Airplane Seat Reclining: A Good Real-World Altruism Test?

(Digital Vision)

A good idea from a reader named Mark Mize:

Reading this article, I was immediately reminded of the section in SuperFreakonomics regarding altruism:

I think the choice to recline one’s airplane seat is a great example of natural altruistic tendencies. Reclining one’s own seat increases his comfort, but only at the expense of the person directly behind him. Then, in order for that person behind to increase his own comfort level back to what it was before the person in front reclined back into his space, he must now recline back into the space of the person behind him at the expense of that person’s comfort, and so on. An experiment observing this behavior may be a better measuring stick of natural human altruism tendencies than the Dictator game or similar games since the behavior could be observed in real time and without the behaviors associated with knowing one is being observed in a laboratory.

Here, from the Washington Post, is an excerpt from the article in question:

Before things got out of hand, it was a typical annoyance that happens once a flight gets airborne: A passenger hit the recline button and sent his seat intimately close to the lap of the guy sitting behind him.

What followed wasn’t typical at all: a smack to the head, peacemakers diving about the cabin to intervene and a pair of Air Force F-16 fighter jets scrambling into the night skies over Washington.

It happened late Sunday, just after a United Airlines Boeing 767 bound for Ghana with 144 passengers took off from Dulles International Airport.

Not long after the 10:44 p.m. departure for the overnight flight, the offending seat was lowered into the offended lap, and a fight ensued. A flight attendant and another passenger jumped in between, said sources familiar with the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details.

The pilot has complete authority over the aircraft, a United spokesman said, and he decided to return to Dulles to sort things out rather than continue the transatlantic flight to Ghana when he was unsure of the scope of the problem.

Any academic researchers out there looking for a great empirical experiment in altruistic behavior? Summer’s a great time to observe the seat-reclining wars …

J.D. Kern

I'm 6'2". Anyone sitting in front of me on an airplane who doesn't recline their seat is a candidate for beatification as far as I'm concerned.


Nothing worse than when that seat in front of you goes down... but for a 10:44 PM international flight, it is completely justified.


While it is indeed someone's right to recline, it's how someone goes about it that is usually the issue. Most people just throw it back without any regard for whether or not the person behind them might have a drink or laptop, or if they might be leaning forward to get something from their bag. I usually don't recline, but if I do, I always move it back slowly, giving a quick look back to make sure I'm not going to injure the person behind me. You wouldn't back up a car without looking, why would you do the same with your airplane seat?

The other alternative is to do what European budget airlines like Ryanair do. Their seats don't recline at all, nor do they have seat pockets. The seats are indeed very close, but you have a defined space that nobody can intrude on.


I was once on holiday charter flight from London to Sharm el Sheikh. Since it was a charter by the tour provider, to get the most bodies on the plane it had the shortest seat pitch (distance between seats) I have ever experienced. I'm 6'3" and just sitting normally my knees were touching the seat in front of me.

Here's the thing: not a single person on the plane reclined their seat, for the whole trip from the UK to Egypt. It felt like we all knew it was horrible already, and moving the seat back would only make it worse.


I like to recline my seat but I don't like it as much as I hate it when the person in front of me does. So how do I solve this problem? I am fine if nobody on the plane does it but that's not a good solution. I also don't think everyone should because it forces people who want to use their laptops or the tray table into a bad situation.


This is always interesting to me, and at 6'8 a particular concern.

I tend to fly the same airline all the time since I have status and they will always give me exit rows (which are both more spacious and by law the seats in front of exit rows are made not to recline).

But when I have to fly other airlines and people try to recline I politely asked them not to -- there is literally not room for them to as my knees are in the backs of their seats.

Only once has a person refused, claiming he'd slept only 2 hours the night before and had to recline. Fortunately my 2-year-old daughter was with me and it was the only time she's ever cried for the whole flight. And I didn't mind one bit.

In exchange I never ever recline my seat if there is an adult sitting behind me.


Been on plenty of flights. Reclining never spilled a drink. Prevented use of the laptop, yes. the seat has a friction built in. Anyone saying they've spilled a drink is likely full of it. turbulence would spill it or your knees hitting would spill your drink, not the seat reclining.

being tall is the only way you're gonnna really be physically less comfortable with the seat in front of you reclining. Or if you need to use a laptop at a reasonable distance. Mentally you may not like feeling squished in there, but it's not like they are in your lap. You can still read a magazine or just sit there like a economy class shlub.

We should figure out how many seats we could lose on airplanes for comfort, and what we would have to lose to get it. That's a better project to work on.


Jason, I'm 6'6 and suffer from the same problem. As you say most people are accommodating and won't recline if you ask, but I'm sure there are alot of people out there who suffer in silence !

Tom Woolf

Heck, I'm only 5'8", but a bit overweight, and I can't stand the seat in front of me being reclined. I do not recline mine, period.

Delta lost me as a customer when I tried to use my laptop but could hardly get it open enough to see the screen. Then the moron in front of me declined his seat and nearly broke the screen due to it being trapped between the seat and the table.


Stuff like this shows why autistics are the next stage of human evolution.


I'm also in the "never recline" club, unless it's an overnight flight. I've asked people in seats in front of me not to recline before (I'm 5'9", but with long legs that already touch the seat in front) and all but one has accomodated. I just don't get why anyone would recline knowing how uncomfortable they're making someone else for a really marginal increase in comfort for themselves.

Leland Witter

They make the seats such that they recline. I buy space for that seat. Given that it reclines, I own the full space that seat is able to take up. I don't know why people have the perception that the "recline-able" area belongs to anyone other than the seat owner.

Joel Upchurch

Frankly, I don't think the passenger cabin of airplanes is really well thought out. It seems to me that we could transport more people in better comfort if we traveled laying down than seated. Of course it would take clever design to make it easy to enter and exit the upper and lower bunks.

Of course, the ultimate solution is to have travel pods, so you can just just check yourself in with your luggage and get a sedative shot and they load you into your pod. No talky seat mates, no crying babies, no indigestible airline 'food'. You awake at your destination refreshed. Red eye flights become the most popular and no one will have to waste their waking hours travelling. The next best thing to the Star Trek transporter. Almost as good as staying home.


It really depends on where you are in the flight. If the house lights are down then reclining is a-ok. If there is a meal or drink service in progress then it isn't. When people recline their seats in front of me while I have a meal or drink on my tray table I just push the seat right back up. Don't do that.


I guess I have a different experience than a lot of people (I’m 5’ 0” standing at attention) but it’s only a very small inconvenience for me if the passenger in front of me reclines. It obviously is more of an increase in comfort to them than a decrease to me (a net increase between us), so I say go for it. I didn’t realize people saw it as such an intrusion.

Then again, the whole process of air travel has a way of generating huge pools of subconscious stress that amplifies every minor inconvenience.


These statements assume that total personal space is the only measure of comfort: "Reclining one’s own seat increases his comfort, but only at the expense of the person directly behind him. Then, in order for that person behind to increase his own comfort level back to what it was before the person in front reclined back into his space, he must now recline back into the space of the person behind him at the expense of that person’s comfort, and so on."

I used to travel a lot with a guy who was 6'2", and his legs didn't fit in the space in front of him; he would have to let them bow out to the side (into my space). He whined about people who put their seat back, but it didn't actually make a difference. At the height of his knees, the small angular distance of seat rotation only translate to putting the seat at that height a few millimeters closer, and _it never made the difference between touching him or not_.

I feel sorry that he didn't fit, but his blame was misplaced; it didn't have anything to do with the person in front of him reclining their seat.

At the level of the head, the angular rotation does translate into a few centimeters. He didn't like that their head was closer to him, but it never touched him, and I think it was selfish to want extra unused space between him and their head just because he didn't like being near people.

The little bit that those chairs recline just don't make much difference in space utilization.

But they make a huge difference in back comfort for a bad back, or any back.

... especially since those chairs are so badly designed if you don't happen to be in the height range they designed them for...the concave curves sit where the convex ones are supposed to and vice versa. That little bit of reclining allow gravity to pull the weight of one's torso into the chair, instead of putting it all into that one vertebra that's bent all funny from its neighbors (thanks to the shape of the chair).



I see I'm not the first tall guy to speak up (6'3"). As another poster suggested I tend to just "suffer in silence" when someone puts the seat down in front of me, and I almost never put the seat behind me down because I feel guilt about doing so. In my opinion, airplane seats should simply not be able to recline unless the row spacing is enough to comfortably accommodate passengers above 6'6" or so.

As much as I can't stand having my knees jammed into the seat in front of me (they usually are regardless of the position of the seat in front of me anyway), I'll confess that I would prefer that to being crowded out by the arms of a passenger of large girth in the seat next to me.


Reclining your own seat in turn does not solve the problem. When the person in front of me reclines his/her seat, they hit my knees (I am tall) and that cannot be fixed by reclining my seat.

What I do is to press hard my knees against the seat in front during the first 15 minutes of the flight so that the person in front would think the seat is malfunctioning. After that they usually don't try to recline anymore.


All this is yet another reason why I won't fly commercial any more. There's nothing on the other end that's worth the discomfort & aggravation involved in getting there. For the few long flights (e.g. to Europe) I've made, I've mostly survived by standing in the back as much as possible. And if I have to go there again, I think I'll row.


The issue isn't the person in front of you.

The real issue is the airline that crams seats together.