in: Outdoor/Survival, Podcast, Skills

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #610: Who Lives in Survival Situations, Who Dies, and Why

In disasters or accidents, why do some people survive and others perish? In exploring this question, my guest has uncovered psychological and philosophical insights into not only dealing with life-threatening crises, but strategically navigating any situation that involves risk and decision-making. 

His name is Laurence Gonzales and he’s a pilot, a journalist, and the author of several books, including the focus of today’s conversation: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Today on the show, we discuss how the story of his father being shot out of the sky during WWII set Laurence on a journey to explore the mysterious underpinnings of survival. Laurence then explains what happens to us mentally and emotionally in a disaster situation that causes us to make poor decisions, how our mental models can get us in trouble, and why rule breakers are more likely to survive than rule followers. Laurence then walks us through complexity theory and how trying to make things safer can counterintuitively make them more dangerous. We then talk about why the frequency with which you yell at your kids correlates to your chances of surviving a life-threatening emergency, before ending our conversation with a discussion of the paradoxes would-be survivors must grapple with, including being both realistic and hopeful at the same time.   

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • The survival story of Laurence’s father
  • How Laurence then went on to become a stunt pilot
  • The role of emotions in survival scenarios 
  • How mental models help and hurt us in survival situations 
  • Mental models getting people killed in terrorist attacks 
  • Why rule breakers tend to survive more than rule followers 
  • What is complexity theory? How does it explain how accidents happen? 
  • How making things safer actually adds complexity to our systems
  • How survivors manage to take control of their panic response
  • How do survivors balance hope and reality?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast


Book cover of a Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In disasters or accidents, why do some people survive and others perish? In exploring this question, my guest has uncovered psychological and philosophical insights into not only dealing with life-threatening crises but strategically navigating any situation that involves risk and decision-making.

His name is Laurence Gonzales and he’s a pilot, a journalist and the author of several books including the focus of today’s conversation: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. Today on the show, we discuss how the story of his father being shot out of the sky during World War II set Laurence on a journey to explore the mysterious underpinnings of survival. Laurence then explains what happens to us mentally and emotionally in a disaster situation that causes us to make poor decisions, how our mental models can get us in trouble and why rule breakers are more likely to survive than rule followers. Laurence then walks us through complexity theory and how trying to make things safer can counterintuitively make them more dangerous. We then talk about why the frequency with which you yell at your kids correlates to your chances of surviving a life-threatening emergency, before ending our conversation with a discussion of the paradoxes would-be survivors must grapple with including being both realistic and hopeful at the same time. After the show is over check our show notes at Laurence joins me now via

Laurence Gonzales, welcome to the show.

Laurence Gonzales: Thank you.

Brett McKay: So you wrote a book almost… Coming up on almost 20 years ago, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. This is a book about the psychology of survival where you go and you look at accidents that happened in the world and there’s mountain disasters, people getting lost, people drowning in rivers. This is also a very personal book because throughout it you weave a story of your own story but also the story of your father. The story of your father began this search of why people survive in dire situations. Can you tell us about that story and how it kick-started this journey of yours?

Laurence Gonzales: Absolutely. My father was a combat pilot in World War II, he was a B-17 pilot, he flew out of England and over Germany. And on January 23rd, 1945 he was doing a bombing raid on Dusseldorf where there’s a big railroad marshalling yard. And before he got to the target, he had his left wing shot off by anti-aircraft fire. Now, this was one of those gigantic raids near the end of the war where they would put up sometimes hoards of a thousand planes. This particular mission was 700 planes approximately, and my dad was the very first plane and he was the pilot, and so he was ahead of everybody else, everybody saw this happen. And his left wing was shot off which meant his right wing was still flying, so it rolled upside down and started spinning and it spun so fast that the g-forces pulled the airplane apart and my father was in a little fragment of the cockpit that had torn off and he fell 27,000 feet.

He never got out, he never got his parachute which was under his seat. The g-forces were too great and so essentially with the aerodynamics of a bathtub, he fell 27,000 feet and survived. And in fact he was very badly injured but the Germans took him to a prison camp. It was a prison camp hospital and there was a French surgeon who put him back together a bit as best he could. And my father actually made it home, he was liberated by patent and he came home. This was ’45, I was born a couple of years later and I grew up with these stories, which to me sounded incredible, but I grew up also with the sense that, “Hey, I might not have been here if my father… ” Everybody else in his crew was killed except him. And if my father had somehow not survived that fall, I wouldn’t be here and it was a very existential thought for a little kid to have, and it was also a very big deal in my growing up ’cause every January 23rd, my mother would have a special meal, and make a cake and celebrate my father’s survival. So we were all very aware of this and it began my quest to find out who lives, who dies and why and ultimately led me to write the book, Deep Survival.

Brett McKay: And what’s interesting, your father never flew after that but then you went on yourself to become a stunt pilot.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah, [chuckle] I did. I did, indeed. I grew up with the idea that flying an airplane was the coolest thing in the world and that even cooler would be to fly upside down with smoke. Just as soon as I could arrange it, I got my pilot’s license. I’ve been a pilot most of my life and for about eight years in the early ’90s throughout the mid-90s, I flew aerobatics. And I flew mostly for fun, I did fly competition a little bit but I flew a very high-powered aircraft called the Pitts Special, which I probably had no business doing but there it was. It was the most fun I’d ever had.

Brett McKay: But I think it’s interesting. I think most people, if they heard their dad almost died in a plane, they would avoid planes but you were like, “No. I’m gonna go.” “I’m gonna do some of the most dangerous things you do. I’m actually gonna turn upside down and do flips in a plane.”

Laurence Gonzales: [chuckle] Well, it’s funny, I took my father… So when I was flying competition, they have these aerial routines that you have to do. It’s like compulsory set of figures that you do in the sky, so it might be a spin and a roll in a Cuban eight, and an Immelmann and whatever other things they prescribed for you. And I was getting ready for a contest and my father was 70 and I said, “You wanna go? You wanna see what I do?” And he said, “Sure,” and we went up. [chuckle] And I took him through my sportsman routine in the aerobatics competition. He didn’t say much, we were on headphones together, got back on the ground and he said, “You’re a really good pilot.” Which is the ultimate that I’ve been waiting for all my life.

Brett McKay: Well, in your book, Deep Survival, you focus primarily on disasters that happen when people are doing recreational activities in the outdoors. Why did you key in on that particular topic?

Laurence Gonzales: So I had been working for National Geographic doing what we would call, adventure journalism. National Geographic had a magazine for some years called, National Geographic Adventure. And I would go out, we had a joke, my editor, John Rasmus and I had a joke. It was that he would try to get me killed and I’d try to come back with a story. So we’d go on adventures. I would go learn rock climbing, or I’d go to Glacier National Park and get myself lost. And after a few years of doing this, I came to him one day and said, “You know, we glamorize this stuff, and we publish these beautiful photographs, and people wanna go out there and do what we’ve done. And I think we owe it to them to say, ‘Hey, you can get killed out there. And here are some things that maybe you should think about before you go.'” And he said like, “No, no, no. The advertisers would never go for that. They’d hate that.” And I kept after him, actually, for a couple of years before he finally said, “Okay. Go ahead and do it.” And I did a piece in the magazine called, The Rules of Adventure, and it was the stuff about the psychology of how people make… Essentially, the meaning of it was why smart people do stupid things. And that got me started down the road of doing Deep Survival in earnest.

And this really all began back in the early ’70s when I was investigating airline crashes. And I would always go to the NTSB and say, “You know, this guy who crashed his plane, the pilot, he’s a really smart guy. He’s got 30,000 hours. He’s ex-military. He’s got a Masters in Engineering. How come he did this stupid thing and flew his plane into the ground?” And they would always say, “Well, we don’t know, he’s dead. And we can’t interview him. We’d like to know that, too.” And I always thought that’s the most interesting question is, “Why did the smart guy do this stupid thing?” And so, when I wrote Deep Survival, I did write about all these wilderness accidents and recreational accidents, but I tried also to connect them to other things in our lives that involve risk and decision-making, such as running a hedge fund, being a cancer doctor, any ordinary activity that involves incomplete information or confusing information where you have to make a decision.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, the thing about the outdoors it’s… You’re in a complex environment where you have very little control… Actually, no control over most of this stuff, the weather, the terrain. And that’s like most of life; you’re living in a complex environment of business, there’s so many decisions you have to make, and you don’t have a lot of control over those factors. And so yeah, in the first part of your book, you talk about, “Okay, why do people get in these pickles in the first place? Why do people get in accidents in the wilderness?” And you focus the first part of the book talking about the role emotions play that people, I don’t know… Cause people to make bad decisions. So what happens to our emotions whenever we face a survival or a disaster scenario?

Laurence Gonzales: So everyone is familiar with this scenario. I’m at home, my wife is at home. We both know we’re here. We both know that nobody else is here because we’re sheltering in place because of the coronavirus. Moreover, we know that there most likely aren’t any bears in our house right now. So I come up the stairs and I come around the corner and all of a sudden, my wife is right in front of me coming the other way, and I grab my chest and I go, “Oh, my gosh! You scared me.” And we laugh. And then the whole thing settles down. But during that moment of getting startled, some interesting things take place because none of my cognitive knowledge that I just told you about makes any difference at all. The emotional response of being startled is full-blown almost instantly, and it means my heart is racing, my steroid levels go up in my bloodstream, my muscles tense, my breathing quickens. Everything for a fight or flight response is amped up even though there’s absolutely no logical reason for it.

So what does this tell us? This tells us first of all, emotion and reason work like a seesaw, for the most part. And when emotion is very high, reason goes out the window, and it just doesn’t function at all. In these situations like this, we don’t tend to make up new behaviors, we tend to do what we’ve done before, and we don’t tend to get much choice in how we react. So no matter how many years my wife and I have been married, no matter how many times this has happened in our little house, I can’t prevent it from happening. And we have this joke, because she’ll be coming around the corner and she’ll hear me on the stairs and she’ll say, “Bear! Bear!” [chuckle] She knows she’s gonna startle me and is trying to prevent it. So that’s, essentially, in many of the scenarios I described in the book, Deep Survival, describing people who are overcome by emotion, when if they took the time to sit down and think about what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about this concept of there’s primary emotions and then there’s secondary emotions. And people who survive tend to… They’ve trained up those secondary emotions.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. So when we’re born, we have a set of built-in emotions. Little babies have… They can cry. If you hold the baby up under his arms in front of you, he’ll kick his legs rhythmically. And there are a bunch of reactions he’ll have. In fact, babies have a real powerful startle reaction. If you make a loud noise, the baby will startle and cry. And most animals of our kind, I believe, are born with the innate fear of snakes and shapes like snakes. But beyond these primary emotions, as they call them, you will develop all kinds of secondary emotions. And they follow a pretty well-known path. You will learn to like the things that are good for you, and you will learn to dislike the things that are bad for you. And that means you will label those things with either a good emotion or a bad emotion. And it just depends on who you are or what things you’re gonna be attracted to, but food, obviously, is a big one. Some of that is primary. We are born with the response to sweet things that we have which is we like them, we don’t have to train that. But when my son Jonas was, I don’t know two, maybe two or three, and the garbage truck would come in the alley, he would get all excited and scream, “Garbage truck, garbage truck,” and he would be quivering with excitement because to him this was a great display of something that he enjoyed. Gradually, over time he got used to the garbage truck and it faded into the background. And so this is the course that emotions take.

Brett McKay: Through those emotions that we associate with events, you call those, emotional bookmarks. So if something happens, you either bookmark it as good, or bookmark it as bad, and then you might even bookmark it with certain actions that you do as a result of experiencing that event that triggered that emotion.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. One of the stories I tell in the book is about a group of snowmobilers and they are actually going out in search of a snowmobiler who didn’t come back. And they’re told at the beginning of the day, “The avalanche danger is very high, there will be no highmarking today.” And highmarking is where you run your snowmobile up the side of the mountain, see how high you can go in it before you have to turn around and come back down and the guy who makes the highest mark is the winner. And this is a real fun thing to do with a snowmobile.

And so they’re puttering along out there in the woods trying to find this guy, and they stop for some reason, and one of the guys suddenly is overcome by emotion and races up the hill. And he knows not to do it, he’s been told not to do it, he’s agreed not to do it, he understands the danger but at that moment, with the smell of the woods, and the sound of the engines and the throttle in his hand, he just couldn’t resist and he races up the hill. Of course, the reason the story is in the book is ’cause it ends badly. He triggers an avalanche and somebody dies, and then everybody stands around and says, “Well, why did he do it?” And the answer is, he did it because of the nature of the emotional response, and that’s an emotional bookmark. Something in that scene or a combination of those things in the scene had been embedded in his emotional system, time and again, until it became automatic. And just the smell of the pine could have been enough to make him do this without thinking. And so it’s an extremely powerful system. It’s meant for our survival and obviously has worked because here we are.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So that was an example. He probably, he’d done that lots of times before, had a positive emotional experience with it. And then he had it again and he did it thinking, “It would be like the other times where it’d be a fun experience,” and it didn’t turn out that way.

Laurence Gonzales: Right. Well, and the key to it is you don’t think. So his body had told him, “This is good.” And every time he’d done it before it had been good, it had been reliably good. All his time on a snowmobile, he’d had the same experience and you hear this all the time from people who get dead, as the saying goes. And their friends would say, “But we always did it this way. We’ve done it before, we’ve never had a problem before.” And I say in the book, you read in the newspaper about the accident and it says, “He was a very experienced snowmobiler.” And very experienced may simply mean, he’s done the wrong thing more times than you have, and it finally caught up with him.

Brett McKay: Right. Another example you gave of someone who had some emotional bookmarks embedded in him but it ended up poorly for him was, I guess he was a former Army Ranger, special forces guy and he went white water rafting, fell out of the boat and he actually was pretty calm, and relaxed, he’s like, “Oh yeah, this is… I don’t have to worry about this. I’ve come out good when I’ve been put in situations like that.” And he wasn’t thinking, and he made a bad choice and he ended up drowning. He got pinned in to a log.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. And so he was an Army Ranger, and in Army Ranger training if you need to be rescued, you’re out of the program. You do not get rescued. You’re trained that rescue is not a good thing. You’re the guy who rescues other people. So when he fell out of the raft, the guide jumped in the water to rescue him and I think it was Colonel Gabba was his name, pushed the rescuer away and laughed at him like, “I’m an Army Ranger, you don’t need to rescue me.” And moreover, he had a bad emotional bookmark associated with being rescued and a good emotional bookmark for taking care of himself. He just didn’t understand the nature of the hazard he was in. And that’s often the case with people who get in trouble, they don’t realize how big the hazard is, and so it’s… It’s always good to think about your environment and what you don’t know about it. When your environment changes, you can’t just keep acting the way you’ve acted all your life.

Brett McKay: Alright. So the big takeaway there, oftentimes when people make decisions that kill them in the wilderness, they’re not typically thinking, their emotions are making the decisions for them. What I love about your book is you go in deep in this idea of mental models and we’ve written about this on the website. We’ve had guests talk about mental models with John Boyd and his OODA loop and whatnot. But what role do mental models play in accidents happening in the wild?

Laurence Gonzales: So just to… For those of your listeners who aren’t sure about this, mental models are something we create all our lives to make ourselves efficient. And if you have little children around, you can watch them doing it. You get a one… One and a half year old who’s able to say a word or two and walk, and this child encounters a dog and somebody will say, “Doggie,” and the child will immediately learn what a dog is. And it doesn’t matter from there on if it’s a Great Dane or a Chihuahua, this child is never going to mistake a goat for a dog. They will have a template for what a dog is and I call this a mental model, and it will free them of the necessity for examining every dog they encounter to see if it’s not actually a buffalo or a cat. They know it’s a dog. And we do this with everything in our environment. And anything that we see in multiple… If you look at a book, at different books at different angles, they all give different visual impressions and yet we know exactly what they are. So we tend to find these big groupings of things and then once we have them, we figure out things to do with them that I call, behavioral scripts. So for example, you can teach a child to tie his shoe.

Teaching someone to tie his shoe is very difficult to do. But it produces this miracle in which something that takes all of his attention and conscious, deliberate thought turns into something that takes none of his attention and is absolutely automatic. So we tend to do this with everything in our lives. If we do something enough, it becomes automatic. We instantly recognize the thing and what we’re supposed to do with the thing. And we also label it with emotional valance of some kind, that it’s good or that it’s bad. Most people will very quickly and early on, if it’s not a primary emotion already, learn to brush an insect off. So if an insect lands on your face, you’re gonna immediately respond to it. But everything in our life will become that way. It’s like learning how to swing a golf club. It becomes fully automatic.

Brett McKay: But the problem with mental models, whenever you’re out in the wild, is… And you face a situation where things get dangerous, you might never experience that situation that you’re finding yourself in. And as a result, you still behave based on prior assumptions or a prior mental model and that ends up getting you killed.

Laurence Gonzales: Right. And I think I said this earlier, we tend not to invent new behaviors under stress. If we’re in a stressful situation, on a high emotional situation, we tend to do what we’ve done before and that can lead us into a dangerous place or take our lives. There’s one case in the book in which a guy gets lost and he… People don’t tend to backtrack. He’s under a lot of stress, he’s exhausted, the hike has taken longer, he’s been through a storm, a bunch of things happen and he stopped making good decisions. So he starts running around in a kind of panic to try to find out where he is, which is very typical. You run from danger and it’s an automatic thing. Eventually, he gets himself under control and survives. But many times young kids, not very young, but teenage kids will start running and they’ll just run themselves to death. So this automatic response can be quite dangerous.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about how our mental models are so embedded in us. You talk about the research that shows whenever people do face a disastrous situation like a fire in a building or in a plane crash, people… You think the normal response would just be panic. But a lot of people just sit there and act like everything’s normal, ’cause the mental model still hasn’t updated that, “Oh, wait. Something bad is happening right now”.

Laurence Gonzales: So there are a couple of things I would say about that. The first is, there’s a case and I don’t know if it’s in the book, Deep Survival, or not, but it’s in a dorm room. A girl has been in the habit of coming out of her dorm room, going to the left to get to class every day, going to the left in the hallway on, I believe it was the second floor, and there’s a fire, and the exit is to the right that’s closest to her room, and she goes out her door, and runs to the left and dies. Because that’s what she had done all along.

In the case of freezing that you mentioned, yes, it’s very common in airline crashes to find people strapped in their seats, otherwise uninjured, but dead from smoke inhalation, because they just didn’t do anything. This is a very common mammalian reaction to freeze. And if you look at the video, I believe, it was 1996 when the Atlanta Olympics were bombed, there’s a video of a crowd scene there and when the bomb goes off, everybody drops to one knee. And then after a moment or so, they run away. But that first freezing response is very, very typical of mammals and it’s an orienting response. However, under extreme trauma, you can get a very deep freezing response that can actually do damage and in some cases can even kill you. This is a response inherited from our reptilian ancestors, whose primary defensive mechanism is freezing. They can lower their metabolism so that they can stay under water for a long time. If you’re a mammal, you’re hot-blooded and you need a lot of oxygen for the big brain, if you’re a person. So if you do this freeze response and lower your own metabolism, you can hurt yourself. But it’s a very real thing.

Brett McKay: I think another example. You just mentioned the Atlanta bombing that happened in the ’90s. That jogged my memory, something I remember reading from your book of a mental model getting people killed was with the World Trade attack. So with the example you gave was first… We all know about the bombing that happened in the ’90s and the thing that people did to help them survive was go up. Down was where the bombing happened. So when the World Trade Center attack happened in 2001, when they felt the building shake and they say, “Hey, there’s an explosion,” people’s mental models… Well, last time this happened, you had to go up to get rescued, but that actually ended up getting people killed.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. That’s exactly right. There had been at the time of the first bombing… I forget how they got there, but they had somebody who was able to unlock the door to the roof, and they got on the roof of the building and were rescued from there. The people who had that memory had formed an indelible mental model and behavioral script that matched that and they went up. By the time they realized they couldn’t get out on the roof, which wouldn’t have done them any good anyway, they started to go down and they could no longer get down. As you say, they perished. This, again… It’s a very common response and we have to be aware of, in stressful situations or dangerous situations, we have to be aware of that response and take the time to think, and plan and act. And in the book, Deep Survival, I have at the end of the book, an appendix with 12 traits of good survivors that include these pieces of advice of how to manage that.

Brett McKay: Well… And yeah, with mental models, it’s… One thing that stood out to me is the people that typically survive are rule breakers. They break the rules. They don’t follow those scripts that they thought they were supposed to do and that actually ends up saving them.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. Exactly. And it turns out that in medicine, for example, doctors find that in cases like cancer, people who follow the rules, tend not to do as well. So if you say to somebody, “You’ve got six months to live,” they die in six months, ’cause that’s what you told them. Whereas, the rule breaker, the rebel, will probably say, “Well, to heck with you. I’m gonna live again.” It’s just typical. We hear this all the time, it’s like they come back from war and the doctor says, “You’ll never walk again,” and the guy says, “Oh, yeah? Well, watch this,” and he learns to walk again. And so in the book, there is a case where a fellow breaks his leg at 19,000 feet on a mountain in Peru and he says to himself, “Wow, I’m dead. I just broke my leg at 19,000 feet. There’s no way to get off this mountain. However, I can see that I can make my way over to that spot over there. I think I’ll make my way over there to that spot,” and each time he does one thing, he thinks, “Wow, I’m dead. But I’ll just do one more thing,” and he keeps going and eventually actually gets himself off the mountain. And this is a rule-breaking scenario.

Brett McKay: Alright. So our emotions make our decisions for us which ends up killing us. We oftentimes are using out-of-date mental models to make decisions and behavioral scripts that can get us in trouble. But besides human psychology causing accidents, you also get into complexity theory, which I thought was really fascinating and I think we’ve heard ideas, of… I think people have heard about complexity theory but can you walk us through what role complexity theory plays and why accidents happen.

Laurence Gonzales: So, complexity theory applies to certain kinds of systems where there’s no central authority. So if you take an example like the stock market. The stock market is really pretty simple, we can buy something or you can sell something. There’s lots of complex schemes in there but those are the basic rules. And yet out of those basic… And you have a bunch of agents each of which is making his own decision about what to buy or what to sell, and out of that simple interaction, you get this very complex, mathematically beautiful result which is the price of stocks. And the price of stocks moves each day by a certain amount, and there’s a bunch of small movements that are typical but every once in while, you get a really big movement either up or down, like we saw recently in the crash. People are attributing this crash to the coronavirus but in fact that’s not really correct to say. The crash is typical of a complex system.

And so in the book, in Deep Survival, I say that if you look at mountaineering accidents, and I use Mount Hood as an example, you will see that all kinds of people go out there to climb these mountains all the time, they’re very crowded with people and every day, that there are a bunch of people out there, you have people making these individual decisions and you’re having little accidents of all sizes, people slip and fall, they use an ice axe to self-arrest or somebody may break a leg, or somebody may try glissading and fail. But all these little accidents are happening all the time in the background of this system and then every once in a while they all get together and you get a really big accident, or some days you get no accidents at all. So it behaves like a complex system and it is certain that you will get these accidents. There’s no way to take the accidents out of the system. And the same is true with the stock market, there’s no way to take the crashes out of the system or the bubbles.

Brett McKay: Wait, with that Mount Hood example, I think is a good one to explore complexity theory, because, yeah, the mountain itself is a complex thing. The terrain is always changing, the weather’s changing, and then you have all these people who are interacting with that terrain who are modifying it and changing it. But the other way that complexity theory can cause accidents or is a part of… Reason why accident happens is when we… Oftentimes, when we try to make things safer, we only add more complexity to the system which increases the chances that a big accident can occur. And this happens with mountaineering with how people try to be safe by roping themselves to everyone that’s on their little mountain group.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. So the accident that I described in Deep Survival, there were several groups on the mountain above… One above the other, which is not a good idea anyway, and they had roped themselves together. However, they hadn’t attached the rope to the mountain. And so when you rope yourself together with someone else, the mountaineers who know what they’re doing, refer to it as a suicide pact because if one of you falls, the other will fall or all of you will fall. And they don’t appreciate the forces involved when somebody falls, and so they think they can self-arrest with an axe which they carry, but they can’t, and that’s exactly what happened at Mount Hood.

The guy at the very top fell, and the rule in roping yourself together is, the top man must not fall, because if the top man falls, he’s gonna pull everybody off the mountain and that’s exactly what happened. So, this tumbling effect of people coming down with ropes caught the next group, and they went tumbling and that caught the next group, and they went tumbling and everybody wound up in a crevasse and three people died. And so they had created this very complex, high-energy system without ever realizing what they were doing and of course it gave way. Then it got even more complex because now all of a sudden there’s an accident, a fatal accident and rescuers start pouring in from every direction. Now, you’ve made the mountain more complex and raised the likelihood that there’ll be more accidents. And indeed, a helicopter came up to try to work the incident and the helicopter crashed. So it’s one of these systems that just gets worse and worse as you tweak it, and complex systems tend to be this way. They have a number of striking characteristics, one of which is small inputs can lead to very big outputs. So this is called the butterfly effect, the flapping of a butterfly in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas. And that’s a famous catchphrase having to do with complex systems.

Brett McKay: The big takeaway I took from this… Your section on complex systems is that, if you’re gonna engage in an outdoor activity, there’s always gonna be risk… You can’t eliminate the risk, it’s just that… Risk is part of the system and you cannot eliminate it. Even if you try to eliminate it, you might just make things worse.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. Exactly. And so in trying to make it safer by roping themselves together, they made it worse. If they had gone individually, only one guy would have fallen. And machines are like that, too. We take things like nuclear power plants and we put a safety valve on that’s gonna shut it off if something goes wrong, and it turns out it shuts off the one section that’s cooling the thing and the whole thing melts down. And it’s typical. There’s a guy named Perrow, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book in the 1980s called, Normal Accidents. And it was about this very phenomenon of how when you deal with these complex machine systems that are tightly coupled, you get all kinds of weird interactions that were not intended. So that for example, the lavatory on a airliner can cause the plane to crash because it leaks, and the ice forms on the outside of the airplane ’cause it’s so cold, and the ice breaks off, and flies into the engine and there you got an accident that who would expect a toilet to bring down an airplane. And so, understanding complex systems and understanding how they don’t work the way you expect normal things to work that is in a linear fashion, can save you a lot of grief.

Brett McKay: So the accidents happen and the typical response that we talked about earlier, is people panic and they start making dumb decisions, but survivors tend not to do that, or they do but then they’re able to get control over it really fast. What have you, in your research, what did you find that… What’s the difference between these people who don’t panic and let their emotions get the best of them?

Laurence Gonzales: So, as I’ve said a couple of times already, you don’t tend to invent new behaviors in stressful situations. And so how you behave in your life before the event, whatever it is that’s gonna demand that you survive it, will be how you behave in the face of an emergency for the most part, there will be exceptions to this. But if you’re the kind of person who is used to being calm in the face of adversity, you will bring that same ability to be calm to whatever emergency faces you. If you’re the kind of person who’s constantly going off half-cocked, this does not bode well for how you’ll behave when things really go wrong. And so it’s really a life-long quest [chuckle] for equilibrium that brings you to survive better when you’re called on to do so. And this can be anything from, are you always yelling at your children when you could be calmly talking to them? Are you always irritated by things that happen in life when you could be simply facing them and saying, “This is life?”

One of the things that psychologists talk about is the locus of control and there are two forms that that takes. One is external and that person believes that things are happening to him, that the world is falling down on him, that things are other people’s faults. If he trips over the sidewalk, he’ll sue somebody instead of saying, “Wow, I should be more careful.” And the person with the internal locus of control believes that he’s in charge, and can make things happen and if bad things happen, he asks, “Well, how can I make that into an opportunity? There’s some lesson to be learned here or some opportunity to take from this.” I know lots of people who are in the world of investment and when the stock market crashed in the face of the coronavirus epidemic, they said, “Oh, bargain basement, time to buy some stocks.” These people have what they call an internal locus of control, they view the world as something they can manipulate and be successful at, and they make much better survivors.

Brett McKay: Another thing you talk about with survivors, particularly survivors who are having to survive for a long time, say you’re lost in the woods for a long time or the worst ones you talked about people lost at sea for weeks. That’s hard because you… On one hand you wanna hope that you’re gonna live and you’ll survive, but the other hand you can’t focus on that too much ’cause it might drive you crazy, and might cause you to make bad decisions. How do people who end up surviving, how do they balance that? That hope to, “I hope I’m gonna live and get past this,” but also maybe think, “I might not get through this and this might be my new situation forever.”

Laurence Gonzales: Yes, Steve Callahan is a guy, a sailor who I write about in Deep Survival, and he was lost at sea, I think it was 72 days, it was a long time. And Callahan’s an exact example of what you’re talking about. He was pretty sure he was gonna die, but like the mountaineer in Peru who broke his leg, he said, “I probably am gonna die, but I think I will just take this one step, and try to catch that fish and see if I can feed myself something.” And sure enough, he succeeded in catching a fish. In addition, he did things like he had a life raft, he used a fly cover for the life raft to catch water, so he was able not to dehydrate completely. And he just did these little things, and I think the broad answer to your question and looking at something like coronavirus right now is we have to take things a day at a time. In some cases, an hour at a time, in some cases, minutes at a time, but we have to not try to concentrate too much on the grand future of things which will tend to frustrate us.

I use examples of people who were prisoners in Nazi death camps, Auschwitz and other places, who tried to not only get through every day as best they could, but tried also to see here and do things that would uplift them somewhat. And so there’s a scene in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl was in Auschwitz in which he and a group of people come out of their huts to watch the sunset because it’s really beautiful, and this promotes survival if you can find things in your environment to see that are beautiful. And I see in this quarantine business we have with the coronavirus, people are going stir crazy and doing dangerous things because they’re just fed up with it and it’s like, “Okay, already. I’ve had enough of this.” You have to look just a little bit ahead, not months or years ahead in order to survive properly. And I have again, in the back of Deep Survival, there’s an appendix that lists 12 traits of survivors and one of them is, “See the beauty.” That is, “Find something beautiful today that will uplift you and it’ll make your day easier.”

Brett McKay: And one of them, too, you hit on this in your answer just now, “Set out tasks for yourself,” like little small things then celebrate those small successes. And you talk about the people who survived, they would say, “Hey, I’m gonna build a fire today, that’s my task for today.” And once they built that fire, they would be like, “Alright, I got a fire.” They were like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, “I’ve got fire.”

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. Right.

Brett McKay: They do that day in and day out.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. Right. And this is a perfect opportunity. I know I’m doing this with a number of things because my wife and I are… We’re staying home. We are very lucky that we have kids who can go shopping for us, but we’re basically staying home, so as not to get exposed ’cause we’re both vulnerable for different reasons, and it’s like, “Hey, I always wanted to learn German. Well, I’ve got a lot of time right now.” [chuckle] And so there’s gotta be something that you wanted to do. You’ve always said, “Hey, I’d like to learn to play chess.” Well, here it is. And you got all these wonderful computer, internet resources to work with. So this is, again, a survivor takes adversity and sees opportunity, and this is a perfect example of that.

Brett McKay: No… In surviving, there’s a lot of paradox involved and throughout the book, you quote Stoicism, the Tao Ching, where they deal with paradoxes or you talk about the Stockdale Paradox. James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war during Vietnam. He studied Stoicism, and he credited Stoicism to getting him through that experience. And sort of that thing, he had to hope that he would get released, but also at the same time accept that it might not happen.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. And again, going back to the Nazi death camps, a lot of these guys who were in there, talk about how the optimists were in greater danger because they’d be saying like, “Oh, we’re gonna be out by Easter. I know that were gonna be through by Easter.” Easter comes and goes, and you’re not out, and it’s depressing, and you give up and the other people are not trying to see that. They’re not trying to see that end, they’re trying to see today, “How do I make today good? And how do I get through today?” And as you say, little tasks, complete them, celebrate your success and enjoy the task and this is something that will get you through.

Brett McKay: And then you also talk about… There is a spiritual element to survival. A lot of these people that you describe, they all had a moment when they knew at a spiritual level, in the bones, “I’m gonna survive this.” They knew it.

Laurence Gonzales: Yeah. Exactly. Even while admitting that the chances are bad, many, many, many of these people report the same thing that, “At that moment, I thought I’m going to live.” And I think it’s very important. Part of our emotional system, which is like our immune system, it tells us what’s good and bad. Part of it is feeling joy, and the reason joy exists is because it helps us to move forward, and go on and do things that need to be done. And if we can find a little bit of joy in that thought, then we will tend to do the next right thing, and that’s really what surviving is. It’s doing the next right thing, it’s not collapsing and giving up, and whatever the next right thing is, tends to be the thing that you do. [chuckle] Such as, “I’m going to make it over to that boulder over there. I know that I might die but I’m gonna get to that boulder. And now I got to that boulder, and I feel like certain that I’m gonna live and that motivates me to get to the next boulder.”

Brett McKay: And that’s pretty much life. It’s just doing the next right thing.

Laurence Gonzales: It’s life. It’s life. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, Laurence, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Laurence Gonzales: is my website. If you Google deep survival, it’s very, very easy to find. I’m easy to find. And so they can order the book online. If they order it through my website, it goes to any number of places, your choice, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, Powell’s, a bunch of different places you can choose from. And it’s available online in other places, too, but if they wanna see the range of books that I’ve written, they’re all on that website. And one that may be important to people coming in very soon, it’s called, Surviving Survival. And it’s a sequel to Deep Survival and it’s like, “Okay, I survived the thing, now what happens?” And I think a lot of us are gonna be facing that when this coronavirus pandemic is over, and we see that our old lives aren’t waiting for us there and we will have to re-invent ourselves.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Laurence Gonzales, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Laurence Gonzales: My pleasure, too.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Laurence Gonzales, he’s the author of the book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes, at, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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