For three weeks now, the media has kept a focus on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 307 and its 239 passengers. People wonder what happened, if terrorists were involved, where the wreckage might be, and even how much damages the suffering families of the passengers may collect. Every day brings new headlines about the story and people around the world continue to be fascinated with Flight 307.
Although many mysteries surround 307, it’s probably the deaths associated with the plane that actually attracts our attention. But it can’t be the number of passenger deaths. After all, at least 200 people are killed per week in the wars in Syria and South Sudan.
More likely, the crash reminds us of our own deaths. Although the chance of dying in a plane crash is one in 11 million—compared with one in 108 for a car crash—death by plane seems far scarier than it deserves to be.
Plane crashes bring up lots of psychological processes that heighten our fear of death. Mortality salience is the term psychologists use for our awareness that eventually we’re going to die. Dramatic reports of deaths heighten that salience, and airplane crashes are far more dramatic than most car crashes. In 2013, slightly more than 34,000 people in the U.S. alone were killed in car crashes; in 2013, just 265 died worldwide from an accident involving an airplane.
Irrespective of the statistics, people tend to notice and remember plane crashes and mostly ignore the car crashes. That’s because of a psychological process known as the availability heuristic. That term refers to the human tendency to overemphasize the importance of events they can easily recall. Because we remember plane crashes of the past, the danger associated with flying catches our attention in a way that other forms of dying do not.
Terror management theory (TMT)—another psychological concept related to mortality salience—holds that because humans, unlike animals, know that death is coming someday. Many studies have shown that thinking about death heightens people’s anxieties. When people become anxious about death, they often do all kinds of harmful things toward themselves and others.
According to TMT, we can’t stop thinking about those 239 passengers on Malaysia Airlines because it reminds us that we, too, are going to die. But almost certainly our deaths won’t be because of a plane crash. Far more likely, we’ll die in a hospital bed from heart disease or cancer (chances are one in seven for each).
And as hard as it may be to believe, we’re even more likely to commit suicide (chance of one in 106) than be that one person in 11 million whose life ends in coach or business class.
Photo Source: Boeing.com