Humphreys’ Law of Captive Audience Rage as Applied to Cell Phones on Airplanes

Humphreys’ Law let us predict the impact of cell phone conversations being allowed during flight

In its finite wisdom, the Federal Communications Commission is mooting an end to the inflight cell phone ban on airplanes. The likely impact of such a move may at first seem unpredictable, unless of course you know Humphreys’ Law of Captive Audience Rage.

Gordon Moore’s Law, famously, predicted the rate of increase in transistors and associated computing speed. I don’t know if his law holds true, but I do know that he made a enormous sum of money, so I decided to formulate a law of my own so that I also could sit back and let the bucks pour in. My law predicts Captive Audience Rage (CAR), a phenomenon that is familiar to anyone who has for example sat in a movie theater while another patron loudly discusses his highly important business leadership role as the proprietor of the third largest plumbing supply store in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or, has sat for two hours on a bus seated next to a 16 year old girl conducting serial conversations with 10 of her closest, most personal BFFs regarding her recent romantic reversal.

The formula underlying my law is simple: CAR = LOTOBFTLTOPCPC – POHWAITS.

The chart below has the variable definitions. Don’t be intimidated by the math. The central insight of the law is that LOTOBFTLTOPCPC is always going up whereas POHWAITS, alas, is a constant. As a result, any increase in LOTOBFTLTOPCPC invariably results in a commensurate rise in the area under curve: CAR. We can thus project that if cell phones are allowed on planes, CAR will continue on its ever expanding course.

Humphreys’ Law of Captive Audience Rage produced

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

21 thoughts on “Humphreys’ Law of Captive Audience Rage as Applied to Cell Phones on Airplanes”

  1. You forgot the PTTROTM factor, where most of the explanatory power lies. (Personal Tendency To Rage Over Trivial Matters)

    1. Someone talking loudly for two hours while sitting next to me or in a nearby row is not a trivial matter.

      Here’s a solution:

      Set up a cell phone section divided from the rest of the cabin by some sound-resisting barrier. Charge an extra $50 to sit in the section. Use the money to improve amenities for all passengers. That way the big shots and cell addicts can enjoy listening to each other while leaving the rest in peace.

      1. x2 on byomtov’s idea. Took the words right outta my mouth. Maybe make the idea more attractive to the airlines by simply designating the already considerably higher than $50 difference between Coach and Business class as the dividing line — if you got Business to discuss on your phone in-flight, then you have to pay for the upgrade to Business class.

        Besides, if they make the seats any smaller in Coach, they’re going to have to start shooting those passengers with short-acting tranquilizer darts and start stacking them in like cordwood soon anyway…It’s hard to answer the phone when you’re unconscious. The trick will be to make sure that the tranquilizer wears off just before arrival at the destination. Not sure how that’s going to work with some of the extended runaway holds, though. If those folks start waking up and don’t see an open door in front of them to get off, things could get ugly.

  2. I’ve been interested in the vehemence of the reaction to the proposed allowing of cell phone use on airplanes: clearly, no-one thinks that either social pressure or roaming charges will dissuade people from having conversations on the plane, to the irritation of all around them – this, even though use of the Skyphones is vanishingly rare (I can’t remember ever seeing anyone actually use one, with the caveat that I fly perhaps a half-dozen times a year, and coach), and spoken conversations during taxiing to the gate are rare and brief (cell phone use is already allowed during taxiing, and is supported by your usual network rather than a repeater on the plane that could bill exorbitantly – and if you’re in row 30 like me it’s a good 5-10 minutes before you can stand up, let alone deplane).

    There’s other evidence that people seem to avoid similarly antisocial displays on the plane – most obviously video games, which are frequently played by children in flight and always with the sound off or using headphones. Admittedly, children are easier to intimidate and perhaps more likely to understand the importance of not irritating the adults around them than is your hypothetical Kenosha plumbing merchant – but it’s still another data point.

    Shorter me: I have no need for phone use on the plane (though I’d welcome cheap WiFi), and I can understand the fear many people are expressing that phone users will make the experience even less pleasant for those around them. But are we giving too little credit to our society when we assume people will be jerks, and will be permitted to be jerks?

    1. As I recall from the one time i used one, skyphone calls are ridiculously expensive. Not so cell phones.

      No. We are not giving too little credit. All it takes is one or two loud bloviators in the cabin to make it miserable. How long do you want to listen to some self-important loudmouth call the office and loudly proclaim that “The meeting went great and we are working on the next steps and Charlie says and blah blah blah.” It can all wait.

    2. Have you been on a train lately? The woman behind me hasn’t shut up in 45 minutes. She’s so loud my earplugs aren’t working. I do hope she gets off at Penn NYC.

    3. “spoken conversations during taxiing to the gate are rare and brief”

      I don’t think you’ve been paying attention, or else the flights I’ve been on are different than the flights you’ve been on. Because the last few times I’ve flown, spoken conversations on cell phones during taxiing have ben anything but rare. The wheels touch the ground, and everyone pulls out their cell.

      Social pressure doesn’t shut up loudmouth cell-phoners on trains, so why would it shut them up on planes?

  3. How about redefining CAR as the likelihood that people will choose to drive their cars for intermediate-distance trips? Boston to Syracuse, say, where you already have to change planes: the cell phone factor may just tip you into the old Ford Vic…

  4. Pedantry alert: I’m not sure about the slope of the line. It implies that as the POHWAITS increases, so does CAR…but if the conversation I’m being forced to listen to half of is more interesting (whether it’s about a subject I’m interested in, or it’s just odd or salacious enough to be interesting), shouldn’t that make the likelihood of CAR diminish rather than increase? This offers a possible way out, by only allowing interesting conversations or making sure the POHWAITS is over-represented on airplanes. Yeah, good luck with that. Disclaimer: I’m still on my first cup of coffee, so may not be fully functional yet…

  5. Many planes are already WiFi-equipped. My phone has WiFi calling as an option, although I think it’s disabled in airplane mode. As nearly as I can tell, there is no reason to do so other than habit. However, there would be nothing stopping someone with Skype on her tablet from making Skype calls under the current rules.

    Please note that I am not advocating this. We’re crammed together too tightly already in coach.

    1. My phone has WiFi calling from its mobile carrier, but only if you register the WiFi network in question. This is because the mobile phone network doesn’t want to handle a call unless they’ve got an address for the network, in case the caller dials 911. This might be a bit difficult for an airplane’s WiFi network, unless the carrier is told to consult the FAA.

      As you point out, there’s also Skype, Google Voice, Apple Facetime, etcetera that could presumably be run over WiFi. And no-one seems to be doing this, although this may be for technical rather than social reasons (these services may be too bandwidth-intensive or too sensitive to transmission lag for people to use them comfortably on a plane; the planes may even block those services).

      1. This actually makes me wonder, what happens if you call 911 from n-thousand feet?

        There’s already problems with people getting the “wrong” 911 when calling from towers that are on the border between 911 zones, I have no idea what an airborne call would do.

  6. Well, you always have the opportunity to retaliate using your own cell phone with:

    I NEVER KNEW YOU COULD GET GONORRHEA IN YOUR THROAT!…MUST HAVE BEEN THAT DAMN HIGH SCHOOL KID…WELL, HE TOLD ME HE WAS SEVENTEEN; WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO, ASK FOR HIS ID??

    Or:
    MY LAWYER SAYS NOT TO SWEAT…NO, HE THINKS I CAN BEAT THE RAP…I WON’T EVEN HAVE TO REGISTER AS A SEX OFFENDER!… SOME TECHNICALITY OR OTHER IN THE LAW…HOW THE HELL DO I KNOW? …DO I SPEAK LATIN??

    or:
    WHAT ARE YOU DOING…THAT SILENCER IS WAY TO SMALL FOR THAT PIECE YOU ARE USING!…YOU’LL WAKE UP THE WHOLE NEIGHBORHOOD…WHAT’S THE MATTER, YOU NEVER WHACKED ANYONE BEFORE??

  7. Dave Schutz: Amen. Flying is already iffy for many because of claustrophobia, expense, etc. This will make the Greyhound or Amtrak look a lot more attractive for mid-range trips. Actually, you can use a cell phone on Greyhound, but few people do. On Amtrak, you can only use one in designated cars.

    Speaking as one who rides the Chicago EL system frequently, even a very short ride next to a cell phone yeller is awful.

  8. I hope some smart airline spots the opportunity to set themselves apart by banning the use of phones when wheels aren’t touching the ground. I’d choose them every time, and I’d happily pay a premium. There are just far too many people who are oblivious to the accommodations that need to be made when a large number of adults need to share a cramped space.

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