In a classic classroom dilemma, students are told that a sinking ship holds ten passengers, and there’s only room for five of the passengers on the ship’s undersized lifeboat. The students decide which passengers to save from a stylized group that includes a Buddhist monk, a pregnant teenager, a middle-aged comedian, and a handicapped boy.
This dilemma captures one of psychology’s most important practical contributions: the science of whittling down a set of people to find the candidates who come closest to satisfying a set of criteria. With the right tools, we’re able to distinguish future academic stars from imminent flunkies, budding CEOs from backroom followers, and psychotic defendants from a pool of opportunistic malingerers. Unfortunately, for all the science in the world, this process fails when you’re using the wrong criteria, which happens all too often in myriad domains, from sporting and endurance pursuits, to business and education.
Take the particularly grave case of mountaineering. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, a magnetic scalp that once attracted only the best climbers. But the mountain is so popular now that more climbers reached its summit on May 23rd, 2010--a record-breaking 169--than during the entire 31-year period from 1953-1983. In fact the two dominant routes up the mountain are so clogged when the weather’s fine that climbers are sometimes forced to endure -40 degree temperatures while they wait to pass through notorious bottlenecks.
There are more applicants than spots on the most popular expedition teams, so how do guides decide which applicants deserve to climb each year? As you might expect, they pay plenty of attention to prior experience, financial means, and fitness. Those criteria sound appropriate, but they regularly fail to save mountaineers like David Sharp, an Englishman who perished near Everest’s summit in May, 2006. It was Sharp’s third attempt to climb Everest, and on both earlier expeditions, in 2003 and again in 2004, he came very close to reaching Everest’s summit. During both attempts, altitude and exhaustion forced Sharp to descend the mountain within sight of his goal.
Sharp checked all the obvious boxes. He had plenty of experience, having climbed the sixth highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu, with relative ease in 2002. He had been mountaineering since college, he was fit, and he had saved enough money to afford a bare-bones expedition package. These were valuable attributes, but Sharp also harbored a huge liability: his desperate motivation to summit on his third attempt. While expedition groups ask about each climber’s past, none of them consider how the climber might respond in several months when forced to decide between descending prematurely just feet from the summit, and dying on the way down after reaching the summit too late in the day.
Sharp’s deadly motivation was the natural consequence of earlier sacrifices. It’s hard to fathom his disappointment as he abandoned his bid for the summit--not once, but twice. Climbers spend more than two months acclimating to the mountain’s oxygen-depleted air, enduring headaches, nausea, and chronic exhaustion. They sink thousands of dollars into the expedition, and ascend lesser peaks in anticipation of the great climb to come years in the future. At the end of this masochistic journey, the outcome is binary: either you reach the summit, or you gaze upwards one last time before descending prematurely. Coming up short just feet from the summit, as Sharp did both times, is cruelly painful.
It’s not surprising, then, that Sharp came to have the air of a jilted lover, unable to scratch the Everest itch that followed him back to England. He decided to try once more, and with two years worth of experience he was convinced that success was just a matter of hard work and fortitude. Having lost part of two toes to frostbite on the second expedition, Sharp bought heavy-duty boots, and skimped instead on other climbing supplies. Instead of paying a guide and lugging two or more oxygen bottles, he set out alone, and with just one oxygen bottle.
Those decisions turned out to be deadly, but Sharp’s costliest decision was his drive to continue as his oxygen dwindled and he became exhausted. As he reached the so-called “Death Zone,” more than 8000 meters above sea-level, where the body begins to consume itself in a desperate bid to compensate for the air’s lack of oxygen, he tired rapidly, and other climbers suggested that he turn back. Like so many mountaineers who had died on Everest before him, Sharp wasn’t willing to descend. The magnetism of the summit, was too strong, and the wisdom that coaxed him to descend in 2003 and 2004 abandoned him to die.
Sharp isn’t alone in suffering so-called summit fever. Most of the deaths on Everest occur on the descent, many as climbers rush down the mountain after reaching refuse to descend earlier in the day. Others die high on the mountain as night descends and the temperature plummets to 40 degrees below. But most of the time these tragedies are preventable, because summit fever shouldn’t be difficult to anticipate if you’re asking the right questions about each climber. The biggest check in the liability column should be the kind of desperation that fuels a climber to keep pushing in the face of imminent danger—to complete the goal and master the mountain at all costs, as psychologist George Loewenstein has explained.
So how could psychologists intervene to dampen the fatality rate near Everest’s peak? They could begin by identifying people who are likely to keep climbing in the face of imminent death. Such impulsive tendencies must be correlated with other character traits, and psychologists have batteries of tests and simulations and games that measure those traits. For example, Walter Mischel famously promised to give children two marshmallows if they could resist eating a marshmallow that sat in front of them for fifteen minutes. Children who overcame the impulse to eat the single beckoning marshmallow went on to be more successful scholars in high school, many years later, and the brain regions responsible for reasoned thought were more active when those children became adults forty years later. It’s conceivable that people who delay gratification more easily are also more willing to turn back from the mountain’s peak, thereby deferring (or foregoing) the short-term gratification of a successful ascent for the long-term gratification of several additional decades of life.
The same problems plague decision-making in other domains. People are promoted to new positions based on their performance in an existing position, but often the two are very different. Rainmaking mid-tier lawyers might be blessed with brilliant legal minds, and mid-career bankers might have an uncanny knack for smart investments, but that doesn’t mean they’ll make good leaders as they ascend the firm hierarchy. Smart undergraduates apply for graduate school on the back of stellar grades, but the ability to learn for exams maps onto the ability to establish a research program quite poorly. The correlation between the two isn’t zero, but it’s probably not very high. Perhaps graduate students should be admitted after having the opportunity to spend 24 hours devising as many research ideas as they can, or after critiquing a published journal article--skills that they might not have perfected before they begin the program, but skills that are essential nonetheless. These direct measures almost certainly predict the success of a student with greater accuracy than the indirect measure of undergraduate grades.
The moral here is that the wrong inputs--even if they’ve been used unthinkingly for decades--should be scrutinized carefully. If mountaineers die because they’re too impulsive, or business leaders fail because they’re better suited to the nuts and bolts of backroom decisions, then those factors should be detected long before they corrupt an otherwise sound decision-making process.