How science can explain our behavior on airplanes


Whether you’re jetting off on a big business trip or heading out for a relaxing vacation, have you ever noticed that people act a little weird on airplanes? Aside from the fact that it’s an enormous metal bird flying in the sky, everything about the way we behave on a plane seems to be different from anywhere else in the world – so why is that?

The Mile Cry Club

Have you ever watched an emotional blockbuster on that tiny screen on the back of your airplane seat and found yourself sobbing uncontrollably? You’re not alone. Even Christine Teigen tweeted back in May 2019, asking whether anyone else has noticed that they cry more when watching movies in the sky. It turns out that there is a scientific reason for this! Low air pressure in the atmosphere can reduce the oxygen in our blood, and therefore affects our ability to regulate our emotions and even make decisions. Both Brian Cox and Ed Sheeran have admitted to getting weepy while watching movies on an airplane.

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Hold on to control

Unless you’re the pilot, one thing about flying is that you are entirely out of control, and that can be pretty scary. Some people react to this with panic attacks and flying anxiety, whereas others try to claw back control in other ways. For example, those passengers who start shouting about silly little things, such as sitting by the window, or the overhead lockers – are desperate to feel in control again.

Breaking wind

Have you ever noticed that you’re a little windier than usual while flying? It’s not just nerves; there’s a real scientific term for it – HAFE or High Altitude Flatus Expulsion. It can also occur if you were to climb a mountain to a high altitude and works in a similar way that air in a bottle expands with a rise in altitude – the gas in your intestines expands, up to around 30%! Although it’s a little embarrassing to let one go, especially when trapped in a confined space, it might help to know that the slight dip in oxygen and the dry air can actually reduce our sense of smell, so at least it won’t be too offensive to those around you.

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Out of the ordinary

Another Twitter thread had a whole load of people remarking on how they tend to crave something they never usually drink on an airplane, perhaps tomato juice or ginger ale. Most people who get these beverages as part of their in-flight order will never ask for it at a restaurant, so why is that? Research suggests that a high noise level, such as on an airplane, can lower our ability to taste sweet or salty things and therefore makes us want to order something else, such as ‘umami’, a taste which describes things such as tomatoes.

It seems that we all regress a little into our lizard brains when it comes to air travel, and we stop thinking rationally, or with the context of social conformity (think: those people who recline their seat for the whole flight or take their shoes off!). A lot of the time we don’t even realize that what we are doing is so bizarre, but at least now we know it’s science… mostly!