There WILL be consequences!

With recent airline tragedies, many people are apprehensive and are declaring that they will not travel by air (at least internationally) anymore. However, these individuals were not involved in the publicized air tragedies and have never experienced any sort of issue in flight.

There is a scientific reason that people stop engaging in a behavior (or create new behaviors) that may lead -though not likely- to a consequence they have never experienced.

At this point, we know that motivation stems from the consequences we encounter for our behavior. But what are consequences? The word itself comes with so much baggage! In the world of Behavior Analysis however, it has but one single meaning. It is something we “get” or experience once we engage in a behavior that will ultimately have an effect on future behavior.

Consequences can come from another person, can occur naturally and we can even get hit with multiple consequences for any one given behavior. But one thing consequences are NOT is “good” or “bad”. They may increase, or decrease the future probability of a behavior but the thing is, there are helpful consequences out there that have nothing to do with being punitive but instead exist to encourage behavior. At a press conference following the Malaysia Airlines tragedy, President Obama mentioned that if there was refusal to cooperate in the follow-up, there “[would] be consequences”. This is how most people think of consequences. They think of them as something you impose on someone when they do “something bad”. We don’t do that in Behavior Analysis. And therefore, with our behavior hats on, let’s think of consequences in a non-biased way. They aren’t good, bad or ugly. They just are.

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Now that we know what consequences do, why do people change their travel-related behavior without ever having been involved in a plane tragedy?

Well we (humans) are pretty smart organisms and we can learn from our environment without contacting every consequence.


Behaviorally speaking, fear is not a thing but rather a class of responses that occur under certain circumstances. The responses are pretty much the same across emotions; however, it is the situation that helps us to discriminate what the emotion is. For example, a racing heartbeat can occur when we are happy, anxious or fearful. What makes the difference is whether we are celebrating, speaking in front of a crowd, or squaring off with a bear. When we engage in behaviors to prevent contact with an undesirable consequence (like fear), we call this avoidance behavior. We know that a plane crash is not something we can survive and although we ourselves have never experienced a plane crash before, the potential is made (unrealistically) salient by news coverage. We then experience the fear response simply by watching that coverage. We feel/experience, then want to avoid this and therefore, our future behavior is now changed. Now, Fearful Flyers engage in new travel-related behavior that looks something like this: come in contact with the need to travel (antecedent) → only travel by train/travel less/stay home (behavior) → and are not involved in an airplane accident (consequence). Their new behavior has now been reinforced by the fact that they have remained safe and avoided the fear of air travel.

But is this a “healthy” way to live? It certainly isn’t convenient or cheap for most Americans. And given my personal bias to travel as a hugely meaningful and necessary human experience, I’d say these people are limiting their overall quality of life. Moreover, there are times that many of us simply can’t avoid it. Maybe the death of a beloved family member who lives across the country from you or international business travel.

We know what the motivation for this media-instilled behavior is. So if someone’s decided that it [the behavior] is something to change, how might we do it? Well there are a variety of routes to take given the individual’s history and the severity of the behavior but the ultimate goal would be to change the person’s experience of consequences as they relate to air travel. This will occur naturally following the person’s behavior of traveling by plane because the likelihood of being harmed in flight is so low. So really taking baby steps to get them on the plane meanwhile reducing the fear response through techniques to create an alternative bodily response are the key. The consequences will be there and they will do their job over time to shape new, more adaptive behavior with no major additional help needed. The person will (by pure probability) never contact a crash and therefore their “fear” will decrease with repeated exposure to air travel.

Yes, I recommend contacting a professional for something like this, but the concept is what should be important here.  Behavior is driven by consequences. Consequences are what create motivation and we have the power to change our behavior by harnessing the power of consequences. 

In everyday life, we engage in avoidance behavior all the time for consequences we have contacted before.  Like making sure we grab an umbrella before leaving the house when the weather app says 90% chance of rain to prevent getting wet.  Because in the past, you ignored (or didn’t check) that precious little weather app and got soaked running from the train station to your office. Or like when you ignore your Mother, Aunt, Sister’s phone call in the middle of the day because in the past they’ve talked about nothing for hours even though you said you had to get off the phone several times because it completely throws you off your tasks for the day. These are perfectly adaptive behaviors that keep us comfortable, safe etc. because they will actually keep you from a LIKELY consequence. If the consequences are unlikely however, why deprive yourself of important, necessary or meaningful experiences?