Illusion of

People develop rituals and superstitions to give themselves the illusion of control.

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Tags: experience, directionality,
psychology, social contract

One of the main reasons that passengers might find the air travel experience unpleasant has to do with feeling a loss of control. The passenger can feel as if they are at the mercy of nature, airport security personnel, or the airline cabin crew. They are directed where to go, how to move, and even when to go to the bathroom on the plane.

In addition, air travel subjects the body into physiological and mental disorientation unique to this mode of transportation. Time flows differently during air travel, as a T-minus countdown rather than an actual reference point to a time of day. Days stretch without an end, and one can end up eating three lunches in a row during flights and layovers. Circadian rhythm disruptions cause us to navigate spaces in an altered mental state.

In response, people develop various tactics to give themselves the illusion of control. 
1. One such tactic is by carrying out routines and rituals.

Many passengers develop pre- or during-flight routines and rituals. These range from conventional, such as wearing comfortable clothes or brushing one’s teeth before flight, to superstitious, such as always stepping onto the plane with the right foot for luck, to truly idiosyncratic (See: Rituals)

2. Another tactic is gamification.

Because of the spatial configurations and the nature of progressing through the different parts in the terminal, the passenger journey through the airport can feel like progressing through levels of a game. The airport is a unique type of architectural typology, where the spaces are subdivided and arranged to usher large groups of people to move unidirectionally. This encourages people to develop strategies to ‘game’ the system, and to feel competitive with other passengers moving through the airport. This also contributes to why passengers react with especially heightened emotions to events at the airport or in the airplane, such as feeling especially elated at being directed to a shorter queue, or feeling “air rage” at fellow passengers for small slights (See: Jetiquette).

One example of a device that helps people feel an illusion of control, despite that in many places it does not actually operate. These are somtimes called “placebo buttons” [1].

  1. Langer, E. J. (1975). “The illusion of control”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(2), 311–328.