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Survivor bias in hiking is a safety issue. So is an optimism bias. This is a quick intro to both ideas.
I heard about this idea of “survivor bias” recently and I really love it as it relates to hiking, because it connects with overconfidence in hiking, which is a safety issue.
We have to make sure that, when we’re on the trail, we’re always assessing our risks fully and correctly.
You can listen right here…
And here’s the direct link to this swell-cast.
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Swell is a micro-podcasting platform where all the podcasts are 5 minutes max. But it’s also conversational, because you can reply to the podcast via voice messaging and it becomes far more interactive. Download the app and listen now.
- Best example I could find of a definition of it is from Diagoras of Melos who was a 5th century Greek philosopher, famous for being an atheist
- Somebody asked him about paintings of people who had escaped shipwrecks (this is a kind of genre in painting)
- Somebody asked Diagoras “Look, you think the gods don’t care about humans, so what do you say about all these people saved from death by the hand of god?”
- And Diagoras just replied: “You know whose paintings you don’t see here? All the people who didn’t survive — who, by the way, are much greater in number. Nobody paints those people. We only have paintings of the survivors. These paintings are stupid.”
- He didn’t actually say, “These paintings are stupid.” I said that.
- Wrong focus
- So we focus on successes and pay hardly any attention to failures and the risks
- And it’s important because a failure in the wilderness, on a mountain, can be catastrophic…
- And even when we do pay attention to the deaths that we see in hiking, which are always a shock, we immediately slip into a related bias called the Optimism Bias which is the idea that the bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to this person, i.e. me
- But just this season there was a hiker taken off Sugarloaf Mountain in the Catskills with a broken ankle and he was a well-prepared and experienced hiker
- And Julian Sands, the British actor who went missing on Mount Baldy in California, his body still hasn’t been found, and he was a very experienced life-long hiker
- so bad things can really happen to anyone
- Back on the trail
- But for most of us, most of the time…
- When things are going well
- and we don’t have any major mishaps
- we get a little cocky
- and we think, “Hey this isn’t so hard. I got this.”
- Which is a miscalculation that leads to further miscalculations
- It’s a real factor in our experience on the trail
- Especially if we have a peakbagging mentality where we kind of fetishize the summits and have them in mind as almost the point of a hike
- Maybe we’re pursuing a peakbagging list: like Catskills 3500 list or the Adirondack 46er list
- And especially in winter, if you hit a tricky spot, say, just below the summit, after hiking for a couple of hours and you’re almost at your goal..
- you’re adding pressure to a situation where, really, it’d be wise to keep a clear head
- Because if something goes wrong there, you’re also as far as from the trailhead as you can be, at that point, and a potential rescue scenario
- But you may feel this impulse to push on, and take that risk to do the sketchy thing
- And our psychology can be very slippery
- There’s an element of working with one’s own ego, here, and even just being able to catch when one’s ego is even in play
- We have to watch for these kinds of biases — survivor bias and optimism bias — and make sure, when we’re on the trail, that we’re always assessing our risks fully and correctly
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