We were about forty minutes into a transatlantic flight of almost ten hours. The three of us were each doing our own thing, when suddenly the people in front of us reclined their seats back fully. I felt the seat’s backrest push into my knees and hurried to adjust my position.

I raised my eyebrows. We exchanged glances and eye rolls, communicated the unsurprising: Tired annoyance, mostly.

I could not help but wonder though.

I recalled this blog post and thought idiot drivers — a favorite label reminding me of a fundamental attribution error, to watch out. Staring at the front seat, pressed against my legs, I noticed that I myself was not at all inclined to lean back. Neither my wife nor my daughter were going to recline either.

Surveying the rows of seats around us showed some seats reclined and others not. Two camps.

I imagined people going on a few flights and experiencing sitting in cramped seats, then the narrow space becoming smaller yet, when a person in front of them reclined. In my mind people go through that perhaps a few times and they change. None are too happy with the situation, but almost all will reach one of two conclusions:

  • Since it has been done to them, they will do this to others.
  • Because they do not like how this feels, they will not themselves do this to others.

I am sure this is overly simplified, though it makes for a compelling mental image.

When you recline your seat, it moves further into the space behind you. You do not see the consequences of your action; the negative impact literally occurs in your blind spot. Put a different way: The distance between action and impact is too great. If people could see what they are doing, would more of them decide against it?

It is hard to imagine otherwise.

There is of course an environmental perspective as well. The airline provides and manages the plane; they could implement measures to encourage good behavior (or discourage bad behavior) of the people on board.

This particular journey had so far featured numerous long lines, malfunctioning and tedious check-in machines, delayed boarding, broken and/or low-quality in-seat equipment — and now of course seating arrangements that felt rather cramped.

Could at least some of those annoyances actually be serving a clear purpose for the airline? At almost every opportunity, they seem to offer upgrades that offer more room, shorter waits, quicker seating, and so forth.

I picked up my reading. There were about eight and a half hours to go.


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