An excerpt from the Wired Science Blog:

The capacity for cluelessness of the clever was the subject of an Idea Festival talk by journalist Laurence Gonzales, who in Deep Survival examined the question of why some people survive crises and others die. The two questions, he said, overlap: survivors are often those who think deliberately under pressure, while deliberation is what helps people avoid stupid mistakes.

Such mistakes originate, he believes, in the tendency of people to instinctively and thoughtlessly follow already-established mental scripts rather than addressing reality directly. Of course, such patterns of behavior are what let us move through life without re-learning to tie our shoes every time we leave the house; to some extent they’re necessary. And so long as the present resembles the past, this works fine in more complicated scenarios; but add a few wrinkles, and things go wrong.

Gonzales gave a personal anecdote of piloting a plane on a route he’d taken often before, feeling so comfortable that he didn’t register until the last moment a looming thunderstorm that would have destroyed his plane but for a fortuitous radio message that disturbed his reveries.

“We use models and scripts, not the real world; we operate on the basis of what we learned in a slightly different situation,” he said.