Psychology of Survival: The Danger of Comfort

We all have heard the clichés on comfort: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there”. As with all clichés, there might be a truth hidden behind those words.

How interesting the effect of not saying yes to new adventures (in whatever shape of form) is, that is not the kind of comfort what this post is about. Although you might find some striking similarities between seat belts, forest fires and pursuing your dreams.

The word survival, or more precise, surviving, has its roots in the French language – 12th centrury Old French souvivre – to the letter “to outlive”. The essence is clear: Your survival means, you staying alive. But what if I told you that the moment you feel like you might make it out alive, might just be the moment you are the most at risk?

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Come take a risk with me

Researchers, both in the field psychology and economics, have done a tremendous amount of examination of risk related behaviour. Flash foward to the conclusion:

  1. Humans do not like uncertainty;
  2. Humans do not like the risk of losing something.

In a study in the 80’s by Kahneman & Tverksy people were asked to choose one out of two options: 1. An 85% chance to win a $1000. Or 2. receiving $800 for sure. I would go with the $800, just as the majority of the people in the mentioned study. Just because I wouldn’t want to find myself in the 15% chance of winning nothing.

Mathematically the $800 is actually not the sensible choice: The expected value of option 1. is (.85 X $1000 + .15 X $0 =) $850, is higher than the expected value of option 2.(1 X $800 =) $800. Everything changes when it comes to survival however: When a 100% chance of making it our alive, is better than a 85% chance of making it out alive with a full belly and a gold nugget.

The way we perceive risks can cause some real troubles, but they might save your ass too. The key is to know what makes the difference.

Our brains have set up some short cuts for us to make choices in our daily life easier, so we do not waste to much precious energy, pondering about whether we should run away from the tiger, or continuing eating our berries. The way we perceive risks can cause some real troubles, but they might save your ass too. The key is to know what makes the difference.

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Forest and Seat belts
Take a look at your back pack, do you carry a map and a compass? Chances are, you do. Now take a look again, do you also carry a GPS location tracking device (or something similar). Now ask yourself the question: Do you make choices based on having this extra piece of safety equipment with you?

A couple of years ago we managed to get lost for hours, in a nearby forest. A real rookie mistake: We had gone off in the comfort of knowing that this neck of the woods was close to home. This comfort, made the perceived risk of getting lost lower. Wake up call: Proximity has in this case nothing to do with the chances to get lost. 

We figured we would be able to hear cars in the distance, and navigate our way back to civilization by following the sound. The wind however, played tricks with us, leading us actually further into the woods. Up to this day we still feel a bit embarrassed to admit that we had to use GPS to find our way back out. 

Up to this day we still feel a bit embarrassed to admit that we had to use GPS to find our way back out.

This example does not stand alone. Car accidents happen most often in the first and last five minutes of the trip, according to a 2008 research by Dutch a assurance company. The reason lays in the lack of alertness due to perceived familiarity, and therefore perceived safety. Do you wear your seat belt for just a short trip to the convenience store?


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Feel the burn
Back to your back pack again. When you carry a GPS location tracking device, have you made more risky choices because of this? For example going of beaten paths more easier, taking unknown detours maybe?

In case you do not carry GSP devices, let us re-frame the question: Have you gotten more wet and cold than you normally would feel comfortable doing, knowing that once you build your camp you could build a fire?

Let’s re-frame that question one last time: Have you made choices based on some safety measures, that actually put you at greater risk than you would have been when not having these measures set into place?

We are not trying to spoil your adventurous trips here (or the pursuing of your life goals), in contrary actually. However, we do want to make you aware of the tricks your mind can play on you, and the steps you can take the counterbalance this.

Affect heuristic is the mechanism that is at play in these matters. Heuristics are mental shortcuts, in this case a short cut were an emotional response plays a leading role. Fear or a perceived threat can make us look twice, fear grabs the attention of a rudimentary part of our brain, the amygdala. The lack of alarming triggers (comfort), can have the opposite effect.

Fear heightens your awareness, while comfort lowers your awareness.

Did you ever pick up your pot out the fire too soon, burning your hand? Or swung your axe in the flesh instead of wood? Seriously got lost for days? Chances are your brain has formed vivid memory of the experience, giving your shivers by the thought alone. Your amygdala is to blame, all for trying to prevent it from happening again (or happening in the first place).

Fear heightens your awareness, while comfort lowers your awareness. The human brain can have issues operating under both ends of the spectrum: Fear can make you stiffen, while comfort can make you lack in needed awareness. Best thing about these short cuts? Knowing that your brain wants to take them, and that this can effect your decision making, neutralizes some of its effect.

Running With Sheep Sheepbushcraft Psychology of Survival Danger of Comfort Heuristics 6Who moved my cheese?
Next to knowledge on heuristics, there is another technique that helps counterbalancing the negative effects. That is to keep assessing the situation, never let yourself get too comfortable, and adapt to (ever chancing) circumstance when needed. In acute situations (fear), you can use the STOP method: Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. We have touched on that one in our Monkey and the Brain post, but we plan on elaborating on the subject in the near future.

When nothing seems to be wrong, and we feel comfortable and safe, changes and threats become harder to notice. Spencer Johnson once wrote a book (Who Moved My Cheese?) about mouses and little people (not kidding on this one), that perfectly sums up how comfortableness can leave you without cheese.

Let us translate cheese to your survival, for example when lost in the woods:
1. They Keep Moving The Cheese: Changes happen.
Remember us lost in the woods close to home? Well, we didn’t pay attention. We didn’t see the path narrowing and the scrubs getting higher. 

2. Get Ready For The Cheese To Move: Anticipate Change.
We should have noticed the chancing environment, and should have anticipated on it accordingly. Having our maps close and knives too. You never know when you get lost.

3. Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old: Monitor Change.
Know that there is always a chance of getting lost, and set precautions. Keep on the look out for chancing environment, changing weather, and even tiredness. Check route posts, signs on trees, your map. This so you are aware when something is changing. 

Don’t let shame stand in the way of your survival: Anyone and everyone can get lost, even you.

4. The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese:
The sooner you realize you are not on the right track anymore, the sooner you can try finding your way back. Don’t let shame stand in the way of your survival: Anyone and everyone can get lost, even you.

5. Move With The Cheese: Change.
Think of a plan to help you finding your way back. Don’t step into the pitfall of thinking that the plan you had prepared beforehand, will work for your current situation. Awareness and flexibility is key. We thought we could find our way back by listening to the noise of a nearby road, but we were wrong, so a new plan was set into action (using the GPS on our phones).

6. Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese: Enjoy Change.
We made it out of the woods! We celebrated for a little while, but took our lesson from it too. What made us get lost in the first place and how can we make sure it won’t happen the next time?

7. They Keep Moving The Cheese: Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again.
Never get too comfortable, we can always get lost again – and so can you.

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Finding balance
These is a difference between being in a healthy state of awareness, and being in a constant state of stress. The first one might save you, the other one.. not so good. It is called the General Adaptation Syndrome, and can have all kinds of disastrous effects on your physical and mental health.

So how do you tell the difference: When you have trouble thinking about anything else, having a hard time falling asleep, acting jumpy, chances are you moved to the other end of the spectrum: Fear, or a constant feeling of stress. Which in itself can have a negative impact on decision making. The sweet spot lays in between lack of awareness due to the feeling of comfort, and being in a constant state of stress and fear.

Take a breath, listen to your body, practice being grateful, allow yourself to have fun, check if your (emotional) reaction to the situation, matches the actual  situation, and what believe lays underneath your reaction. Still feeling too stressed, or anxious even? Don’t feel ashamed or afraid to ask for help. Know that you are not alone, although it can feel that way.

Final thoughts
In some ways the mentioned tips and tricks work for pursuing your dreams too. You gotta know what makes you tick, and what steps you need to be taking in order to make them into reality. On the other hand you need to be able to stay flexible, change the plan, but not the goal. And as with everything in life, finding balance is important: Go chase your dreams, however, never lose sight of reality.

Feel free to share a comment, advice, question or your thoughts on this subject. They are always much appreciated!

In case of perusing dreams (and not in the case of getting lost), a final quote:

“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself… That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.” ~Neil Gaiman

Further reading
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Who Moved My Cheese by  Spencer Johnson

Mentioned theories
Expected utility hypothesis ($1000 versus $800) by Bernoulli (1738)
Affect heuristic by Slovic and Peters (2006)
General Adaptation Syndrome by Selye (1956)

Liked this post? Check out ‘The Pyschology of Survival: The Monkey and the Brain’ on thinking fast, and slow, known unknowns and how to rewire your monkey brain.

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