Psychology: Non-pilots think they can land a plane after watching a YouTube video

A psychological study shows people can be over-confident in their ability to perform tasks for which they have no formal training


16 March 2022


Pilot working through a simulation a simulation exercise

Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

People can be so confident they can teach themselves skills they actually lack – including the ability to land a commercial jet – that they could actually put themselves and other people in serious danger.

“People think, ‘Well, if it really mattered, like in an emergency, I could land the plane’,” says Maryanne Garry at the University of Waikato, in New Zealand. “But … that requires skills that most people just don’t have.”

Garry and her colleagues enlisted 780 volunteers for their psychological study. Half of the study participants were asked to watch an approximately 4-minute-long silent YouTube video showing two commercial pilots landing a plane in a mountainous area.

The scientists then gave each participant a hypothetical scenario:

Imagine you are on a small commuter plane. Due to an emergency, the pilot is incapacitated and you are the only person left to land the plane.

They then asked the participants how confident they would feel – on a percentage scale – about responding to the situation.

They found that people who had watched the video were up to 30 per cent more confident in their ability to land a plane without dying, compared to the confidence ratings of people who had not watched the video. But even people who had not watched the video gave themselves an average confidence score of 29 per cent for their ability to land the plane without dying, says Garry.

Some participants who watched the video were asked prior to doing so how confident they were they could land the plane as well as any trained pilot. After watching the video, their self-confidence rose: they were up to 38 per cent more confident that they could perform as well as any trained pilot. In general, men were significantly more confident in their abilities than women were, she adds.

The results were particularly surprising, the researchers say, given that the respondents in general were convinced that landing a plane requires a great deal of expertise. They ranked the required skill level for landing a plane at an average of 4.4 out of 5, says Garry. Trained pilots learn to land planes after hundreds of hours of training and education in physics, engineering, and meteorology, she adds.

Garry says the findings suggest that people “tend to inflate their confidence about certain things” as a result of what she calls a “rapid illusion”, meaning they see images that make them believe they are capable of feats for which they actually have no skill. She adds that the findings suggest this applies to a “disturbing proportion of ordinary people”.

While overconfidence has its benefits – for example, giving people a boost that helps them take on life’s challenges – it can also be detrimental when it puts people’s lives in danger, says Kayla Jordan, also at the University of Waikato.

“It’s pretty surprising that people become more confident they could carry out this highly-specialised feat – while at the same time telling us they know that landing a plane requires a great deal of expertise,” says Jordan.

Journal reference: Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211977

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