Laurence Gonzales — The Award-Winning Author on Survival and Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

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In this episode of Outliers (which is brought to you by Flow), I sit down with Laurence Gonzales — an award-winning author of numerous books about the psychology and neuroscience of survival — to discuss:

  • Why smart people make stupid decisions.
  • What causes accidents and why some people survive and others don’t.
  • How habitual behaviors under extreme stress are behind police shootings.
  • The neuroscience of unconscious processing.

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Laurence has never been afraid of flying. In fact, he’s been obsessed with it since childhood. His father, a B17 bomber pilot during World War II, always shared with him war stories, including one about his shocking survival after being gunned down on a mission in 1945.

“His piece of the cockpit fell 27,000 feet. He never got a parachute, and he survived,” Laurence says.

This story stuck with Laurence. It spurred his dreams of becoming a pilot — but it also planted in him an interest in the concept of survival.

After spending years as a journalist reporting on airline accidents, Laurence wrote “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why”. The book covers his theory that all accidents are essentially the same. They don’t just happen; they are the result of a series of things that are pieced together by human behavior.

The book considers answers to the question he’s spent years asking: “Why do smart people do stupid things?”

On this episode of Outliers, I hear from Laurence his explanation for so many of our horrifying modern accidents, from police shootings and airline crashes to extreme survival stories about bear attacks and being lost at sea. He describes how our “brain-body complex” reacts to such circumstances and what we can do to overcome trauma.

“Reason and emotion, or stress, work like a seesaw. If you’re in high stress or high emotion, you can’t think straight. If you can manage to get yourself thinking straight, your emotional level or stress level will go down, and you’ll be in better shape. This is one of the struggles of controlling your behavior rather than letting your behavior automatically control you.”

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Connect with Laurence

Links from the Episode

Favorite quotes

“I disagree with arming police with military gear, first of all, because they’re not supposed to be attack forces. They’re supposed to be mediating forces in society, which they aren’t any longer.”

“What you do under extreme stress is usually going to be an automatic behavior of some kind. You don’t sit down and start inventing new behaviors when you’re under stress.”

“Most of us, if we’re not totally twisted, like to help other people, and I’ve seen this my whole life. People are exceptionally compassionate and helpful for the most part.”

“As I spent time at the Santa Fe Institute, I learned that science, over the 350 years since Newton, has told us more and more about less and less and almost nothing about almost everything.”

“If you’re feeling anxious, if you’re feeling enraged, there’s nothing better than to find that activity that dampens the rage circuit and engages the seeking circuit.”

Big Ideas

The trap of habitual behaviors in the occurrence of accidents

The first rule of survival: Perceive and believe

How to develop a way to interrupt accident-causing habits

Being mindful under high stress to prevent accidents

The role of habitual reflexes in police shooting accidents

The second rule of survival: Stay calm

The rage circuit vs. the seeking circuit of your brain

Recognizing PTS(D) as the way our system works, not a disorder

Consciously replacing negative feelings with what makes us feel good

The night shift: the unconscious processing of our brains

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Fanatical about decoding what the Top 1% of people across industries have mastered — as well as what they’ve learned along the way. Host of

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