Saturday, January 12, 2013

Evidence on Emotional Dissonance among Controllers

What do you think of Zerbato's depiction of apathy or indifference in the illustration above? Indifference is an item that was used as part of a preliminary study to test for emotional dissonance (EMDI) among controllers. Last April, 139 random controllers from around the world answered an online survey on wellbeing. What did the survey reveal about EMDI?
EMDI is the conflict between an ATCO's actual emotional state and the emotional state of perpetual calmness that is required to carry out the process of ATC. From the last 2 posts, EMDI is a by product of the ATC process and it is felt more acutely in the presence of unusual stressors. In the face of weather deviations, traffic density, work environment, personal conflicts and so on, the ATCO must suppress her natural flow of emotion and remain calm. EMDI has been found present in the service industry among employees such as policemen, air hostesses and call-center workers where emotions must be regulated to provide a service. 
To confirm its presence in the ATC unit, controllers were asked to assess 10 items that are characteristic of EMDI using the Likert scale responses of Yes/No/Maybe and Frequently/Sometimes/Once/Never. Here are 5 examples of the test items. Observe the responses in the brackets:

It does not matter how I sound, my main concern is to do a good job and to do it well (77%)
It is difficult to turn my emotions on and off at work (35%)
ATCOs are not expected to express any emotion while working the traffic and coordinating (71%)
I do not think that emotions are important in developing ATC skill (51%; reverse scoring)
Unexpected emotional conflicts outside of work affect my level of concentration at work (48%)

The preliminary study revealed that EMDI is present in the ATC unit and its presence is unobtrusive. Yes, Controllers are unaware of the negative effects. But Controllers should be made more aware of the role of EMDI. If you have noticed that as time goes by, you seem to become more indifferent or apathetic towards your family and friends, you are most likely experiencing the body's conditioning mechanism for EMDI. 
Indifference is the body's conditioned coping response towards EMDI.  During the early years as a trainee, an ATCO  experiences some discomfort as she tries to suppress her natural emotions and learns to remain calm. The discomfort is due to the inconsistency between her natural emotion and the requirement to remain calm so as to effect optimum SOE (safety, order, expedition). With the passage of time, she learns to cope by conditioning herself to be indifferent. As the years go by, she learns to maximise her mental efforts which involve emotional regulation.
In the preliminary study, 41% of the ATCOs indicated that they are sometimes indifferent in their social interactions. The mechanism of this coping response of being indifferent is similar to the Pavlov principle. Pavlov, was the physiologist who got his dog to salivate at the sound of a bell and in the absence of food. 

Pavlov's dog developed the conditioned  reflex of salivating at the sound of the bell because he associated the bell with the food. Initially, Pavlov rang the bell and presented the food.  

The apathetic tendency that develops from EMDI can be counteracted by the presence of adequate psychological resources in the ATC unit. What are these psychological resources? This question and the importance of EMDI will be further discussed in the following post.

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