The concepts and applications of behavioural science in aviation


Scientists have determined that there are cognitive, social and environmental drivers and barriers that can impact human behaviour. In fact, by studying the choices people make and their associated reactions, behavioural scientists can predict and explain human behaviour. Earlier this summer ICAO hosted a panel on Behavioural Science in Aviation, as part of UN Behavioural Science Week. During that week, fifteen events were held by nine different UN entities to explore how behavioural science can help advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Behavioural science intersected a number of disciplines to emerge as a standalone research field about 15 years ago. This event welcomed three high-level experts and addressed, in particular, the use of behavioural science to promote safety, or in the area of aviation security or pilot selection, for practical application.

Dr. Tom Reader, Associate Professor, Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, London School of Economics, highlighted the multi-faceted nature of Behavioural Science. Several areas of interest, such as psychology, economics, biology, marketing or decision science are interconnected and their assessment, together with specific investigations on the environment in which a decision is made can help identify the factors forming decision-making. Such a combination between the external environment and the intrinsic elements leading to a decision is at the core of numerous aviation systems and processes. The field of application is very wide, and goes from training activities, avionics architecture, human-to-machine interfaces, cockpit or air traffic control ergonomics, to incident reporting culture, to name a few.

Airport security is one area that can benefit from behavioural science and applied research activities. Behavioural detection not only includes high-performance screening tools, but also the recognition by the security agents of anomalous or unexpected behaviour. The observation, the detection and the characterization of an unexpected human behaviour can sometimes affect the security process and the overall passenger experience. According to Dr. María Carmen Feijoo Fernández, Head of Behaviour Detection from the Guardia Civil – Area of Innovation and Development of Applied Studies, Spain, the behaviour detection techniques and associated training can be tailored to the particular circumstances of each entity while taking into account proven scientific and criminology theories combined with their own terrain experience.

This approach can also be observed in the selection process of commercial pilots, by combining psychological evaluation techniques and the airline’s culture. The challenge resides in assessing the predictable part of a personality and a set of abilities, and identifying the possible plasticity and training opportunities to build a successful career. Research shows that these components vary with the airline organization and the company culture: “you have to adapt easily, the necessary level of social competency must be significantly higher in large airlines than in smaller ones”, as stated by Dr. Viktor Oubaid, Aviation & Space Psychologist at the German Aerospace Center.Behavioural science already offers promising possibilities in aviation and will highly contribute to the emergence of upgraded systems or processes with humans in the loop.

This webinar provided an example of how ICAO approaches new ideas and innovation, by maintaining a strong link with the research and the industry community. It is part of a wider innovation strategy for ICAO to get a bit closer to where innovation happens, and also to create learning opportunities for all. Several events are coming in the following months to highlight innovations and their applications to civil aviation, visit the innovation webpage to learn more!

About the authors

Chrystelle Damar is a Strategic Planning and Regional Coordination Officer at ICAO. In her 15 years of experience, Chrystelle has led advocacy and public affairs strategies in the area of aviation and environmental sustainability and managed a global programme on carbon management. In the past three years, she has engaged in coordinating and supporting cross-organizational initiatives, including innovation.

Gladys Mercan is an Associate Innovation Officer at ICAO with eight years of experience working in the civil aviation field. Specialized in airports and air navigation, Gladys is curious and possesses a good ability to understand quickly the strategic stakes of her environment. These assets help her to tackle complex challenges and advocate for innovative technologies and processes to the advantage of the overall aviation community.