For Immediate Release
| NASA photo
In addition to the implications for airline safety, the NASA-funded study's findings could be important to future space missions that use multi-cultural crews - and to other high-stress situations requiring teamwork. The study also found differences in the way female pilots communicate with other members of their crews.
"There are advantages and disadvantages to being indirect," said Dr. Ute Fischer, an adjunct assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Literature, Communication and Culture.
"Statements such as, 'You are 15 knots too slow,' are often sufficient to get the captain to increase the approach speed," said Fischer's collaborator, Dr. Judith Orasanu of NASA's Ames Laboratory. "Ordering the captain to do so, on the other hand, may be unwarranted by the situation and may actually interfere with the safe operation of the airplane by inducing annoyance at the socially inappropriate behavior of the co-pilot, and thus disrupting crew harmony."
There can be disadvantages to indirect communication, too, Fischer added. "By being indirect, speakers run the risk of not being heard. Problem statements may be taken at face value and may not be understood as a request to act. Also, because problem statements exert little pressure, the hearer may not take the speaker's intention sufficiently serious."
The effectiveness of any request strategy depends on the situation in which it is used, the researchers explained. They are trying to determine which strategy is most effective in which situation as their research continues.
A paper based on Fischer and Orasanu's initial study was published in the "Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium on Aviation Psychology."
The initial study revealed that, apparently because of their status, airline captains both U.S. and European, male and female give more than twice the number of commands that first officers give. Yet case studies of airline accidents show it is often first officers who are in the position of needing to correct a captain's mistake, the researchers said. They found that first officers in this situation would most often use "hints" in the form of problem statements overall in fact, twice as often as captains use them to convey their messages.
"But there is absolutely no basis to conclude that co-pilots will continue to use indirect requests if their initial request for captain action is unsuccessful," Fischer noted. "Indeed, there is ample data to suspect otherwise. We found that co-pilots used direct requests in proportion to the degree of perceived risk in the situation. These were primarily statements indicating what the crew should do."
As for gender differences in communication, the study only showed differences in the structure of communications. Females all Americans in this study tended to give more two-part utterances than males: They would state the problem and then give a command or suggestion.
"There are two perspectives on the more complex structure of these utterances," said Fischer, a specialist in cognitive linguistics. "One is that the females are 'excusing' themselves for giving commands by stating the problem. The other perspective is that the females are setting the stage and grounding their directive with the problem statement."
A follow-up study already under way will give insight on the effectiveness of these two-part utterances. Other research indicates that stating the problem before giving a command or other type of communication creates a shared understanding, Fischer said. It gives the hearer a better comprehension of the task at hand.
"But in a high risk situation, this more complex talking might not be more effective," Fischer added. "A lot depends on the risk of the situation and the professional setting. Those are questions we will address in the second part of this study."
Several cultural differences also appeared in the current study. For example, some European captains were twice as likely to give "hints" to first officers than were U.S. captains. Meanwhile, U.S. captains were twice as likely to make suggestions for the crew to implement.
Also, European first officers were somewhat more likely to give commands to captains than were U.S. first officers. The Europeans were also about twice as likely to give self-directives than their American counterparts.
"Cultural differences in communication are important to understand because foreign airlines often train their crews with U.S. airlines' crew resource management programs," Fischer explained. "In addition, forthcoming space missions will involve people from various multi-cultural backgrounds. What we want to know is how much cultural predispositions affect communication in a professional setting, particularly in times of stress."
What is known is that communication problems both within aircraft crews and between air and ground crews contribute significantly in aircraft incidents and accidents, Fischer said. There are numerous examples, including the crash of an Air Florida jet into the Potomac River in January 1982 because of snow and ice on the airplane.
With so much at stake, Fischer and Orasanu got help from 576 airline captains and first officers including 20 females from six American and European airlines. They completed questionnaires regarding eight fictional flight scenarios. In the surveys, researchers manipulated the risk level and social implications of the situations. Survey participants were asked what they would initially say to their colleague in each scenario.
Researchers devised a coding scheme and assigned the survey participants' responses to it. The scheme consisted of eight communication types: commands, queries, preferences, "hints," crew obligations, crew suggestions, self-directives and permission-seeking questions.
The study also revealed that captains:
Researchers found that first officers:
In the follow-up study expected to be completed by spring, researchers are analyzing responses from 60 airline captains and first officers. They rated the effectiveness of various communication types and structures (e.g., commands preceded by problem statements) in fictional flight scenarios.
The results of the studies could have broad implications, said Dr. Ken Knoespel, a professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture. Mine workers, oil tanker crews, air traffic controllers, and emergency medical and public safety personnel could benefit from the insights gained in this study, he said.
"In a broader context, NASA research seeks to link space exploration and making the earth more inhabitable," Knoespel said. "In order to live in space, we need to solve some problems on earth and vice versa. Communication is one of those problems.... You cannot separate human communication from technology."
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WRITER: Jane M. Sanders