridge low is no longer exciting so much as it is a burden, but previous experience lets me justify that the quantity of energy is safe to work. As a result, by not letting myself get aroused in the first place, it preserves a cool(er) ability to reason later. Thirdly, if I do get in the highly excited state, I now realize the consequences of it and the need to consciously cool down. When it comes to ridge flying, this means becoming consciously more risk-averse for a substantial duration. On the LS3 flight, I recognized that I need to back-off and I said I won’t push the transitions for the duration of the flight.

Give some thought to how emotions and excitement affect your flying. Be realistic and create a plan as to how you will deal with it. Don’t try to reason with your hot, alter-ego. Instead, create distinctive rules and benchmarks that you impose upon yourself. And to quote Cochrane, “You will be tempted.”