Do Air Traffic Controllers have a Risk Type?

May 17, 2017

Some startling research findings were presented at the recent 2017 British Psychological Society’s Occupational Psychology Conference. For Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) were singled out as having one of the most stressful and high-risk vocations. Dr. Nicola Davies spoke to Geoff Trickey, Chartered Psychologist and MD of Psychological Consultancy Limited, about his ATC research and how personality Risk Types affect performance.

Testing Risk Types
Geoff Trickey indicates that 74.6% of the 138 air traffic controllers in the study fall into the “Deliberate” category of personality ‘Risk Types,’ as measured by the Risk Type Compass (RTC). This Risk Type tends to be calm and level-headed in emergency situations, always checking things out carefully and making rational and unemotional evaluations before acting.

“In a long and varied career, I have never seen results quite this emphatic,” says Trickey. Prudent (10.9%) and Composed (8.7%) made up the balance of Risk Types, apart from just 3.5% of air traffic controllers who fell into either AdventurousWary, or Intense.

The Downside to the Deliberate Risk Personality
Since Deliberate Risk Type personalities are untroubled by risk, they may have unrealistic expectations of others in emergency situations, their confident and authoritative manner may run the risk of appearing arrogant, and their matter-of-fact approach in giving instructions to pilots may fail to convey urgency. Because of their desire to ‘do things by the book’ they can seem inflexible, perhaps underrating “out-of-the-box” solutions.

Are Air Traffic Controllers Born or Made?
Trickey explains that only people who are capable of vigilance and discipline, and who are calm, collected and emotionally resilient would be drawn to become an air traffic controller. “Research strongly supports the view that personality remains constant from the time of brain maturity in the early 20s, so personality Risk Type should not change significantly over an individual’s working life. ATC training, therefore, builds on a basic personality Risk Type and further influences behavior by providing trainees with strategies and procedures for dealing with risks.”

Assessing Risk Strength
Trickey and his colleague, Dr. Simon Toms, also explored ‘risk strength’ on a scale of 1 to 5, which he explains, “reflects an individual’s proximity to the outer perimeter of the compass where individuals are likely to reflect the extremes of the Risk Type description.” When the samples of general population Deliberate Risk Types were compared with the ATC Deliberate sample, ATCs were three times more likely to be high in the strength of their Risk Type.

Which Risk Type is Best?
“No Risk Type is intrinsically any ‘better’ than any other,” maintains Trickey.  “Across the population there is a remarkably even balance of Risk Types. This gives our species a huge advantage in terms of the diversity of risk dispositions available, since individuals, teams, organizations, and civilizations only survive when they get the balance between opportunity and risk right.”

Photos Courtesy of NavCan

For future generations of ATCs, tests undertaken on Risk Type personality prior to admission to training programs could prove extremely helpful to management and for the sustained mental health of ATCs.   

 Photos Courtesy of NavCan