Search the Site

Airplane Seat Reclining: A Good Real-World Altruism Test?

(Digital Vision)

A good idea from a reader named Mark Mize:

Reading this article, I was immediately reminded of the section in SuperFreakonomics regarding altruism:
I think the choice to recline one’s airplane seat is a great example of natural altruistic tendencies. Reclining one’s own seat increases his comfort, but only at the expense of the person directly behind him. Then, in order for that person behind to increase his own comfort level back to what it was before the person in front reclined back into his space, he must now recline back into the space of the person behind him at the expense of that person’s comfort, and so on. An experiment observing this behavior may be a better measuring stick of natural human altruism tendencies than the Dictator game or similar games since the behavior could be observed in real time and without the behaviors associated with knowing one is being observed in a laboratory.

Here, from the Washington Post, is an excerpt from the article in question:

Before things got out of hand, it was a typical annoyance that happens once a flight gets airborne: A passenger hit the recline button and sent his seat intimately close to the lap of the guy sitting behind him.

What followed wasn’t typical at all: a smack to the head, peacemakers diving about the cabin to intervene and a pair of Air Force F-16 fighter jets scrambling into the night skies over Washington.
It happened late Sunday, just after a United Airlines Boeing 767 bound for Ghana with 144 passengers took off from Dulles International Airport.

Not long after the 10:44 p.m. departure for the overnight flight, the offending seat was lowered into the offended lap, and a fight ensued. A flight attendant and another passenger jumped in between, said sources familiar with the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details.
The pilot has complete authority over the aircraft, a United spokesman said, and he decided to return to Dulles to sort things out rather than continue the transatlantic flight to Ghana when he was unsure of the scope of the problem.

Any academic researchers out there looking for a great empirical experiment in altruistic behavior? Summer’s a great time to observe the seat-reclining wars …