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Why Self-Doubt Can be Critical on a Climb

Why Self-Doubt Can be Critical on a Climb

Self-confidence is key… that’s the lesson we hear our entire lives. It’s not necessarily wrong. Yet in decision-making, confidence can sometimes misdirect our best intentions. A healthy dose of self-awareness and doubt can help improve the quality of your decisions, without sacrificing the confidence you rely on to take on big challenges. Indeed, better decision-making might improve your success and boost your commitment even more!

Heuristics are to blame!

The human mind is mysterious to be sure, however psychologists and social scientists have uncovered some basic ways our brains work. One of their findings is that the brain utilizes a series of simple rules to help in decision-making – these mental shortcuts are called “heuristics”. They’re incredibly helpful to us, because we have to make thousands of decisions in our daily lives. Working through each decision to take account of every relevant factor would paralyze us.

We associate good feelings with good decisions. 

For example, the affect heuristic suggests we feel better about a decision we make while we feel good, and bad about those we make while nervous or anxious. Obviously, this often works for dealing with complex situations – In risky or uncertain situations we often say “Listen to your gut.” However this can lead to excessively risky decision-making when we’re “high on life”, or when you’re literally high on a drug. Most heuristics are thus a double-edge sword: They help us usually, but for every rule there is an exception where they can actually cause harm. In these cases, it becomes what we call a “cognitive bias”, a systemic failure of our logic in decision-making leading to the less than desired outcome. A few of these heuristics and biases can affect us out in the mountains especially.

We get used to danger over time.

The experience heuristic essentially leads us to be overly confident with landscapes or activities at which we are experienced. If we hike, ski or climb enough, we begin to minimize the perceived risk we face. Many heuristics help us calculate risk based on our prior experiences, especially those most recent (called the availability heuristic). If you have spent thousands of hours in the mountains without any major accidents, your brain begins to predict a safe outcome will always occur, leading you to take bigger, unwarranted risks. This is why people often “take it safe” after a major accident or injury, only to slowly begin taking larger risks again as the memory fades.

We know less than we think we know.

Heuristics can affect those out on their very first climb as well. The Dunning-Kruger effect predicts that unskilled individuals routinely overestimate their ability. It is common for a new climber to climb 1-2 easy peaks, feel as though have learned enough to be ready for more, and then climb a more serious peak they are not read for. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. This is in part because beginners don’t know what they don’t know… until they spend more time outdoors gaining experience, they are unaware of the potential risks they face or the ways to deal with them, giving them a false and sometimes deadly confidence.


We ignore info if it means we’re wrong.

Even when things begin to go wrong, our heuristics can work against us: Confirmation bias works to screen out information that doesn’t support our initial decision to reach the summit. Even as storm clouds may form, and others descending warn us to turn around, new hikers can remain convinced that they can make it up. Summit fever is real – a deadly confluence of this and several other heuristics all working against our safety without our knowledge. This is one reason why even experienced climbers make mistakes with serious consequences, even when they know in hindsight they knew better. It’s easy to overlook key details if you want to reach the summit deep down!

Self-awareness and doubt can help you out.

What’s the solution to all these rules gone amok? The secret is a bit of self-awareness and self-doubt to try to catch them in the act. We do have a blind spot: It is easier to spot cognitive bias in others than in our own actions (which is itself a cognitive bias). This is one reason why climbing with partners in so helpful at reducing risk: It helps us spot when others are making a poor decision that they may be blind to themselves. However, if you are alone, there are still things you can do.


Create a plan and stick to it.

First, you can try to fight poor decision-making right from the start by creating backup plans before you even begin. Especially with a group, creating plans for various possible situations that may arise can help you respond more effectively later on when emotions, bias, and thin air could interfere. As a group, discuss and decide what you will do if someone gets injured, sick or lost, you lose the trail as a group, the weather deteriorates, etc. Verbally committing to a course of action from the start will help you hold to it when seconds count higher up on the mountain

Question your assumptions and motivations.

Second, question your assumptions when facing critical decisions, like whether to turn around given changing weather. Assumptions are built into our decision-making but often go unstated, making them prime candidates for mental distortion. Call out the assumptions key to your plans: Are avalanche conditions actually okay, or did you assume so? Could those clouds be developing storms, or are you assuming they are not? Is everyone okay with continuing or is that an assumption? When you force yourself to face what you’re taking for granted, they may hold up (a good sign), or they may break down… usually a sign to turn around and fight again another day.


Pay attention to feelings to overcome them.

Finally, consider yourself and your feelings. When you think about turning around, are you getting emotional: sad, angry or anxious? Could it be clouding the way you are considering the risk in your decision? Emotions are just evolution’s way of guiding our decisions – however humans are not endemic to the high-mountain environment. Our emotions here often can guide us right off a cliff. Case-in-point: A fear of heights cause people to lean against cliff faces when near a drop off, but this puts you off balance and increases your chance of slipping and falling. If you’re feeling yourself getting worked up while evaluating a key decision, try some deep breathing exercises and enjoy the view to get to a more relaxed place.

Don’t forget: a little self-doubt goes a long way.

It’s impossible to make your time in the mountain completely risk free. However with the right knowledge, processes, and thinking, you can help overcome the heuristics and bias that can make mountaineering more risky than it has to be. Climb with a group, create backup plans, question your assumptions, and be aware of your emotions. These actions will go a long way in making your time outdoors safer and more satisfying

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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2 Responses

  1. Great confirmation to my PSAR (Preventative Search & Rescue) talks on the Whitney Trail.
    When talking to a group at the portal: let’s have a team meeting in a circle. Take your sunglasses off so we see each other. Count the number of significant others that are waiting for our safe return. Agree that if weather, trail or physical issues arise that are beyond our “comfort zone”, we will make the decision to turn back. We are not experienced climbers/mountaineers and therefore cannot make a “risk assessment”. We don’t know what we don’t know, therefore, our “comfort zone” is how we make decisions.
    When we reach that decision point, remind yourselves that you already made the decision at the Portal.
    Ed Rescue 18

  2. Great article. Sober reminder to thoughtfully plan and know yourself well enough to accept your limitations, capabilities, and capacities.

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