Expert Opinion – Did Captain Schettino make the right decision on the Costa Concordia

Professor Laurence Alison, Director, Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology at the University of Liverpool says:

“In the past fifteen years there has been a growing interest in how decisions are made in natural but challenging environments i.e., where there are uncertain and constantly changing environments, shifting, ill defined, or competing goals, time pressure, high stakes and challenging organisational pressures.

Time (and a thorough investigation) will tell whether Captain Francesco Schettino’s decision to turn his ship inwards to the coast of Italy and run it aground, having hit rocks was a brave and quick minded calculation or whether the fact that he hit the rocks in the first place was the first of a sequence of grave errors.

The indications are though that he was a very experienced Captain and we do know that experts tend to make decisions faster, identify relevant perceptual cues and are better at anticipating how to respond to emerging threats. So, either his decision making was compromised (by drugs, alcohol, fatigue etc) or there was some other curious and anomalous reason why he took such a seemingly impulsive and doomed trajectory.

Research at the University of Liverpool’s Applied Psychology Department has identified how experts anticipate outcomes based on choices between different possible courses of action and, importantly, why sometimes they fail to act when choosing between difficult options.

This seems to occur in instances where both choices look equally positive or equally negative. For example, if we are offered two possible deserts, we sometimes spend a very long time deciding which to choose because we don’t want to miss out on the one we could have had. Instead, we might ask the waiter or sneakily get our partner to pick the other option so we can try some of theirs.

This process, of passing over some of the responsibility is called ‘choice deferral’. The other common option is to delay for so long in our choice that our partner simply picks for us. This is known as a ‘decision by omission’. Similarly, when faced with two negative options, sometimes our preference is to not pick either (we really don’t want to suffer either fate) but rather let one of those negative outcomes be imposed upon us rather than us actively choosing it. This results in us sitting back waiting for disaster to land on us when we can see no way out of either option.

At this point we know too little about whether the Captain was acting ineffectively, sitting back waiting for a shipwreck because of an error he had earlier made, or whether his expertise enabled him to make a difficult choice rapidly and pick the least worst option (shipwrecking it near the coast) as quickly as he could to save as many lives as possible under uncertain, high stake conditions. Certainly all his post-shipwreck decisions with regards to attempting to abandon ship did not appear to be influenced by a delay between choosing to stay or leave.

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