What ‘summit fever’ and the spike in deaths on Mount Everest can teach you about the dark side of goals

There is a deadly traffic jam on Mount Everest as climbers are forced to wait in the

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There is a deadly traffic jam on Mount Everest as climbers are forced to wait in the “death zone.”
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  • At least 11 people died this week on Mount Everest amid a bottleneck on dangerous parts of the mountain.
  • When a similar bottleneck caused multiple deaths in 1996, a social psychologist observed that many climbers suffered from “summit fever,” or an obsession to reach the top that blinded them from making life-saving decisions.
  • When CEOs set lofty goals, employees grow uncertain whether they can complete the task. Like mountain climbers, team members work harder to achieve their goal because of their emotional connection to it.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

At least 11 people have died climbing Mount Everest in the past week – not because of avalanches or blizzards but on well-established, routine climbs.

The issue, on-the-ground reporters and observers say, is that too many climbers are queued up at the top, causing a bottleneck near the summit. The bottleneck causes climbers to wait in the mountain’s so-called death zone, an oxygen-sparse area 26,000 feet above sea level.

While some of the deaths may be linked to a loose permit system that allows inexperienced climbers to tackle the summit, psychology suggests that “summit fever” – or climbers’ obsession to reach the top – could be at play.

Read more: 10 ways to trick your brain into being more productive, according to a neuroscientist

This isn’t the first time a bottleneck has been linked to multiple deaths on the world’s largest mountain. In 1996, eight people died amid a bottleneck near the summit. At that time, the organizational psychologist Christopher Kayes observed the climbers from the foothills of the Himalayas.

In a 2004 study, Kayes observed that reaching Everest’s summit became part of the climbers’ social identity. The climbers wanted to reach their goal so badly that they made poor decisions in pursuit of completing the journey.

Mount Everest climbers’ temptation to achieve their goal stopped them from considering other courses of action, Kayes argued. The climbers’ narrow pursuit of the goal inhibited them from learning from problems along the way, like bottlenecks and decreased oxygen, which could have suggested they turn around.

Plus, climbers who make it so close to the top might fear that turning back would waste the time and energy they already invested – a phenomenon called the “sunk cost fallacy.”

Oliver Burkeman, a journalist and author of “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” expanded on Kayes’ reasoning. Burkeman suggests that setting lofty goals can set anyone back from success. For instance, when a CEO makes an overly ambitious goal, team members feel uncertain they can actually carry out the task.

Employees’ uncertainty, coupled with the fear of not achieving the goal, leads to them to work harder. Team members, like climbers, increase their emotional investment in the goal, regardless of whether it’s attainable. Even if a plan looks “increasingly reckless,” summit fever can cause people to stick to it.

When employees get so emotionally attached to ambitious company goals, they make bad decisions.

Burkeman isn’t the only one to suggest that fixating on goals can be counterproductive to success. Adam Alter, the author of “Irresistible” and an associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, previously told Business Insider that smartphone apps encouraged irrational goal-setting.

Whether it be climbing a number of steps or learning a language, people push themselves harder than needed just to achieve a goal, Alter said. And even if people achieve their goal, the joy they feel quickly fades for a new goal to obsess over. When you’re constantly working for a goal, you spend most of your time “failing” to achieve the goal, he added.

When you want to accomplish something, Alter suggests that instead of setting some lofty target, you create a system. Amy Cuddy, a Harvard social psychologist, also told the Business Insider reporter Chris Weller to chop your goals up into tiny, bite-size pieces. If you want to write a book, for instance, you should create a system in which you write 500 words every morning, good or bad.

Instead of reaching for the summit, break your goal up into smaller climbs. “Eventually, in aggregate, you get there,” Cuddy said.