Why flight delays are so stressful (#$@&%*!)

My flight this morning got canceled.

The only other way for me to get to Arkansas was via Houston, and the connecting window was small… but I had no other choice.

So I booked the new flight, hurried to the airport, and got ready for the journey ahead.

And then, in typical United fashion, there was a gate delay. The 15 minute delay turned into a 30 minute delay. Then a 40 minute delay.

Then, finally, we took off.

The connecting window for my two flights was, in the original plan, 25 minutes. A 40 minute delay means that there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that I make my connection. Which means that I’m stuck in a motel in Houston for the night, and the only other flight to Arkansas gets me in at 3:30PM CST – which means I miss yet another day of important meetings to turbulent skies.

The joy of air travel in the 21st century.

But while I was sitting on the tarmac, with my blood pressure creeping up into hypertensive territory, I started thinking about what makes situations like this so rage-inducing. I’m a peaceful person 99.9% of the time. I rarely have violent thoughts flit through my head. But there’s something about thwarted flight plans that brings out the worst in me.

And I don’t think that I’m alone. It’s not uncommon for me to see profanity-laced screeds against United or Delta airlines in my feed. These diatribes aren’t from crazy, unhinged friends from high-school, either. They’re from highly respected, nerdy tech acquaintances. The types of people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and prefer staying in and reading a book to bar hopping on any given Saturday

So what, from a psychological point of view, is going on here?

We’re grasping for a sense of control in a situation in which we have none.

There’s a ton of research on this topic, with both animal and human subjects.

Take a rat and put it in a stressful situation. Now give it a lever to press. The lever does nothing, but it makes the rat feel like he’s in control (and it gives him something to do). It’s a way for him to reclaim a sense of agency over the dire situation.

Take a human, trap them in a small plane and tell them that their plans are now obsolete—but give them a social media platform to complain on. They’ll press that lever (by sending out angry Tweets and status updates) all day every day.

In that specific example, the angry messages serve a second function: they rally your tribe around you. They give you social comfort and support.

Robert Sapolsky, a behavioral neuroscientist at Stanford University, summarizes the research perfectly:

“The literature is built on experiments like this one: You have a lab rat in a cage, and every now and then, you give it a shock. Nothing major, but nonetheless, the rat’s blood pressure goes up and so do stress hormone levels. Up goes the risk of an ulcer. You are giving this rat a stress-related disease.

Now, in the second cage, there’s another rat. Every time the first rat gets a shock, so does the second. Same intensity, same duration, both of their bodies are being thrown out of homeostatic balance to exactly the same extent.
But there’s a critical difference: Every time the second rat gets a shock, it can go over to the other side of its cage, where there’s another rat that it can bite the crap out of. And you know what? This guy’s not going to get an ulcer, because he has an outlet for his frustrations. He has a hobby.

There are other stress experiments that involve torturing rats, which suggest ways for humans to manage stress. We can give the rat a warning 10 seconds before each shock, and we find it doesn’t get an ulcer. That tells us that you are less vulnerable to a stress-related disease if you get predictive information.

Another experiment: If we give the rat a lever to press, and that rat thinks he’s in control of the shocks, that helps—a sense of control decreases the stress response.

Yet another experiment tells us it helps to have friends: If a rat getting shocks has a friend it likes in the cage, and they are able to groom each other, the rat doesn’t get the ulcer. So social affiliation helps control stress.

In short, you are more likely to get a stress response—more likely to subjectively feel stressed, more likely to get a stress-related disease—if you feel like you have no outlets for what’s going on, no control, no predictability, you interpret things as getting worse, and if you have nobody’s shoulder to cry on…

…When does a sense of control work? When you’re dealing with a mild to moderate stressor, because in those circumstances you know how much worse it could have been and can imagine, rightly or wrongly, that you had control over that improvement. But if it’s a major disastrous stressor, the last thing you want is an inflated sense of control, because that sets you up to think that the disaster is all your fault. In the case of a major disaster, we tend to minimize people’s sense of control—by saying, for example, “It wouldn’t have mattered if you had gotten him to the doctor a month ago, it wouldn’t have made a difference.” And one of the worst things we do, societally, is attribute more control to victims: “Well, what’s she going to expect if she dresses that way?” or “Well, what are they going to expect if they choose not to assimilate?”

In short, a sense of control is protective for mild to moderate stressors, but it’s a disaster for major ones. In that domain, the most humane thing you can do is foster denial and rationalization rather than a sense of responsibility.”

So this is why I got the sudden urge to Tweet angrily, and post a bitter status update to Facebook, today. I was looking to do something, anything, to get a sense of control over the situation. And I was also hoping to rally my tribe to my defense. Perhaps they could solve the problem. At the very least they would calm me down and make me feel better.

In this chaotic, ever-changing world of ours, we need coping strategies like these. Even if they just make us FEEL like we’re in control, they prevent us from having minor heart attacks (or from brawling with strangers). In this situation, I’ll call that a win.

Jason Hreha