Imagine trying to get out of a plane, but the passenger ahead of you is blocking the aisle as he tries to wrestle his carry-on free. Frustrating, right? And, oh — did we mention that the plane is on fire?
After an Aeroflot jetliner burst into flames during an emergency landing in Moscow recently, some passengers who had just escaped were seen walking across the tarmac luggage in hand. It raised a rather basic question about human behavior: Why would anyone evacuating a plane waste precious moments retrieving his Sudoku book and suitcase?
The online hate was instant, if based on sketchy information. The carry-on grabbers were accused of having hindered the escape of fellow passengers, dozens of whom died in the flames.
No one may ever know how true that is, but the passengers did violate one of the most basic rules of air safety. As a headline in the Travel section of The Times put it after the accident, In the Event of an Emergency, Leave Your Luggage on the Plane. Really.
Psychologists caution, though, against being too quick to judge. That guy in front of you who enters the subway — then stops dead and looks at his phone? He probably is a jerk. That passenger reaching for the bag with his favorite sweater or maybe a present for his kid? He’s probably just acting human.
Decisions made in moments of intense emotion are often the least rational, said Debra Borys, a forensic and clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. And it surely does not get more intense than it was for the passengers on Aeroflot Flight 1492 last Sunday.
“They’re feeling so utterly terrified and powerless,” Dr. Borys said.
It may also not be quite accurate, she said, to view the passengers’ actions as a conscious choice. “I don’t think we should think of it as a decision when they grab their stuff,” she said. “I think we should think about it as an impulse.” The goal may not have been safeguarding possessions; they may simply have been seeking a little emotional comfort.
I get that, but civilization requires control of one’s impulses at important moments, even at the cost of emotional comfort. And evacuating a burning plane is an important moment.