A pilot friend once told me a funny story that illustrates an all-too common flaw in human psychology. I call this flaw the Empty Seat Problem.

When my friend – let’s call him James – worked for a mid-sized regional airline, he observed that flight attendants often made a strange mistake.

In a routine flight procedure before taxiing away, the captain and first officers must wait for flight attendants to give them an updated passenger headcount. This allows the flight crew to notice any discrepancy between the passenger list and potential no-shows.

James first became aware of the problem on an early morning flight, after he’d noted with a quick glance that only the first 10 seats were occupied. He was flying a Bombardier CRJ700 at the time, with a seating capacity of 75. As he wondered what was taking so long for the crew to give him a passenger count, he went down the aisles to look for the flight attendants and noticed that they were busy counting empty seats!

CRJ700 Seat Map
Source: United

- “Can I ask what you are doing?”, inquired my friend to one of the stewardesses.

- “We’re doing the headcount, captain!”, replied the young lady.

- “Surely”, James offered, now clearly puzzled, “it only takes a few seconds to see that there are only 10 passengers on this plane! What may I ask are you doing counting empty seats?”

- “But that’s what they told us to do in training!”, the flustered stewardess retorted, “they told us to count empty seats!”

If I am to believe my pilot friends, this scenario is commonplace during take off rituals.

At first glance, the flight attendant training protocol seems logical. In an age of overbooked flights, counting a low number of empty seats and subtracting it from a plane’s seating capacity provides a quick and efficient way to reach a headcount.

But what happens when the automaticity of a many-times-rehearsed protocol overrides our capacity to notice “the obvious”, find the most efficient solution, or consider another perspective?

 The case of Counting Empty Seats illustrates the common problem of all that is lost and cannot be seen when we operate on – pun intended – autopilot.

Consider a more tragic angle on the Empty Seat Problem. Our next example was relayed to me by a police constable friend – let’s call him Marcus. Marcus was a calm and compassionate man who had pursued a degree in criminology before joining the Federal Police.  The story involves one of Marcus' colleagues who, at the time of retelling, had recently shot a drunk woman dead after she’d assaulted him with a kitchen knife.

“What a horrible story”, I'd reacted, “your friend must feel terrible now!”

“Not at all”, Marcus had replied, “my friend was attacked, and he defended himself, he was just doing his job.”

“But surely”, I had offered anxiously, “there is a big discrepancy between a gun and a kitchen knife – couldn’t he try to, I don’t know, disarm the assailant by shooting her in the arm?”

“But we’re not trained to shoot in the arms!”, my friend had concluded with confidence

The point of these two stories is not to reinforce any negative stereotypes that may exist about flight attendants and police officers.  Like people everywhere, the vast majority of cops and airline crew are honest, empathetic, normally intelligent persons who, as Marcus points out, are “just doing their jobs”.

The Empty Seat Problem, rather, points to a propensity that is a dormant in all of us:  our inability to see the broader context and consider alternatives when our prior learning prompts us to see the world and act in one way, and one way only.

What does it take to circumvent this problem?  

As usual with critical thinking, the solution is (if you will pardon this next bad pun), harder than you think.

First, let’s consider how difficult it is to get the mind’s eye to switch perspectives and become attuned to new angles in our projection of the world.  We can start with an easy problem.

Have you ever noticed the arrow in this logo?

Source: Fedex

If you still cannot see it, you can find it here. 

Strange isn’t it, how an image we have seen a thousand times can contain hidden things we have never noticed? The perspective-switch operation required to see the arrow is what Gestalst psychologist call a figure-ground reversal. 

Now here’s another catch.   Try unseeing the arrow.

If, like most of us, you are unable to recover you previous arrowless schema of the logo, you will appreciate how easy to get trapped in a single perspective.

You can also try this problem, given by the social psychologist Ellen Langer.

Ellen Langer
Source: Ellen Langer

Without reading the text below, can you see any form at al? Anything meaningful on this picture?

What if you were told that some people discern the image of a cow – are you able to see it now?

Still can’t?   How about here?

Now try one more time, and attempt not to see the cow!

A hard conclusion

I wanted to end this short piece by giving simple advice on escaping our single-perspective views of the world.  Travelling, learning languages and musical instruments, trying new foods, meeting new people, and learning new skills are often hailed as the doorway to better neuroplascicity. Meditation, hypnosis, and psychedelics are also known to help reduce habitual constraints on perception.

But is there a risk that in seeking these new experiences, we continue to operate within single-framed autopilots?  

How quickly do we seek to integrate old routines when travelling? How much tolerance do we really hold for people who are different from us? How often do we learn new songs, or new ways of expressing ourselves?

To end on a cautious note, I want to reiterate that counting empty seats, shooting a kitchen-knife wielder, and not being able to unsee the cow are different angles of the same coin – a coin deeply etched in our intuitive, pattern-seeking psychology.

Our hard concluding question, then is not simply to ask how not to count empty seats, but lies in finding how we are, all of us, always counting empty seats!

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