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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