One of the most obvious catalysts is, of course, a crowded cabin. Many seats are thinner and narrower than in the past. When you crowd people together, there is a point at which they are no longer able to function appropriately, says Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii. Crowding breeds feelings of alienation, cynicism and anonymity.
Planes today are, in a word, antisocial, he says. Little wonder that people recline their seats without a friendly warning. Most airlines dont encourage social cabin environments. Rather, he says, their service changes have reinforced the hostile climate. By increasing fees for checked bags, passengers on a budget have had to compete for overhead bin space.
You feel a distance from your sense of self, says Emma Seppala, the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine. You lose self-awareness, she says.
The cabin is perhaps the most glaring environmental factor contributing to air rage, but theres also the theatre of getting to the airport and checking in: stop-and-go traffic, the obstacle course of suitcases on the curb, noise bouncing off the terminal walls, snail-like security lines, endless pings from your smartphone as work emails continue to land even as you remove your shoes and shove them into an X-ray machine.
Self-control, however, is not a neat, unitary concept. Its not as if some people have it and some people dont. What we do know is that certain things can affect our capacity for self-control, particularly stress and sleep deprivationwhich tend to be as much a part of travel as luggage. Being jet-lagged, or simply not having had a good nights rest, also makes you vulnerable. Stress and sleep deprivation also hurt our ability to interpret other peoples intentions and mental states. When our emotions are high and were physiologically aroused its difficult to reason with ourselves. Thankfully, there are other ways to control the mind. Take breathing, for instance. Seppala cites a study that showed that different emotions such as joy, anger, fear and sadness, each has distinct patterns of breathing. Whats revolutionary, she adds, is that the study also showed that by breathing in different ways, people were actually able to generate different emotions.
Its the only autonomic process that can be controlled, says Seppala. We can learn to have an impact on our nervous system, she says.
The breathing-based meditation that was used by the researchers is known as Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, and it has also been shown to increase self-reported optimism and well-being in college students, and to decrease self-reported anxiety in people with general anxiety disorder. Dont have time for meditation or yoga Experts say to make time, because the better you are, the better your fellow travellers will be. Theres plenty the airlines could be doing, too. For example: improve the cabin atmosphere.
They have to think of the crowd as a potential community, says James of the University of Hawaii, and enact certain community-building principles. One simple tactic is what he refers to as live demography: a flight attendant standing in front of the cabin asking questions like How many of you are going home or Raise your hand if youve never been on an airplane before. It may sound like a kindergarten exercise, but it encourages passengers
to relax, be friendly and communicate with one another. It breaks the anonymity and the hostility, James says.
Airline personnel also need to be trained, or better trained, to be more compassionate in how they handle people, he said, be it demonstrating sympathy when problems arise or simply being specific when asked about delays, saying 20 minutes
instead of just a few more minutes, which creates uncertainty and increases frustration.
The airlines have to learn how to help people cope, he says. If they dont, its going to get a lot worse.