Survivor Bias

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Sean at the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain

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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.

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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.

Show Notes

  • Definition
    • 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
  • Ego
    • 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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