Laurence Gonzales — The Award-Winning Author on Survival and Why Smart People Do Dumb Things
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
- B-17 Bomber pilot
- “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales
- McPherson, Kansas
- “On Combat” by David Grossman
- Force on Force tactical training program
- .45 ACP
- 9 mm Caliber
- .40 S&W
- .38 Special revolver
- Hot cognition
- USS Indianapolis
- Rage circuit in mammals
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- MRI machine
- Glenn Gould, a Canadian classical pianist
- “Surviving Survival” by Laurence Gonzales, sequel to “Deep Survival”
- Delta Force
- DC-10 Flight 191 crash, which Laurence’s boss and colleagues were a part of
- Boeing 737 MAX
- Charles Perrow, an emeritus professor of sociology
- “Normal Accidents” by Charles Perrow
- August Kekulé, a German chemist who discovered the structure of benzene
- The Kukulé Problem, an essay by Cormac McCarthy in Nautilus Magazine
- Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology
- Bill Miller, an investor, fund manager, and philanthropist and chairman at Legg Mason Capital Management
- Santa Fe Institute
- Michael Mauboussin, a Wall Street Investment Strategist and author
- Bob Dylan
- George Cowan, a physical chemist and founder of the Santa Fe Institute
- Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel prize-winning physicist
- Phillip W. Anderson, a Nobel prize-winning physicist
- Nobel Prize
- Isaac Newton
- Reductionist science
- Complexity science
- Northwestern University
- “Annals of the Former World” by John McPhee
- Pulitzer Prize
- Steven Callahan
- Alex Honnold, a rock climber whose free-solo ascent of El Capitan was filmed in the documentary Free Solo
“All accidents are the same. You kind of have to put them together from pieces. They don’t just happen. You have to assemble them.”
“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.”
The trap of habitual behaviors in the occurrence of accidents
“We tend toward habituation. If you do something over and over again, it becomes an automatic habit. We don’t like to stray away from that because it requires thought. We’re lazy, by which I mean, we’re efficient. Most people have automatic reflexes that they’ve developed, for example, for how to drive a car. Now, this is a very complex operation, and yet we can drive a car while talking on the phone, drinking that latte and correcting the kids in the backseat and never know what happened in the 12 blocks that we’ve gone. That shows you how this brain-body complex can operate very efficiently on its own. That’s the first trap that we have set for us: we tend to do what we’ve done before.”
The first rule of survival: Perceive and believe
“When I was writing ‘Deep Survival’ and thinking about this [accident], I was thinking, ‘Wow, I had to go to great lengths to have that accident.’ I had to put it together in a really careful fashion. It wasn’t an act of God, it was an act of me. One of the first things that I say in ‘Deep Survival’ about the rules is the first rule is perceive and believe. That means the first time I saw that my routine wasn’t right, I should have gone back and checked my routine. And the first time I smelled gas, I should have stopped. So, this is a typical accident.”
How to develop a way to interrupt accident-causing habits
“It’s a matter of habit. And it’s a matter of day-to-day habit. It’s not like you have to go to survival school. It’s not like at the moment of emergency, you’re going to invent new behavior. In the moment of emergency, you’re going to do what you’ve done before. And the important thing about that is to develop a habit of editing yourself, looking at what you’re doing and asking, ‘What am I really doing here?’”
Being mindful under high stress to prevent accidents
“I always say, ‘We are always practicing something.’ The question is, ‘What is it and is it the thing we want to emerge as our behavior under high stress?’ A lot of this takes what they call mindfulness. You have to be aware of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what’s going to happen under stressful circumstances.
The role of habitual reflexes in police shooting accidents
“They finished training, they put their real guns back on, somebody pops out of a doorway and the cop shoots him, and it’s another cop who just happened to be coming back into the building. These terrible accidents were happening. And the [police trainer] said, ‘Can you help us understand what’s going on?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can stop this tomorrow for you if you want me to.’ And he said, ‘How?’ I said, ‘Don’t point guns at each other. It’s kind of a fundamental rule of handling firearms that we all learn very early on.’ … We had a long discussion about other things they might do, but when these guys train in this way, if they have to fire on a bad guy, they empty their gun. It’s not like, bang, I’m going to shoot you in the toe so that you stop walking. It’s, you aim for the center of the body and you shoot all your bullets, you do it really fast, and it becomes that reflex.”
The second rule of survival: Stay calm
“When I talk about the rules that I have in ‘Deep Survival,’ the first one is perceive and believe, and the second one is to stay calm. 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.”
The rage circuit vs. the seeking circuit of your brain
“All mammals have a circuit that neuroscientists call the rage circuit or the rage pathway, and it’s an area of the brain through which signals pass under certain circumstances that necessitate a certain kind of behavior. … If you are exposed to trauma enough, you can get to the point where that rage circuit is either hair-trigger, it goes off all the time at next to nothing, or it’s maybe activated all the time and you’re constantly in a state of anxiety and rage. … There’s another circuit in the brain that neuroscientists called the seeking circuit or the seeking pathway … and [it] engages the cognitive part of the brain.”
Recognizing PTS(D) as the way our system works, not a disorder
“Neuroscientists now believe that we probably remember everything. We have a limited capacity for conscious, rational thought. It doesn’t have a lot of bandwidth. And so much of what we remember doesn’t rise to the level of consciousness, the stuff we need in a day-to-day world does. There’s a lot more there that we aren’t aware of. … This is exactly how our memory system works. It mates things together to give us as much information as possible for the next time something happens. … I don’t think disorder is right. I think post-traumatic stress is correct. It’s after trauma that you get these effects most powerfully, and it’s stressful because your emotional level is very high, but it’s not a disorder. It’s the way the system works.”
Consciously replacing negative feelings with what makes us feel good
“By understanding how the system works, we can take apart some of these places in our lives where we feel anxiety or anger or sadness or any of these negative emotions that may stand in the way of our functioning, and we can put something in their place. We can decide, when I’m feeling this way, I’m going to play tennis or whatever it is that does it for you, it’s different for everybody. It just makes for a better quality of life. You can actually control these things.”
The night shift: the unconscious processing of our brains
“You do not have to think in order to scratch the itch that’s on your shoulder right now, your body will do that for you. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to analyze it. So, there’s a whole constellation of behaviors that you carry out every day that are part of this unconscious processing, and it not only does unconscious processing but it leaps to conclusions for you. It solves problems. … All my life, when I’ve come to a stumbling block in my writing, the answer to that has come to me just as I wake up out of sleep. … It’s a ubiquitous part of our being, and yet we know nothing about it. … That’s the night shift, and we all use it.