Pilots with more flight hours have a greater internal locus of control, study finds

Professional pilots with more flight experience are less likely to believe that accidents are the result of circumstances outside of their control, according to new research in Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors.

“I’ve always been a bit of a nervous flyer myself, so the opportunity to empirically investigate a psychological factor related to aviation safety naturally appealed to me,” said study author Hiten P. Dave, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario.

“I got the offer to work on this paper from my current supervisor (Dr. Donald Saklofske) before I even started my PhD. A former graduate student of his (Dr. Alex Siegling) and one of his collaborators in Europe (Ms. Karina Mesarosova) had a large dataset with responses from European pilots.”

“The construct of locus of control (LOC) refers to the degree to which life outcomes are perceived to be under one’s own control (internal LOC) or due to an external, environmental factor (external LOC). In previous research, pilots with high internal LOC tended to also exhibit more safety-related behaviours (such as attending safety clinics), better risk perception, lower rate of accidents, and less job burnout,” Dave explained.

The researchers were particularly interested in a psychological measure for locus of control called the Aviation Safety Locus of Control Scale (ASLOC), which was developed specifically for pilots by researcher David R. Hunter in 2002.

In the new study, the ASLOC was completed by a sample of 569 professional European pilots, who also reported their age and number of flight hours.

“We found that as pilots gain more flight experience, their internal LOC orientations tend to increase (after controlling for age),” Dave told PsyPost. In other words, pilots with more flight hours tended to agree more strongly with statements such as “If pilots follow all the rules and regulations, they can avoid many aviation accidents.”

“Linking this back to previous research, we can support the notion that as pilots gain more flight hours, they tend to take more responsibility for safety behaviours and thus are more likely to avoid aviation accidents. This is also consistent with another study by some of the collaborators who found that pilots tend to score higher on a measure of conscientiousness than a normative sample,” Dave said.

The researchers, however, have not yet directly assessed how locus of control influences pilots’ behavior and accidents. “The inferences regarding safety behaviours are based on previous research. It is our hope that future studies directly assess safety behaviours and accident involvement in relation to internal LOC,” Dave explained.

The researchers also used the results to validate the Aviation Safety Locus of Control Scale and statistically analyze how it was scored.

The scale originally split LOC into two separate factors: external and internal. But Dave and his colleagues “found a very large correlation between the two factors, and therefore suggest that the ASLOC scale should be a single-factor measure of internal LOC.”

“We found a strong correlation between internal and external LOC, whereas Hunter’s study found only a moderate correlation within the same measure. While this could be due to differences in the nature of our samples, it would still be interesting to see if our finding replicates in future studies using this assessment scale. On the whole, however, we found that the ASLOC is a sound measure of LOC in pilots,” he explained.

“I recently heard that we are due to receive another dataset with actual pilot performance data. We are all very excited to work on this project, which ought to build on the findings of this study. Stay tuned for that!”

The study, “Assessing Locus of Control in Pilots: Psychometric Evaluation of a Self-Report Measure“, was authored by Hiten P. Dave, Karina Mesarosova, Alex B. Siegling, Paul F. Tremblay, and Donald H. Saklofske.