What Mountaineering Tell Us About Human Motivations?

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Are People Consumers?

Marketers and researchers often use the term ‘consumer’ to describe customers and prospects. We conduct consumer research, and measure consumer awareness of brands. We also have consumer confidence measures as if they are a separate segment of society. As the article I’m not your consumer asserts the term is “counter productive and misguided”. It implies that consuming things is all important and this ignores the largely hidden motivations of human behaviour.

Behavioural economist George Loewenstein suggests that if we want to understand human motivations in general we may learn more from studying non-consumption activities, such as professional mountaineering. There are many motivators of human behaviour that are not directly linked to consumption. Sure, consuming things can stimulate our senses. The pleasure of wealth also gives us status and control over our spending habits that facilitate consumption activity.

However, mountaineering involves putting up with extreme environmental conditions. The “unrelenting misery” that comes with a very physical and dangerous activity. There is the extreme cold, risk of frostbite, exhaustion, hunger, risk of snow-blindness, altitude sickness and an appallingly high death rate. This is not consistent with sensory pleasures or the benefit of wealth. It suggests people’s motivations are more complex than we often assume.

Why Do People Do It?

We know that the vast majority of decisions people make are made unconsciously by our fast and intuitive mind. For this reason it’s perhaps not surprising that when asked directly mountaineers’ aren’t very forthcoming with their answers. Mallory’s “because it is there” does not make us any the wiser to the real motivations of mountaineers.

As a result Loewenstein decided to examine mountaineering literature to uncover clues about their true motivations. Using his expertise in psychology and behavioural economics he looked for evidence of the influence of mainly non-consumption based motivators such as skill, self-recommendation (ego), and a good name (recognition/prestige).

Empathy Gap & Memory Deficit:

People who are not experiencing the visceral states, such as altitude sickness or hunger, associated with an extreme activity are largely incapable of imagining how they would feel or behave when in such a situation. He noticed that a number of mountaineers acknowledged an ‘empathy gap’. They expressed their frustration at not being able to articulate the true nature of their experience when later they came to write about it.

Some mountaineers also recognised that their memory of an expedition could change almost instantly when an objective is achieved. This might be finishing a particularly difficult stage of a climb or reaching the summit. But despite acknowledging that their memories were inaccurate, there was little evidence that mountaineers changed their behaviour as a consequence (e.g. they carried on mountaineering despite the misery).

Memory deficit occurs because our recollection of an experience is largely determined by the worst or best moment and how the event ends (appropriately called the peak-end rule). Further, the duration of an experience also appears to have little impact upon our memory. This helps explain why we go back to theme parks. Even though we may spend most of the time queuing for the popular rides.

The Interpersonal Myth:

In the older literature Loewenstein noticed frequent mentions of solidarity and comradeship. However, this was not the case in more recent material. Instead there were references to loneliness, isolation and alienation. In some cases the extreme nature of mountaineering appeared to create enemies out of friends. He asserted that this is because modern mountaineers are much more honest about the nature of their sport. Perhaps also it was less socially acceptable in the early days of mountaineering to write critical remarks about your climbing partners.

Whatever the reason, the isolation of climbing is probably compounded by the empathy gap. This prevents people from fully understanding their partners’ discomfort and feelings. This may also partly explain why peoples’ recollections of the same event can vary so much.

Recognition & Prestige:

Few mountaineers like to acknowledge that what matters is their achievement in the eyes of others, but mountaineering is a prestigious sport in many social spheres. However, because mountaineers generally don’t want to appear to be obsessive publicity seekers many will incorporate a ‘scientific’ or ‘humanitarian’ goal to hide their true motivation. This has the added benefit of ensuring that at least one goal of the expedition is likely to be met. This is why when an expedition fails to reach its main target they will switch the focus to the scientific or humanitarian objective.


If it is socially unacceptable for a mountaineer to admit they are after fame and recognition from others, it is even more problematic when they want to impress themselves by demonstrating they have certain desirable characteristics. People seek to achieve this by adopting behaviours that they feel are consistent with the desirable characteristics they wish to be associated with.

Thus, you may join a gym to appear more health conscious. But if you rarely make time to go to the gym you will undermine the value of the behaviour. Unlike many behaviours though, mountaineers have the distinct advantage that it is practically impossible for them to ‘fake it’. It builds character because it is so difficult.

Goal Completion:

Humans have an almost obsessive desire to meet self-set goals. I have a neighbour who always has a ‘project’ on the go and will not let anything or anyone distract her from completing it. This may partly reflect people’s desire to boost their own perception of themselves, but Loewenstein believes that people also use goals to counter their inherent preference for immediate gratification.

Have you noticed that people generally dislike deviating from their own plans? This explains why mountaineers’ sometimes suffer from ‘summit fever’. They find it difficult to abide by their designated turn-back time even though they know continuing with the climb could prove fatal.

Loewenstein suggests that goal-setting and completion is in our brains and we may also use it as a way of dealing with our problems. Certainly we all know times when we are determined to carry on with a plan even though other people are telling us that it is time to move onto something else.


Skill or mastery is also an important driver of behaviour. People obtain pleasure from undertaking activities that they are good at and especially like to master their environments. Certainly being good at an activity boosts our self-confidence and makes the activity more absorbing. This in turn can help us forget about the burdens of everyday life. This is why skill-based games are so popular. People can improve with practice and can absorb themselves so much that it takes their mind off any problems they have.

A perception of control over our environment is particularly relevant to mountaineers. Research indicates that a feeling of control improves our ability to tolerate pain and it reduces our level of fear. This may explain why mountaineers appear unperturbed by risks they perceive they have some influence over. They are more fearful of events that they have no control over, such as falling rocks.


Loewenstein noticed that after mountaineers had a near death experience almost without fail it made them want to put more time and energy into their personal relationships and reduce their commitment to professional and material goals. He suggests that this occurs because such events heighten our awareness of our own mortality and stops us procrastinating. It makes us focus on our purpose as we realise that if we don’t start to invest in personal relationships now we may not get another opportunity.

How relevant are these motivations?

Mountaineering is an extreme sport and only a relatively small minority of people participate. Indeed, Loewenstein suggests that these motivations may be more important in mountaineering than in other activities. It is probably better developed in mountaineers. However, he asserts that we can observe these same motivations in many of our daily activities. We can use them to better understand human behaviour in the general population.

This should not be a surprise to any marketer. Many brands try to associate themselves with positive behaviours that might improve our self-perception and how others see us. By seeking to embed a brand into existing behaviours we attempt to encourage habit formation.

DIY retailers promote ideas for ‘projects’ to nudge us into setting goals that we then feel obliged to complete. Social gaming companies use gamification to offer achievement levels and badges to reward our skill and encourage us to aim for the next challenge or goal. Theme parks benefit from the peak-end rule and duration neglect. We remember the thrilling rides, but soon forget about the time spent in long queues.

So is it time to stop referring to our fellow human-beings as consumers and focus more on their underlying motivations? It may take a near death experience for a person to appreciate what really is important to them. We are definitely not here just to consume. Furthermore, our tendency to copy people we admire or want to associate with also has an important part to play in our behaviour. As Loewenstein points out in his paper on The Economics of Meaning:

“And our happiness as part of a collective may depend as much as the successes or failures of the collective rather than our own private successes and failures.” George Loewenstein, Exotic Preferences

Further reading:

Exotic Preferences

Exotic Preferences: Behavioral Economics and Human Motivation

the upside of irrationality

The Upside of Irrationality