I recently flew from Bangkok to Dubai (7 hours), and then Dubai to Lisbon (8.5 hours), in Economy Class. On both flights the person sitting in front of me fully reclined their seat at the first possible opportunity. This single action caused an overwhelming anger well up within me in Vesuvial proportions. Quite clearly reclining your seat is the most self-centred act of utmost arrogance, undertaken by only the most hoggish and egocentric of individuals. Is it not ? Is it only me who feels that invading another persons body space without their consent is irrefutable evidence of sociopathy ? Let’s be honest, economy class seats force us to spend long periods of time imitating canned sardines in uncomfortable yoga positions. I’m 183 cm’s tall, and not much less wide. As such, when I’m stuck in an airline seat for a prolonged period of time every single nanometer of space is highly valued. In such circumstances, to blithely recline into another’s space is tantamount to sadistic behaviour.
However, reclining an airline seat interests me as an observer of human behaviour beyond mere consideration of my personal elongated physical form. In an economy class cabin we’re “all in it together” (Thank you very much Mr Cameron), if one person reclines then all those sat directly behind have to recline. It’s very clear to see the inter-relationships between us, the effect of one persons behaviour on another is presented as clearly as can be. So, this economy class cabin is like a microcosm of society. It’s the social scientists laboratory, in which we’ve removed all other interfering factors, controlled for climate, social status, consumption patterns and inherited wealth (etc). Now, we’re going to test the individual degree of selfishness (or let’s call it ‘egocentricity’) when resources (in this case space) are limited….., oh look, the gentleman in the bulkhead seat (who happens to be enjoying more space in front of him than even a First Class passenger) is the first one to recline his seat straight into the very limited space of the person sitting behind him, who was just trying to enjoy his plastic packed chicken green curry whilst watching the 5th season of an American TV show on a 6 inch screen 4 inches from his face ! Oh, the glamorous jet-set age of air travel…,
This economy class laboratory of human motivation exemplifies the very core purpose of social sciences, philosophy, and maybe even human existence itself. The seat recliners vindicate Thomas Hobbes view that without a present social authority people become “nasty and brutish”. They need the sovereign authority of the flight attendant to tell them to put their seat in the upright position so that the person behind them can eat their meal. The flight attendant creates the social contract from the hierarchical jurisdiction of power. Flight attendant as monarch, meal service etiquette as legal system…, I think you get the allegory. People who recline their seats upset me because they lend support to Hobbes, and I have always hoped that Hobbes was not right.
The people in the cabin who steadfastly keep their seats in the upright position are evidence for a more positively idealistic view of human nature. The ‘upright-uprighters’ who are compassionately considerate of those sitting behind them, and therefore do not recline their seat. These people are not only willing to endure a little discomfort for the sake of others, but they also understand that if they were to recline then they would also force others behind them to recline as well. They are our karmic champions, exemplifying the principle that both good and bad actions are conducted, and amplified, through the chain of human interactions which constitutes society. These are people who hold doors open for others, they let you out in a traffic queue, they hold an elevator door for someone rushing, they give up a seat for the elderly on the tube. We just need more of these people. These people are evidence for Carl Rogers view that people are essentially good, and that it is material wealth, desire and status which makes us selfish. In society, like the Economy Class cabin, I have placed my hope in this more humanist ideal of people. Wouldn’t the flight be a more pleasant experience if only more of our fellow fliers were self actualising in a Rogerian manner ?
And so the flight drones on interminably. The man in front has reclined his seat so far that his head is practically resting in my lap, and I start to feel nearly protective and nurturing towards him. Is his seat reclining just a case of Pluralistic Ignorance ? if so then can I excuse him ? In 1964 a woman, named Kitty Genovese, was brutally murdered in New York City. It was a hot night, and many of her neighbours had their windows open, and heard her cries for help. However, no-one rang the police. When asked why they didn’t ring the police the neighbours said that they felt that if the cries had been anything serious then someone else would surely have called the police. This abrogation of responsibility has been termed “Pluralistic Ignorance” by Psychologists. He may have reclined his seat because most other people have reclined their seats, and therefore, surely reclining can’t be a bad thing. Can it ?
Maybe this gentleman has reclined his seat because he just doesn’t know any better, he’s not a bad person, he just doesn’t have a role model showing him how to improve his economy class behaviour. Chris Trotter (2004) found that pro-social modelling significantly reduced rates of recidivism and anti-social behaviours of ex-prisoners on probation. Maybe, the seat recliner who is now practically resting his head in my lap just needs me to act as his pro-social behaviour modelling probation officer ? Or maybe I need to give him a little more ? Maybe I need to give him a genuine symbol of my respect of his worth and beauty and as a human being, maybe a kiss, or my uneaten chocolate brownie ? Psychological research also shows that altruistic helping behaviours usually increase when they are reciprocated. However, the research also shows that such reciprocity is usually linked to members of your own family, and “kin selection” (which is evolutionary psychologists speak for people that you fancy). As the gentleman, now soundly snoozing in my lap, is neither a member of my family, nor particularly fancieable I start to doubt the reciprocal altruism solution.
Much psychological research on helping behaviour, and care for others, shows a strong link with self esteem and a person’s sense of ethical justice. Those with both high self esteem and a stronger sense of social justice seem to be more likely to engage in altruistic acts (such as not reclining your economy class seat !). Now, the next step of our investigation into the recliners would be to step into the mathematically pure world of The Prisoner’s Dilemma (which I won’t do here as this post is already long enough), when we apply The Prisoner’s Dilemma to evolutionary psychology we start to find that selfish acts are linked to propensity to cheat on ones partner. So the next time someone reclines their seat maybe have a look at their partner, and if you ever feel the need to recline (even after reading this post) just be aware of the messages that you are sending to the rest of the world !
as for me, I decline to recline.