The effects of emotion on pilot decision-making: A neuroergonomic approach to aviation safety.

Causse et al carried out research to establish the extent a negative emotional state associated with the consequences of a missed approach has on the likelihood of pilots continuing an approach to land despite evidence suggesting the approach is no longer stable. This tendency is known as plan continuation error (PCE).


It was found that a tendency favouring PCE can be increased due to the negative emotional consequences of conducting a missed approach. The negative emotional consequences include uncertainty regarding conducting a successful second approach, financial consequences, and possible scrutiny from superiors.


A representation of a flight deck ILS (Instrument Landing System) was shown to participants at decision altitude (DA). The participants were to indicate by pressing a button whether they would continue to land, or commence a missed approach. Various states of approach stability were illustrated ranging from completely stable and therefore safe, to completely unstable and therefore unsafe. A completely stable instrument indication prompted a straightforward decision to land whilst a completely unstable instrument indication prompted the initiation of a missed approach. Ambiguous ranges were also presented i.e. neither completely stable or completely unstable. The ambiguous ranges induced emotional uncertainty within the participants.

Research approach

Neuroergonomic. The experiment comprised a behavioural approach and a physiological approach when using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) equipment.


The research comprised experiments using physically and emotionally healthy non-pilot participants. It was felt that the sensory input provided to the participants would provoke a generic emotional state and response and therefore using non-pilots would provide a meaningful result. During the initial stage of the experiment twelve participants were given simulated ILS approaches. In addition, a further six non-pilot participants performed the same task and their brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) equipment.


The experiment was conducted in two parts. Initially, the decision to either land or commence a missed approach was conducted under neutral non-punitive conditions and participants were given feedback comprising an OK for a successful landing or justified missed approach or a NO for an erroneous decision to land or an unjustified missed approach.

A financial incentive was then added. In addition to the feedback, participants were financially rewarded for a justified landing or financially punished for an erroneous decision to land. All missed approaches were punished, more so for an erroneous missed approach than a justified one.


Psychological conditions of low uncertainty and high uncertainty were induced by the various ILS instrument readings.

Percentage of landing acceptance and reaction times (RTs) under the various conditions of high certainty, high uncertainty, and financial motivation were measured.

Data analysis

It was found that the tendency to accept a landing during conditions of high uncertainty increased from 45.83% during neutral conditions to 65.83% under conditions of financial motivation.

fMRI imaging found brain activity shifted from areas associated with reasoning to areas associated with emotional processing during conditions of financial motivation.

RT's were longer when uncertainty was high under both neutral and financially motivated conditions.

RT's were shorter under high uncertainty financially motivated conditions than they were under high uncertainty neutral conditions.

RT's were shortest under conditions of low uncertainty.

Generalization potential

The experiment is of value as it demonstrates the tendency for an increase in risky behaviour if negative consequences are perceived as an outcome of a decision.


Mickaël CAUSSE, Frédéric DEHAIS, Patrice PERAN, Umberto SABATINI & Josette PASTOR (2010). The effects of emotion on pilot decision making: A neuroergonomic approach to aviation safety. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies, Volume 33, August 2013, Pages 272–281.

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