The United Incident: The Perfect Red Herring

No doubt you have heard about the passenger’s less than pleasant experience on a United flight. I, too, was shocked to watch the video of the bloodied man being dragged away and wondered whether I would ever book a flight on United in the future. What I would like to offer is more perspective, not to condone what happened or pretend that everything is fine. Nevertheless, I want to make sure we are seeing as clearly as we can.

There is a psychological bias called Fundamental Attribution Error, where when something (usually negative) circumstantial happens, it is attributed to that person’s character. For example, if I were to pick up someone’s dropped glove, I might be considered a nice person, rather than doing a nice deed. On another occasion, I might have accidentally stepped on someone’s dropped glove and might be considered a mean person, rather than doing a careless deed. You get the idea. (It’s the essence behind how we stereotype.)

What kills me is that we do the same thing we every label we use. Be it millennials, baby-boomers, Democrats, Republicans, or in this case United, our quest for simplification leads us to a red herring. The label is not the problem — it rarely is. The persons involved and the situation around it, which is what we should be questioning, happen to conveniently fall into the labels.

Why are we vilifying an entire company for the actions of a few? Are all 86,000+ employees at fault and should be considered heartless people? That’s a massive oversimplification. This incident shows us something extremely distorted with the way we report and view problems. Perhaps marketing and brand managers have done an incredible job convincing us that companies are one unified entity. The truth is, every organization is composed of humans, doing good work and sometimes bad work. To err is human.

Do we say… “Someone died on that highway, I’m never going to use it again. It’s bad highway.”? No, we assume that the driver did something unsafe, which led to their unfortunate outcome. We look at the whole picture and situation, not only the driver or only just the highway. Maybe it was snowy outside or maybe he was drinking. It doesn’t mean that he was an alcoholic, although wouldn’t that be the easiest explanation?

The conversation we should be having is: How can the airline industry change the policy of overbooking flights so that this never happens again? I think we may be getting there, but let’s stop being distracted by the red herrings of labels. It’s getting us nowhere.

P.S. — One last thing: I happened to have a good experience with United several months ago. It was not in their policy to have empathy on my situation, but the person in customer service did. And no, I do not work for them or have ever worked there.