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EVERYDAY SURVIVAL by Laurence Gonzales


Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

by Laurence Gonzales

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-393-05838-3
Publisher: Norton

A painter sips turpentine instead of coffee; a pilot lands atop another plane; a climber misses a loop on the rope. Such dumb things happen to people all the time—in part, writes Gonzales (Deep Survival, 2003, etc.), because we’re programmed for them.

Humans memorize “behavioral scripts” that chart courses for repeated, nearly automatic actions: When someone throws something at you, you duck; when your shoe is untied, you tie it. When a script is more complex—getting a plane up in the air, for instance—any variation in it can cause trouble, as when a pilot leaves out a step on the checklist because of distraction. Much of Gonzales’s continuing exploration of the realm of disasters and surviving them is a catalog of missteps, bad decisions and scripting errors. The climber in question stopped to tie her shoes, invoking a script very similar to the one used in tying a rope, which she was midway through—she nearly died in the bargain. There’s not much that can be done about these sorts of mistakes, however, since the our genetic hard wiring comes plays such a big role. Gonzales’s narrative is a touch disjointed, perhaps because the science is uncertain and because he veers away to touch on other intriguing, but tangential, aspects of the strange makeup of humans. Yes, we’re apes with killing technology, given to “killing our own children by sending them to war at this glorious stage of our evolution,” but that doesn’t have much to do with the point at hand, since we’re not confusing that act with sending the kids off to college or summer camp. Set aside the requirement for coherent development, though, and Gonzales’s piece has plenty of interesting vignettes, such as his discussion of why some people survived the 2004 Christmas tsunami and others did not.

A plea for heightened awareness of our surroundings, and good reading for the how-things-work set.