It has been my observation over the years that men in particular, but some women too, have a tendency to hold optimistic opinions of their ability to handle an emergency. This tendency seems to be a part of human nature and the men and women who recreate or work in the outdoors are not immune from this optimistic bias. We would all like to believe that we are less likely to find ourselves in a survival situation and more able to cope with one should it occur. We are better than the average guy! But are we?
Clearly, not everyone can be better than average, and it would seem that an overly optimistic opinion of our skills might lead us to take risks that are unwise. Where does this optimism come from? I believe one source of the optimism is the myth of our invincibility. Our unwillingness to admit that we might not be as good as we think we are. The belief that “I will never find myself in a survival situation” compounds the problem.” The myth also claims that most outdoors-men and women who find themselves in emergencies are the kind of people who make frequent mistakes, or display bad judgment on a regular basis. A casual read of survival stories seems to support this myth since the reports usually detail exactly what the person did or failed to do, that led to the accident. In hindsight, it is easy to spot the errors made by others and believe that we would never be that foolish. So we read the reports, see the mistakes that were made, and believe that accidents only happen to the foolhardy, the incompetent, or the accident prone.
Is it possible that all of the people who get in trouble in the outdoors are fool hardy, incompetent and accident prone? I don’t think so! The fundamental error we make, when we read the stories of those who have found themselves in survival situations, is that we attribute the cause of the mistakes to the personality of the person committing them. We don’t try to understand the situation from the perspective of the victim who is experiencing the events as they unfolded. When we read the accident reports we already know that the events ended in an accident and we judge the actions of the individual involved from that perspective. The question we should be asking is “Why did the decisions that the individual made make sense from their victim’s perspective at that time?” You should only judge an accident victim’s actions based on the information he or she had available and a knowledge of the circumstances they found themselves in. And then, knowing that information, ask yourself if you would have made a different decision?
Every one of us have made mistakes in the past. We made mistakes because we ignore safety precautions or we fail to take note of the warning signs. We ended up in trouble because we didn’t understand the dangers of a situation or because we were distracted. To an uninvolved person the threats to our safety might have be obvious but to the person involved it is easy to become quickly blinded by over-confidence, ignorance or ego.
There are two points that must be recognized. The first is that we need to recognize our optimistic bias for what it is; a false sense of confidence created by the way we tend to view other people’s mistakes. The cold hard reality is that we all make mistakes and any one of us could find ourselves in a survival situation at any time, especially if we approach our outdoor activities with an over-confident, complacent attitude.
When we recognize this, we will take the second point more seriously – accidents are a result of situations. When we read accident reports we should focus less on the specific mistakes that the individual made, and focus more on the situations that produced the accident. Doing this would help us to identify the kinds of situations that produce accidents and try to avoid them.
What are the kinds of situations that produce accidents in the outdoors? There are many, but they generally involve some combination of some of the following ingredients: a tired, cold person, a desire to continue on when continuing is ill advised, inclement weather, darkness, inadequate clothing, the lack of emergency equipment and a mindset to “get home at all costs.”
Look for these ingredients as they creep into your outdoor activities and be aware that they can dramatically impact your ability to function safely in the outdoors and your ability to survive a life-threatening crisis. Be willing to “climb the mountain another day.” Stepping back from the brink is never the wrong decision! Remember – It is much easier to prevent something bad from happening then it is to cope with the the aftermath of an accident.