A Foot in the Mind

By Rod Machado

Psychologist Robert Ornstein, in his book Evolution of Consciousness: Origins of the Way We Think, talks about a person he knew as Jim. Jim’s reputation was based on his ability to get others to do things for him. Working for a San Francisco based church, Jim’s talent proved useful in acquiring volunteers to help solicit funds for the poor. As a psychologist, Dr. Ornstein was curious about Jim’s skill and spent considerable time observing him.

What was Jim’s secret? He would have his minions give prospective volunteers five prestamped envelopes and letters. All the individual had to do was fold the letter, lick the envelope and put it in the mailbox. Most people easily complied with the request and many returned for more letters. Jim knew that small actions beget larger ones. Jim told Ornstein, “You know, once I get somebody, I can get them to do anything.” The majority of a person’s resistance is overcome with that first action. Jim used this to his advantage.

Dr. Ornstein found Jim and his method unnerving. Eventually, he ceased his study of Jim and his group. Several years passed before he heard about Jim again. This time, Jim was in the news. You’ll probably recognize Jim by his full name, the Reverend Jim Jones of the Jonestown, Guyana, mass poisoning tragedy (Kool-Aid, remember?). There’s a good chance that small actions—perhaps just the licking of envelopes—eventually led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people.

According to Dr. Ornstein, Jim Jones was crafty at getting a foot in the mind (a spin-off of the salesman getting a foot in the door). This peculiar quirk of the mind is visible in many ways, especially when it comes to spending money.

Have you noticed that it’s easier to spend a lot of money once you spend the first few dollars? Few pilots walk into the pilot supply shop waving their credit cards while announcing, “Let the games begin.” There is a natural reluctance to spend those first few dollars, especially where bigger sums are at stake. We like to browse, imagine and rationalize as we work up to that first purchase. While hovering over a new headset in the counter display, we listen to the devil of purchase on one shoulder and the angel of restraint on the other. Once we buy a few sectional charts, earplugs or a fuel dipper, things change. Now it’s much easier to say, “Ah, what the heck, throw in that headset, too.” A foot has entered your mind, and is resting on a slippery slope. It’s all downhill from there. 

It’s a quirk of the mind (perhaps even one having an evolutionary value for survival) that a commitment to do a small thing breaks our initial resistance to doing more of it. In an airplane, this quirk can be deadly.

For instance, taking off into known poor weather to “have a look” may not be that much different from licking envelopes and mailing letters. Your verbal commitment is to return to the airport or make a 180 if the conditions are poor. This is, however, more difficult to do than to say. The moment those wheels leave the runway, you’ve taken the first step. That's right. You've got a foot is in your mind—a loafer in the lobes. You’ve just spent your first few dollars. Returning to land is sure to be more difficult than it appears to be, for mental rather than mechanical reasons.

Weather isn’t the only place we can fall victim to this mental trap. Starting a flight with limited fuel might be the first step to bypassing the first scheduled fuel stop. We might find it difficult to interrupt a flight begun while tired and fatigued.

Does this mean I would argue for never departing to have a peek at the weather when it’s appropriate to do so, or never beginning a flight with less than full tanks? Not at all. We don’t live in a perfect world and you only need to look at Don King’s hairstyle to realize this. There’s a law of physics that says an object in motion tends to stay in motion. That’s true of psychological objects, as well. The secret here is to realize that the temptation to continue is greater once the game’s afoot. Sometimes we just have to trust ourselves to do the right thing. Knowing that the right thing might be more difficult to do is certainly helpful in preparing us to behave properly when it’s necessary to do so. Pilots with a high degree of inner knowing might minimize their vulnerability by acknowledging that the foot-in-the-mind risk is present with all first actions.

Generally speaking, pilots are unquestionably good at disciplining their mind. After all, it takes concentration to watch for traffic, navigate and communicate when flying in busy airspace. We are, nevertheless, pretty much like everyone else when it comes to acknowledging and understanding our psychological vulnerabilities, especially the vulnerability of having a foot in your mind. While this problem might less hazardous for a ground dweller, it’s an important concern for an aviator.

Many years ago, the Chinese foot soldier Some Shoe…, no, wait, wrong guy. I mean the Chinese General Sun Tzu said, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” Knowing how easy it is to be influenced by small actions is the first step in avoiding being the victim of the psychological vulnerability known as having a foot in your mind.

By Rod Machado | | All Rod's Posts, Be a Safer Pilot, Learning to Fly | 2 comments
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  • Jim Pearsall - February 08, 2019

    Great story. You need a picture of Don King, my daughter would not get it. Wait, prob the Jim Jones reference either. Well I thouroughly enjoyed it and 90% of my pilot friends would too.

  • Mary Latimer - February 08, 2019

    Excellent points.
    This is where I believe having personal minimums in writing and sharing those minimums with family and mentors makes it harder to violate those minimums.

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