Imagine that opposite this page there were to appear an advertisement under the headline ‘Free Return Tickets to Cape Town’, worded something like this: ‘Hundreds of free flights to any destination served by South African Airways! Write to us with your preferred itinerary and a brief explanation of why you would like to visit the place you have chosen.’
Suppose you chose Cape Town. You would dispatch your entry more in hope than anticipation, suspicious that there must be a catch. But suppose there was no catch, and you won. Would you not be delighted? Of course you would. Yet I have just come from Johannesburg airport along with another 35 people, all of whom – to a man, woman and child – had been raging, shouting, howling, and in more than one case crying, because they had been made a better offer than the one I’ve just described. All we were asked for in return was to postpone our departure to the same flight on the following day.
So why the gnashing of teeth? One man was so angry that he hit another passenger whom he suspected of trying to push in, then lunged at the lady ticket-clerk. Children, seeing their parents’ distress, began to cry. Husbands shouted and wives buried their heads in their hands. It looked like an Old Testament scene of human misery.
Nor do I exclude myself and my three companions. The feeling among us was one of minor catastrophe. We were at first offered the free flights as a voluntary option. None of us volunteered. It meant missing an English Monday. One of my group works for a newspaper and wanted to be back at his desk. Another had left his elderly mother for a week in a residential nursing home; it might be inconvenient for his brother to collect her. A third had no engagements at all but stuck with his friend.
I hesitated. The free flight sounded attractive. But I had been invited to a dinner with the sponsors of Crossrail on Monday evening, and a TV researcher with something to discuss had undertaken to telephone me during the day. So I too said No. The airline then informed all 35 of us that the free-flights option was compulsory. There was a near-riot. Fuming, we trudged to our waiting hotel transport.
I write this now by a hotel swimming pool on a glorious, sunny South African morning. Friends and colleagues in England have been understanding, the Earth is continuing in its orbit, and four people’s travel prospects for the year ahead are much improved.
So what were we 35 so cross about last night? I am sure airline staff would confirm that it is a familiar response. Though there are sound commercial reasons for the practice, and sound personal reasons for many passengers to co-operate, there is tremendous passenger resistance to overbooking, ‘bumping’ and rescheduling. Nearly everybody shared a huge disinclination to unscramble immediate plans. Bags were packed. Arrangements had been made.
It was (in our own minds at least) too late to change. A great surge of insistence that our schedules should not be interfered with rose in our collective gorge. The response was emotional. It was also irrational. In something not unlike a fit of temper, many of us were ignoring our own best interests. There will be few in that group for whom the opportunity-cost of rearranging a Monday exceeded £600 plus a day with all expenses paid at a swish hotel.
The instinct (for that is what it was) which overtook us is an example of a wider phenomenon which fascinates me. A disinclination to unscramble plans already embarked upon is responsible, I believe, for acts of tremendous stupidity both on a personal level and at that of national political direction. Wars have been started (or continued) because the forward planning was already in place. Schemes whose disastrous nature becomes clearer by the day for business and industry, transport and public works, science and education, have been maintained for no better reason than that they have already been begun. The word ‘abort’ has dreadful connotations for us.
The explanation usually offered is ‘saving face’. But I question whether pride is at the root of it. People who can very well see that the ultimate result of sticking to existing plans will be a loss of face greater than that involved in aborting them early will refuse mulishly to consider acting to protect their own final reputation. It goes deep in us and is best caught by the quizmaster’s phrase ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’. Elderly ladies who have taken a bad fall while out shopping will insist on getting straight up and carrying on; and many readers, like me, will know someone who has carried through plans to marry, despite having developed severe doubts about their betrothed – not least because the marquee has been booked and the invitations issued.
On the roads, I am unlikely to be alone in the idiotic habit of sticking to the route implied by a wrong turning I have taken, for the reason that this seems to be the way I’m going now. The end-result may be a ten-mile detour, but somehow this is easier to countenance than stopping, executing a three-point turn, and retracing the few yards already travelled. As I do this when driving alone, ‘saving face’ cannot be the explanation.
No common human or animal trait is likely to be without a Darwinian explanation, and it is probable that natural selection has bred into us this mulishness about quitting a path we have already embraced, even after we have come to doubt that it remains the best course. In the wild, the creature which stops too often to reconsider may be more exposed to predators, while an instinct to dig in and fight your way through the thicket, though it may not pay dividends in every thicket, may be a more productive rule-of-thumb than the instinct for second thoughts.
But an airport, a marriage, a Millennium Dome, a Groundnuts Scheme, a European Fighter Aircraft Project, a degree-course or a career may not be like a thicket. For a piece of lifetime advice to a favourite godchild, ‘Abort!’ may lack a lapidary quality, but as one who has aborted careers in the Foreign Office, Parliament and television – and now thanks his lucky stars that he aborted a Sunday-night flight to London – it is a piece of wisdom I can recommend.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.