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Air Rage and the Psychology of Steven Slater’s Outburst

As dramatic exits go, Steven Slater's was hard to beat. 

After an argument with a passenger, the 38-year-old flight attendant for JetBlue Airways quit his job on Monday by telling passengers off (some say cursing them out) over the intercom system as his plane taxied into the gate at New York's JFK airport. He then grabbed a beer from the beverage cart, deployed the plane's emergency chute, and slid onto the tarmac.

When the story hit the news, Slater became an instant celebrity. Online, people cheered what they saw as his principled stance. Someone set up a Facebook Fan page, which quickly attracted more than 130,000 members. Video tributes were made, and at least one folk ballad composed.

Why all the adulation for one man? One reason, psychologists say, is that we see ourselves in Slater — both in the buildup he must have felt before he snapped and in the cathartic moment when he let it all out. The fact that Slater snapped likely had to do with both the structured environment and the flight attendant's personal history. The outburst may even be healthy, it turns out.

Airline anger

The JetBlue incident began early on the flight from Pittsburgh, according to news reports. A passenger with an oversized bag argued with Slater when he told her she'd have to check it; later, at the end of the flight, the same passenger stood up and began rummaging in the overhead bin while the plane was still taxiing. When Slater went to tell her to stay seated, police told the New York Times, the bag hit him on the head and the passenger cursed at him. That triggered Slater's unusual exit.

Most people can sympathize with the frustrations of air travel, said Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who has studied air travel anxiety and so-called "air rage." On an airplane, he said, both passengers and flight attendants are subject to a huge number of strict, sometimes arbitrary, rules. 

"Whenever you create more rules for human behaviors, you create reactance, you create people wanting to react to those rules and wanting to do the opposite of those rules," Bricker told LiveScience. 

These attempts to wrest control back from largely faceless rule-makers could have driven both the passenger's insistence on standing up to get her bags and Slater's frustration, Bricker said. Additional stress — like the caregiver stress Slater might feel from taking care of his ailing mother — could exacerbate the situation.

"You've got the passenger's stress, you've got the passenger's own history, you've got Mr. Slater and his history, and you've got a rule-governed environment," Bricker said. "When you put them together, it can lead to events like this."

Self-control and self-preservation

Part of a flight attendant's job is to face the public every day with a smile, but that level of self-control can become difficult over time, said Brandon Schmeichel, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M. It's possible that Slater simply ran out of energy to tamp down his true emotions. 

"Willpower may operate like a muscle," Schmeichel said. "So when you exercise your muscles in the short-term, that 10th dumbbell curl is more difficult than the second."

On the other hand, a dramatic move like Slater's can sometimes be healthy in the long run, University of Michigan evolutionary psychologist Daniel Kruger told LiveScience. Anger may play an evolutionary role in telling us when we're in a bad situation. 

"These angry responses have a function when we really might not be well-suited for that particular role or relationship," Kruger said. "It might just require something that is so intense and acute, like these seemingly out-of-nowhere reactions, to sever those ties." 

Why we love Slater

There could also be an evolutionary component to the public outpouring of support for Slater, Kruger said. Primates are hierarchy-minded creatures, and any challenge to authority gets our attention. In this case, a passenger challenged Slater's authority, and he, in turn, challenged his bosses'.

"Social status is a big part of this social world," Kruger said. "[Evolutionarily], we want to know where everyone is, and if there's a change, it would be greatly to our advantage to be aware of that."

The uniqueness of air travel likely also plays a role in the public's fascination, Bricker said. People know what it feels like to see passengers breaking rules or acting obnoxious, so we can empathize with Slater's feelings.

Even off of airplanes, most of us know what it feels like to control ourselves and act polite even if we don't want to, Schmeichel said. We also know that others don't always show their true colors.

"We recognize that sometimes people aren't behaving how they want to behave," Schmeichel said. "So when someone actually has that kind of cathartic moment, we can identify."

Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.