The Germanwings Crash: An Industry Problem with a Relational Frame Theory Solution.


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

NBC News recently ran a story on the tragic Germanwings crash that occurred earlier this week.  One of the pilots, Andreas Lubitz, locked his fellow pilot out of the cockpit and descended the plane straight into the French Alps.

The focus of the story was on the mental health screening system in the airline industry. The central question for  behavioral scientists was put nicely by John Gadzinski, an aviation safety consultant — “It doesn’t matter if it’s a person who has an AR-15 shooting out 4 year olds or a pilot who’s going to kill 150 people on an airplane….The question is how do you prevent a statistically unlikely event from catastrophically occurring?”
Across airlines, no consistency exists on mental health screening and most rely on self report, which can be relatively easy to trick. Any time you give someone a standard survey battery, the individual typically has time to formulate socially desirable responses to the items, which could be indicators of how someone wants to be seen rather than true indicators of a individual’s psychological state.
This is where behavior analysts bring something to the table.  For several years, researchers have refined the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure, or IRAP for short. The IRAP basically works like this: a user is presented with a stimulus, which can be a word or an image, such as a person of a particular ethnicity.  Next, the user is presented with a contextual cue, such as “good, bad, hate, love,” etc…  The user then has a very brief amount of time to select a response that is consistent or inconsistent with his/her own relational network, or verbal repertoire (e.g., 0-2 seconds).  The time pressure keeps the user from emitting an elaborated relational response that may be deemed socially acceptable to others who may see the results.  
Thus, the IRAP has been touted as as a new type of lie-detector of sorts in that it is notably difficult to “fake” results and has been used to detect bias on socially sensitive issues such as prejudice.  The idea is that responding in a way that is inconsistent with ones own relational network requires a few extra milliseconds than would responding consistently.
For a great introduction to the IRAP see this article from The Psychological Record, and be sure to check out all of the great resources at
Do you have experience with the IRAP?  Let us know if you think it would work for airlines in the comments below.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


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1 Comment on "The Germanwings Crash: An Industry Problem with a Relational Frame Theory Solution."

  1. I’m not sure if the IRAP could be used to identify those who may pose a threat to passengers. However, it could identify those enduring mental illness which would allow air carriers to offer greater support to effected individuals. Further, the threat-if any-posed by those identified by IRAP could then be assessed by other mental health professionals and experts. This video presentation by Ian Hussey on his work using IRAP to understand & predict suicide might be relevant here:

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