Was the Germanwings Flight 9525 Pilot a Muslim Convert?

With very little help from me, one of our fantastic psychology majors at Grove City College, Megan Hurst, here examines how social psychology principles may shed some light on the persistence of rumors that the pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 was a recent Muslim convert.
Social Psychology in the News: Was the Germanwings Flight 9525 pilot a Muslim convert?
Last week, the world was gripped by the story of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the Germanwings Flight 9525, who intentionally crashed his plane into the French Alps instantaneously killing all passengers on the flight. This tragic event has left the world wondering why this young pilot deliberately activated a descent into the Alps.
Word associate the phrase “mysterious plane crash.” For many people, this phrase could produce thoughts like “9/11,” or “terrorism;” however for others, suspicion of Islam comes up. In the aftermath of the crash, advocacy websites, social networks, and blogs, such as The Gateway Pundit, capitalized on this availability heuristic and began writing posts about Lubitz’ alleged recent conversion to Islam, complete with a link to a Facebook page with an Arabic cover photo supposedly created by Lubitz.  The availability heuristic can be described as a mental shortcut that relies on the examples and information that quickly pop into one’s mind when basing judgments on a specific topic, concept, or event. However, in this case, the evidence does not support the initial attribution some made about Islam as a factor. For instance, the Facebook page used to suggest Lubitz was Muslim was obviously set up by someone besides Lubitz since status changes have been added after his death.
Because anti-Muslim internet sources have speculated about Lubitz’ religious orientation based on a discredited Facebook page, people may subsequently incorporate this misinformation into their memory of the event and believe that it was always “known” that Lubitz had been a Muslim. The misinformation effect can occur when misleading information is presented after an event and becomes incorporated into one’s memory of that event. One popular conservative pundit, National Review’s Andy McCarthy, tweeted out the Gateway Pundit’s “report” initially as credible evidence. He later backed away and said “we will need to wait and see.” Even if McCarthy later acknowledges that there is no evidence that Lubitz converted to Islam, the presentation of the conversion rumors may contaminate how his readers’ recall the event.
In fact, no other clues have been found which suggest he had converted to Islam. Of course this lack of evidence has not stopped speculation that Lubitz was a Muslim. Another social psychology concept, belief perseverance, may be at work. Belief perseverance is a tendency to persist with one’s held beliefs despite the fact that evidence disconfirms those beliefs. People may be unwilling to admit that the original belief may not be true. Even after it was revealed that the Facebook page was fake and put up post-crash, some readers may still hold onto the original belief that Lubitz was a recent Muslim convert.
Beliefs often persevere due to the operation of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s preconceived beliefs. Many people will seek out and read blogs, like the anti-Muslim German PI-News, which affirms their pre-existing beliefs. These sources have reported speculation about the Islamic faith being involved in the tragedy which their readers may be disposed to accept. Unfortunately, belief perseverance and confirmation bias work together to create a sense of certainty which is unwarranted by the evidence. People often stick to their original beliefs and choose to discard useful facts and opinions that don’t closely match their preconceptions. Some go so far as to actively discount evidence which disconfirms their previously held beliefs by denigrating mainstream sources as being biased or part of a cover up.
Most of the time reputable news outlets present their findings in ways that can be evaluated or cross-checked. For instance, media sources have addressed issue surrounding Lubitz’ health. The prosecutor in the case has been cited andspecifically indicated that no evidence has been found which point to “political or religious factors.” According to some reports, Lubitz suffered from mental and medical illnesses. One optometrist had seen Lubitz and considered him unfit to fly; Lubitz reportedly told another doctor that he was too stressed from work. A torn up medical leave slip and antidepressants were also found in the pilot’s apartment. Even with this evidence, it is not clear yet what points are relevant.
Hopefully, being aware of these cognitive factors can help us form judgments based in evidence and relatively free from bias.
-Megan Hurst & Warren Throckmorton