Only searching for a plane? What the disappearance of Flight MH 370 reveals about the human need for meaning and certainty

In this post, I describe how two core motives of human social behavior—the need for understanding and the need for control—shape people’s responses to disaster. Using the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as an example, I describe how people seek to maintain meaning (related to understanding) and to re-establish certainty (related to control) after unforeseen disasters.

At this point—more than 70 days into the search—it is reasonably possible missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 will never be found. A lack of clues and information has investigators searching for answers. The disappearance of the plane, and the search for it, is a reminder that life is not always under our control. And, as much as humans strive to impose order and predictability on the world, events occur and we have little or no influence.

While random events may produce positive and negative consequences, people tend to dislike randomness in their lives. Thinking about randomness can cause people to experience arousal or anxiety because it threatens their perceptions of control (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Kay, Moscovitch, & Laurin, 2010). Disasters, like the disappearance of flight 370, are especially likely to provoke anxiety because they challenge people’s view of the world as just and fair while reminding people they lack control over some events. As a natural response to events that challenge understanding and control, people engage in behaviors to restore meaning and certainty (Kay, Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008; Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006; Weary & Jacobson, 1997).

A number of models in psychology explain how people attempt to restore meaning, certainty, and control after it is challenged (McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001; Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006; Kay et al., 2008). An important characteristic of these models is the idea of fluid compensation. Fluid compensation refers to the fact that people can reaffirm and bolster their understanding of the world or their feelings of control in domains other than the one being threatened. For example, when people feel little personal control over their lives they may be more likely to believe in a controlling God or support the government (Kay, et al., 2008) because doing so may provide some control or stability. Below, I explain how the search for missing flight 370 indicates a search for meaning and certainty.    

The need for meaning in the search for MH 370

Near the end of April investigators reached a critical juncture in the search for missing flight 370: the original search area had been combed by search submarines, and the plane had not been found. More than 50 days into the search, no survivors of the crash could still be alive, batteries transmitting signals from the black boxes had died, and debris from the plane would have been waterlogged and sunk. The options for investigators were limited: end the search or expand the search zone.

Officials decided to vastly expand the search area. Search submarines and other equipment meticulously searched many areas of the ocean that have never even been mapped, and the search is now estimated to take eight months to a year. Given the time and resources needed for the search an interesting theoretical question is, why didn’t officials choose to end the search? Would it be unreasonable to conclude the plane crashed in the ocean and no one survived?

I submit one reason the search continued is because people—family members of those on board, the media, officials leading the search, the public—need to know what happened, they have a need to understand. The fact that a plane could experience an accident in the air, crash into the ocean and never be found challenges our understanding of how the world works, what is just and fair. The discrepancy between our expectations and the reality of what happened creates a need.

The title of an article posted by CNN in April captured the sentiment of people’s need for information: “The question no one wants to ask: What if Flight 370 is never found?” To maintain meaning after dramatic events, people need an explanation.    

The need for certainty in the search for MH 370    

The disappearance of flight 370 not only highlights the human need for understanding, but also the need for certainty and control. People are likely to seek certainty and control when situations make them feel uncertain. Disasters, accidents, and tragedy are a unique reminder that human control is limited. One way people may collectively exercise control after a disaster is to engage in behaviors directed toward preventing future disasters. New regulations, laws, and protocols may be likely after accidents occur because they provide a way for people to exert control and feel some security.

After the disappearance of flight 370 many people in the media have asked, how we can prevent losing planes in the future? A session on the CBS Morning News in March was titled, “Lessons from MH370: How can we never lose a plane again?” Although new regulations and procedures may improve our ability to track planes and the activity that occurs on board, there is little or no guarantee a similar accident will not happen again. After all, air traffic controllers were supposed to be able to track flight 370, until something went wrong.

The Take Away Message

In this post, I have used the disappearance of flight 370 to illustrate how people seek meaning and certainty after disasters. I have made generalizations and extrapolated from phenomena studied in a laboratory to real world events. Given those shortcomings, however, the basic ideas hold: when people’s understanding of the world or their feeling of certainty is challenged, they seek to restore it. Disasters and accidents are especially likely to challenge meaning and certainty. And, in the individual and collective response of people to disasters it is possible to identify efforts aimed at restoring meaning and certainty.


Heine, S. J., Proulx, T., & Vohs, K. D. (2006). The meaning maintenance model: On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (2), 88-110.

Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions. New York: Free Press.

Kay, A. C., Moscovitch, D. A., & Laurin, K. (2010). Randomness, attributions of arousal, and belief in God. Psychological Science, 1-3.

Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Napier, J. L., Callan, M. J., & Laurin, K. (2008). God and the government: Testing a compensatory control mechanism for the support of external systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (1), 18-35.

McGregor, I., Zanna, M. P., Holmes, J. G., & Spencer, S. J. (2001). Compensatory conviction in the face of personal uncertainty: Going to extremes and being oneself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 472-488.

Weary, G., & Jacobson, J. (1997). Causal uncertainty beliefs and diagnostic information seeking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 839.