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.

By Jeff Wise from Psychology Today

Deadly Mind TricksIllustration by Diego Patiño
MIND TRICK: “When the balloon began to rise, he held on, despite a chorus of shouts from the ground urging him to let go.”

Double or Nothing: In February 2003, a group of foreign tourists visiting Northern California prepared to watch a hot-air balloon take off at the Domaine Chandon vineyard near Yountville. Shortly before 8 a.m., the ground crew was repositioning the inflated balloon when one of the tourists, a 33-year-old Scot named Brian Stevenson, grabbed hold of the basket, perhaps in an attempt to help.

But when the balloon began to rise, Stevenson held on, despite a chorus of shouts from the ground urging him to let go. The balloon rose quickly: 10 feet, 20, 40, 100. The empty air below Stevenson’s dangling feet stretched to a horrifying distance; pretty soon, he could hold on no longer. His fellow tourists watched as their companion plummeted fatally to the earth.

If a balloon unexpectedly begins to rise, a person hanging on can follow a deadly logic: When he’s only been lifted a foot or two in the air, he may think, Oh, that’s no big deal. I can just step down if I need to. Then suddenly he’s at six feet and thinks, I could twist an ankle, I’d better hang on and wait until it gets lower. Before he knows it, he’s at 25 feet, realizing that a jump would cause serious injury at best.

The runaway-balloon problem is a manifestation of our irrational assessment of risks and rewards. We tend to avoid risk when we’re contemplating potential gains but seek risk to avoid losses. For instance, if you offer people a choice between a certain loss of $1,000 and a fifty-fifty chance of losing $2,500, the majority will opt for the riskier option, to avoid a definite financial hit. From the perspective of someone dangling 20 feet in the air, the gamble that he might be able to ride the gondola safely back to the ground seems preferable to a guaranteed pair of broken legs. But in the moment, he can’t factor in the price he’ll pay if he loses.

Avoid the trick: Casinos make a good profit from our flawed ability to calculate true risk. Gamblers wind up in a hole, then instinctively take bigger and bigger risks in an attempt to recoup the losses. To a veteran in the field of applied psychology, it’s a foregone conclusion. “I always tell my students, if you’re tempted to go to Vegas, just write me a check instead,” says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

MIND TRICK: “The narrow road took them into ever-deepening snow.”

Situational Blindness: In December 2009, John Rhoads and his wife, Starry Bush-Rhoads, headed back to their home in Nevada after a visit to Portland, Oregon. Following the directions of their GPS, they drove south on U.S. Highway 97 through Bend, then turned left onto Oregon Highway 31, passing through a dramatically beautiful high desert landscape before they connected with the highway to Reno near the California border.

Near the town of Silver Lake, Oregon, their GPS told them to turn off the highway onto a little-used forest road. If they’d continued straight, they’d have been home in under six hours. But their GPS was programmed to take the “shortest route,” not the “fastest.” The narrow road took them into ever-deepening snow. After driving more than 30 miles, they got stuck, managed to dig themselves out, drove farther, and then got stuck again. They tried calling 911 but couldn’t get cell phone reception. For three days, the couple huddled for warmth until they finally managed to get a cell phone signal and call for help. A sheriff’s deputy came to winch out their car.

As GPS units and satellite navigation smart-phone apps have flourished recently, there’s been a spate of similar cases in which travelers follow their devices blindly and wind up getting badly lost. The under­lying mistake is not merely technological but perceptual: the failure to remain aware of one’s environment, what aviation psychologists call situational awareness, or SA. People have always had difficulties maintaining SA, psychologists say, but the proliferation of electronics, and our blind faith that these devices will keep us safe, has led to an epidemic of absentmindedness.

Avoid the trick: Full situational awareness requires incorporating outside information into a model of your environment and using that model to predict how the situation might change. If all you’re doing is following the lines of the GPS, and it turns out to be wrong, you’ll be completely clueless about what to do next.

In daily life, we rely on what Beth Blickensderfer, PhD, a professor of applied psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, calls social SA to navigate our way through the human maze. It’s especially relevant when you’re traveling in another country, for example. If you’re not paying attention, you might not realize that it’s considered unacceptable for a man to talk to a woman in some cultures or to refuse to eat a delicacy, and you wind up committing a serious faux pas that could ruin the occasion.

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