A Harvard psychologist explains the rise in passengers getting violent on airplanes and customers abusing retail workers: People have reached ‘a boiling point’

Passengers sit in an American Airlines airplane before flying from California to North Carolina
Passengers board an American Airlines flight from California to North Carolina. Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
  • Passenger violence on airplanes is spiking and retail workers are experiencing customer harassment.
  • Fear and anxiety activates the fight-or-flight part of our brain, a Harvard psychologist said.
  • Now, after a year and a half of being on edge, many people are reaching a “boiling point.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Violence on airplanes is spiking. Retail and fast-food workers say they’re being harassed and assaulted. And small business owners report experiencing frustrated customers whose patience has evaporated.

All of this behavior is the result of a year and a half of fear and anxiety, according to Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“We’ve been skating thin ice in the past year, and if the weight [becomes] too much, the ice cracks. I think that’s what we’re seeing,” she said.

‘Everybody’s just always mad’

In 2020, retail workers were called “heroes” and “essential” as they worked to supply meals or groceries amid a harrowing pandemic.

At the same time, they were tasked with carrying out one of the most complex social aspects of the pandemic: enforcing mask mandates. A survey of 4,187 McDonald’s workers from last summer conducted by the Service Employees International Union found that 44% of respondents had been physically or verbally assaulted over mask mandates.

Workers say the abuse hasn’t let up, even as mask mandates have lifted in many parts of the country. A Starbucks barista in Louisiana recently told Insider’s Mary Meisenzahl that the “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well being.”

That harassment, combined with low pay, is causing workers to leave their jobs, leading to a labor crunch as society gradually reopens.

Read more: 
An economic theory called ‘reallocation friction’ may explain why employers are having a hard time finding workers – and why a full recovery could be years away

Man wearing a face covering walking through a train station.
‘Either they’re upset they have to wear the mask or they’re upset someone else isn’t wearing the mask,’ one flight attendant told Insider. Richard Baker/Getty Images

The situation isn’t much better on airplanes. After aggression over mask compliance spiked last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration began tracking unruly passenger reports, according to NPR. Since January 2021, the FAA has received 2,500 reports of unruly behavior, leading to thousands of dollars in fines for passengers.

FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor told NPR that the number of reports is now “significantly higher” than in the past, which coincides with what flight attendants are seeing on planes: Insider’s Allana Akhtar spoke with several flight attendants who described witnessing “unprecedented” passenger violence as travel returns and planes begin to fill back up.

“It seems that everybody is angry at everybody 24/7,” Colleen Burns, a representative with the Association of Flight Attendants union, told Insider. “One little thing sets them over the edge, either they’re upset they have to wear the mask or they’re upset someone else isn’t wearing the mask.”

Some small businesses are also noticing a change in customer behavior. Paul Collurafici, the owner of Tattoo Factory, a piercing and tattoo studio in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, told Insider that many of his customers are frustrated and short-tempered when they learn of the restrictions his business has had to put in place due to the pandemic.

“We have a large amount of people that don’t want to wait, don’t want to follow the rules,” he said. “Everybody’s just always mad.”

Fight or flight

Marques, the Harvard psychologist, said that the pandemic has understandably caused fear and anxiety in a lot of people, which leads to the activation of the amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of our brains.

“Patience is the ability to restrain your emotions a little bit, right? And you need your thinking brain there. You need to be able to assess the situation, you need to be able to just slow down and not let your emotional brain take off,” she said. “But if you walk into a store … and you’re already on edge, you’re more likely to get impatient because you’re not able to press ‘pause’ on your emotional brain.”

Marques explained that even though life is gradually opening back up and the most frightening days of the pandemic are hopefully behind us, people are still “riding really high cortisol,” which means they’re more on edge and quicker to reach what she called a “boiling point.”

She said one way to help people recalibrate their emotions and stop resorting to aggression is to shift their perspective.

“When we’re anxious, our lenses are distorted. We tend to magnify or ‘catastrophize,'” she said. “Widen your lenses and try to collect more data – that tends to also cool off the brain a little bit.”