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Continuation Bias

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Plan Continuation Bias

Article Information
Category: Human Behaviour Human Behaviour
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: SKYbrary About SKYbrary


(Plan) Continuation Bias is the unconscious cognitive bias to continue with the original plan in spite of changing conditions.


The following explanation of continuation bias is derived from a Transport Safety Board of Canada accident report.

To make decisions effectively, a pilot or controller needs an accurate understanding of the situation and an appreciation of the implications of the situation, then to formulate a plan and contingencies, and to implement the best course of action. Equally important is the ability to recognize changes in the situation and to reinitiate the decision-making process to ensure that changes are accounted for and plans modified accordingly. If the potential implications of the situation are not adequately considered during the decision-making process, there is an increased risk that the decision and its associated action will result in an adverse outcome that leads to an undesired aircraft state.

A number of different factors can adversely impact a pilot's decision-making process. For example, increased workload can adversely impact a pilot's ability to perceive and evaluate cues from the environment and may result in attentional narrowing. In many cases, this attentional narrowing can lead to Confirmation Bias, which causes people to seek out cues that support the desired course of action, to the possible exclusion of critical cues that may support an alternate, less desirable hypothesis. The danger this presents is that potentially serious outcomes may not be given the appropriate level of consideration when attempting to determine the best possible course of action.

One specific form of confirmation bias is (plan) continuation bias, or plan continuation error. Once a plan is made and committed to, it becomes increasingly difficult for stimuli or conditions in the environment to be recognized as necessitating a change to the plan. Often, as workload increases, the stimuli or conditions will appear obvious to people external to the situation; however, it can be very difficult for a pilot caught up in the plan to recognize the saliency of the cues and the need to alter the plan.

When continuation bias interferes with the pilot's ability to detect important cues, or if the pilot fails to recognize the implications of those cues, breakdowns in situational awareness (SA) occur. These breakdowns in SA can result in non-optimal decisions being made, which could compromise safety.

In a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Ames Research Center review of 37 accidents investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, it was determined that almost 75% of the tactical decision errors involved in the 37 accidents were related to decisions to continue on the original plan of action despite the presence of cues suggesting an alternative course of action. Dekker (2006) suggests that continuation bias occurs when the cues used to formulate the initial plan are considered to be very strong. For example, if the plan seems like a great plan, based on the information available at the time, subsequent cues that indicate otherwise may not be viewed in an equal light, in terms of decision making.

Therefore, it is important to realize that continuation bias can occur, and it is important for pilots to remain cognizant of the risks of not carefully analyzing changes in the situation, and considering the implications of those changes, to determine whether or not a more appropriate revised course of action is appropriate. As workload increases, particularly in a single-pilot scenario, less and less mental capacity is available to process these changes, and to consider the potential impact that they may have on the original plan.

Accidents and Incidents

SKYbrary includes the following reports relating to events where continuation bias was considered to be a factor:

  • A343 / GLID, en-route, north of Waldshut-Tiengen southwest Germany, 2012 (On 11 August 2012, the augmenting crew member in the flight deck of an Airbus A340 about to join final approach to Zurich in Class 'C' airspace as cleared suddenly saw a glider on a collision course with the aircraft. The operating crew were alerted and immediately executed a "pronounced avoiding manoeuvre" and the two aircraft passed at approximately the same level with approximately 260 metres separation. The Investigation attributed the conflict to airspace incursion by the glider and issue of a clearance to below MRVA to the A340 and noted the absence of relevant safety nets.)
  • C550, vicinity Cagliari Sardinia Italy, 2004 (On 24 February 2004, a Cessna 550 inbound to Cagliari at night requested and was approved for a visual approach without crew awareness of the surrounding terrain. It was subsequently destroyed by terrain impact and a resultant fire during descent and all occupants were killed. The Investigation concluded that the accident was the consequence of the way the crew conducted the flight in the absence of adequate visual references and with the possibility of a ‘black hole’ effect. It was also noted that the aircraft was not fitted, nor required to be fitted, with TAWS.)
  • A320 / B738, vicinity Delhi India, 2016 (On 30 January 2016, an Airbus A320 crew cleared for an ILS approach to runway 11 at Delhi reported established on the runway 11 LLZ but were actually on the runway 09 LLZ in error and continued on that ILS finally crossing in front of a Boeing 737-800 on the ILS for runway 10. The Investigation found that the A320 crew had not noticed they had the wrong ILS frequency set and that conflict with the 737 occurred because Approach transferred the A320 to TWR whilst a conflict alert was active and without confirming it was complying with its clearance.)
  • A320, São Paulo Congonhas Brazil, 2007 (On 17 July 2007, the commander of a TAM Airlines Airbus A320 being operated with one thrust reverser locked out was unable to stop the aircraft leaving the landing runway at Congonhas at speed and it hit buildings and was destroyed by the impact and fire which followed killing all on board and others on the ground. The investigation attributed the accident to pilot failure to realise that the thrust lever of the engine with the locked out reverser was above idle, which by design then prevented both the deployment of ground spoilers and the activation of the pre-selected autobrake.)
  • A320, Halifax NS Canada, 2015 (On 29 March 2015, an Airbus A320 crew mismanaged the descent during a night non-precision approach at Halifax and continued below MDA without the mandatory autopilot disconnection until, with inadequate visual reference, the aircraft impacted terrain and obstructions 225 metres short of the runway. The aircraft was destroyed but there were no fatalities. The Investigation found that the crew did not monitor their descent against the required vertical profile, as there was no SOP requiring them to do so, and did not recognise in time that a go around was appropriate.)



Related Articles

Further Reading

  • The “Barn Door” Effect by C. West, Ph.D., NOAA - a paper about pilots’ propensity to continue approaches to land when closer to convective weather than they would wish to get while en route.