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THE JFK PLANE CRASH AND THE CHAPTER ON PERCEPTION
Diane L. Finley
Prince George's Community College
Presented at the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, August 2001

Getting students in an Introduction to Psychology course interested in the Sensation and Perception chapter is a challenge. The descriptions and discussions of sensory systems contain a large number of terms that must be memorized. The sensory systems are complex and intricate and students have seldom encountered most of the information previously. This lack of experience with the subject matter can make learning it more laborious. 

  Students often find that the theories of perception are confusing and difficult to understand. Students complain that few "real-world" events seem to directly apply to those concepts and theories. In an effort to overcome these problems, many instructors use demonstrations that illustrate perceptual set such as word lists and they interpret illusions using overheads with the Poggendorf and Top Hat illusions. Another often-used strategy is to have students view drawings, particularly those of M.C. Escher, and identify perceptual components used by the artists. Such an activity is pertinent to art majors but does little to inspire appreciation in other students.  Additionally, while such demonstrations can assist students in grasping perceptual concepts, they still do little to make evident the real-world importance of perception.   

The plane crash of John Kennedy, Jr., along with the crash of several other airliners over recent years, provides an unfortunate opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of perceptual concepts and why we study them. Allowing students to experience what pilots experience in-flight is one technique for helping students understand the relevance of the sensation and perception chapter.  Investigators and engineering psychologists have previously used flight simulators to show that errors in pilots' visual perception are responsible for many of the crashes. While few instructors have access to flight simulators*, there are many commercial programs that simulate the experience of being a pilot. Microsoft Flight Simulator is one such readily available program. ProPilot by Sierra is another. There are also many others. These computerized in-flight simulators can recreate dangerous situations and allow students to experience what the pilots experience.

To test the effectiveness of this activity, two assessments were conducted. In one, students were asked to discuss their feelings about the activity. Students in the aviation program also participated and also stated that they better understood why they needed to learn psychology. Most psychology students also felt that the activity was helpful in highlighting the importance of this chapter.
      
In the other assessment, a five-point quiz was given to two classes: one class experienced the simulation program, the other class had traditional instruction. A pre and post-test on those perceptual principles showed some gain in understanding by students who participated in the activity. Students in the non-simulation section still questioned why they needed to know that material.
 

Procedure:

1.       Review the sensation and perception chapters, paying particular attention to the concepts of visual search, illusory conjunctions, figure/ground, depth perception, convergence, relative size, ambiguity and orientation constancy.

2.       Use the flight simulation program with the simulator is set to imitate the hazy conditions of the July night when the Piper flown by John Kennedy, Jr. crashed. The conditions should include the experience of flying over a dark area of land or water at night. Lights of a city can be seen in the distance.

3.       Students experience landing the plane without using instruments.  With no visual information, students often overestimate their distance from the ground and thus inappropriately adjust their descent angles.

 (Footnote: On February 24, 2000 the NTSB issued its findings that it was pilot error that caused the crash. The final report showed that perceptual errors contributed to the problem.)

4.       Following the simulation experience, students identify elements of perceptual organization that were evident during that summer flight. Students also work in groups to solve the mysteries of several plane crashes, identifying potential perceptual factors. Plane crashes include the JFK crash, the 1965 United Airlines crash into Lake Michigan, the American Airlines crash into the mountain in South America, the 1966 Al Nippon Airlines crash into Tokyo Bay.

  While this activity is most effective when using a real simulator, today’s computer programs allow all instructors to use the same activity. It is a valuable activity that can help students to understand the importance of the sensation and perception chapter.

  Information on air crashes can be obtained at the website of the National Transportation Safety Board (www.ntsb.gov)

  Thanks to Capt.  Michael Lapinski, U.S. Coast Guard for his assistance with this project.

Performance on the Sensation and Perception Quiz
Spring 2000 Classes

(Number indicates percentage of students who answered that item correctly.)  

 

Simulator
(N= 20)             

No Simulator (N=14)

Question 1

     80

      71

Question 2

     75

      79

Question 3

     80

      64

Question 4

     65

      64

Question 5

     85

      71

 

*This poster was originally presented at the Eastern Psychological Association meeting in Baltimore in March 2000. At that time, I was employed at Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville which has an aviation management program. We were fortunate to have a flight simulator used to train air traffic controllers and pilots.  

  Sensation and Perception Quiz
Write the letter of the best answer in the blank in the margin.

___________  1.  We tend not to notice the unseen visual information at the "blind spot"  mainly because of a process that works like the gestalt principle of                  
a.
      
simplicity
b.       proximity
c.       closure
d.       similarity
_____________  2. The figure/ground principle:
a.       was formulated by gestalt psychologists to describe how objects seem to pop out from the background again which they are seen.
b. states that figures are obscured by their backgrounds.
 c. suggests that elements that are located near to each other tend to be seen as part of the same perceptual unit, in most cases
d. states that individuals with attractive figures are likely to be viewed with interest.
____________  3. The fact that some perceptual demonstrations such as the Necker cube can
be perceived in more than one orientation shows mainly that
a.       the viewer can be fooled by inconsistencies in the scene
b.       the same stimulus array can give rise to more than one perceptual interpretation
c.       figure-ground is an important perceptual organizing principle
d.       the perception is determined by sensory features.

_____________  4. A motorcycle is traveling on the road at night with a small flashlight taped to the burned-out headlight. Oncoming motorists mistake the motorcycle as being further away than it really is. This perceptual error involves
a.       the Poggendorf illusion
b.       relative size
c.       motion parallax
d.       light adaptation  

_____________  5. Linear perspective, relative size and motion parallax  are:
a.       monocular cues for depth perception
b.       binocular cues for depth perception
c.       opponent-process cues for perceptual constancy
d.       trichromatic stimuli for perceptual constancy