Deadly Mind Tricks

Solid intuition or not, sometimes our gut instincts lead us to fatal errors. Learn about the brain science behind five mental traps and how to avoid them.

Deadly Mind TricksIllustration by Diego Patiño
MIND TRICK: “Similar tragedies play out time and again when people try to rescue companions.”

Domino Effect: The problem began with a minor malfunction. Scott Showalter, a 34-year-old Virginia dairy farmer, was trying to transfer manure from one holding pit to another when the pipe between them became clogged. As he’d done before, he climbed down to free the obstruction. But what he neither saw nor sensed was the invisible layer of hydrogen sulfide gas that filled the bottom of the pit. He keeled over within seconds. When an employee, Amous Stolzfus, climbed down to Showalter’s aid, he too succumbed, but not before his shouts drew the attention of Showalter’s wife and two of their daughters, ages 9 and 11. One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.

Similar tragedies play out time and again when people try to rescue companions. A teen jumps from a dangerous waterfall and disappears; his buddies follow, one after the other, until they all drown. A firefighter goes into a burning building to rescue a comrade; another goes in after him, then another.

In each case, the domino effect results from a deep-seated emotion: the need to help others. The fear response shuts down areas of the brain that handle complex thoughts and planning, but it doesn’t affect simple emotions or well-learned habits like altruism. So we’re driven to think about helping others instead of rationally identifying potential hazards, like invisible poison gas or an underwater hydraulic. “People lose the ability to think about the long-term consequences of their actions,” says Sian Beilock, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Avoid the trick: If you ever find yourself in an unfolding tragedy like the Showalters’, Beilock recommends pausing for a moment to take a deep breath and think about what’s going on. “Even taking one step back sometimes allows you to see it in a different light, to maybe think, My efforts would be better spent running to get help,” she says. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to separate rational thought from emotion during an unfamiliar crisis. Planning for potential dangers can help; for instance, every family should practice a fire drill routine in their home.

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10 thoughts on “Deadly Mind Tricks

  1. ok – does the description of the confirmation bias “mind trap” in the bending the map example leave anybody besides me scratching their head and wondering WTF???

  2. RULES TO REMEMBER
    !- If you see someone caught in a fire remember (sucks to be him).
    2- If someone is in a hole same rule apply.
    3- Guts feelings are full of gut material.
    4- Don;t gamble, only the bank wins.
    5- Don;t claim mountains, you are not a goat.

  3. One caveat about the confirmation bias trick is that we can also get into trouble when we distrust our instincts.  Police will tell you that when your gut tells you something is wrong- it probably is.  Then again maybe it is confirmation bias to believe the guy in the cast who needs help opening his trunk is NOT really Ted Bundy. 
    And about redlining, it helps to know how hard that line is.  Go overlimit on a diet and eat a sundae- it won’t kill you.  Go past your fuel capacity in the air- it definitely will. 

    1. I think the context here is important: Trust your instincts when you sense something doesn’t feel right, or feels dangerous. Don’t trust your instincts when you’re faced with an opportunity to exceed your parameters of common sense.

    2. I think the context here is important: Trust your instincts when you sense something doesn’t feel right, or feels dangerous. Don’t trust your instincts when you’re faced with an opportunity to exceed your parameters of common sense.

  4. Every day we make decissions , yeses and no’ses and we are bound to make a wrong decission  , and boom your dead wrong . We lose money , or friends , or something else .  There are no way to really know when you are going to make a wrong decission .  

  5. Amazing insight into the psych phenomenon.  And we always feel we have ultimate control over OUR actions.

  6. Even though the examples are extreme cases, these errors are made by us on a daily basis… the ‘only 5 more minutes’ is a classic example of redlining error. ok so, i have to get off my computer this moment!

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