Gatwick drone threat, real or made up? Do you see a duck or a rabbit?

Bird or rabbit: Did the 2018 Gatwick Drone Threat Really happen?

Gatwick drone threat

Around 9pm, 19 December 2018, a security officer at London’s Gatwick airport, reports a drone threat. One unmanned aerial aircraft (UAV) flying outside the airport perimeter and another inside.

What follows is an international media frenzy, hundreds of flight cancellations and the arrest of an innocent couple. In the most excellent book The Expectation Effect, David Robson asks, was it all made up? And, if so, why?

Intelligence failure

The best intelligence service in the world would be forgiven for classifying the Gatwick drone threat an objective truth. Because over a 30 hour period, 170 different sightings were reported.

Indeed, in case of copycat events, airports around the world scrambled to get their defence measures in place.

However, there are no photographs of the drones. Moreover, no arrests have been made. This begs the question, were the sightings made up?

Did the 2018 Gatwick drone threat really happen - Gatwick Airport aircraft landing - can you see the drone

Did expectations drive Gatwick drone threat sightings?

Conspiracy theories aside, Robson argues the ‘expectation effect’ is a plausible explanation for the sightings.

What is the expectation effect?

The expectation effect shows the brain is not straightforward. It does not directly relay what our senses detect to build our reality. For example, because our eyes have blind spots, as soon as we open them our brain makes some things up. (This article by Scientific American explains more).

In addition, our brain acts as much on previous experience and expectation as it does on raw data. Therefore, if we expect to see something we are more likely to see it. For example, at an airport an expectant fear are drones bringing down an aircraft. As a result, we are more likely to see drones in the sky at an airport.

The following exercise shows the power of the expectation effect.

What do you see: Duck or rabbit?

In 1993, two Swiss scientists stood outside a zoo entrance. They asked people to look at the adjacent image and say what they saw.  

When this exercise was performed in October, 90 percent of people saw a duck. The same question was asked at Easter. But, this time only 20 percent of people saw a duck. The remainder saw a rabbit. The expectation effect explains this change.

Was the 2018 Gatwick drone threat real? Do you see duck or rabbit? 1892 in the humour magazine Fliegende Blätter image

Because the duck and rabbit image is ambiguous we use background information, our expectations, to help define it. In this scenario expectations change around Easter. As a result, we predict a bunny, rather than a duck.

What do you see: Drone or cloud?

The sky is rich with ambiguous shapes. As a result, people report more unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the sky than aliens in street. Therefore, Robson’s suggestion that the expectation effect explains the Gatwick drone threat is strong. 

Conclusion: All intelligence is made up

In one sense, all intelligence is made up. Because our brains try to make sense of the world, it distorts what our senses detect. The 2018 Gatwick drone threat is a great example of this distortion, driven by expectations. Therefore, when we assess intelligence we should consider ambiguity and expectation as contributing factors.

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