A hunter’s worst nightmare happened this past deer season in Ohio. And again in Minnesota. Both situations were “mistaken for game” shootings, where hunters opened fire on fellow hunters or just unlucky people who happened nearby, believing they were taking game.
Both situations ended in death, one of which being the shooter’s own son.
Relative to almost any other outdoor activity, hunting is a safe sport. Over recent decades it has grown even safer thanks to better education, optics, and blaze orange requirements. It seems unthinkable that a sober, experienced hunter could mistake a person for a deer or elk.
Yet it happens. In response, we tend to write those shooters off as drunk, stupid, or inexperienced. We think it could never happen to us.
Don’t be so sure.
“Hunting accidents where people are mistaken for game appear to be more common with experienced hunters, which seems counter-intuitive,” writes hunter, psychologist, and researcher Karl Bridges of New Zealand, who is conducting doctoral research on these types of incidents.
“It’s crucial to understand that it appears that they have identified their target beyond all doubt,” Bridges said. But mistakes happen.
“We tend to think of shooting a deer as a simple act,” he explained. “It’s actually incredibly complex. There are many ways for it to go right and many ways for it to go wrong.”
One shortcoming lies within the human brain. Our eyes aren’t cameras that merely take in information. The brain interprets—and misinterprets—that information in nanoseconds.
“It is during that step of visual confirmation that things can get quite woolly,” Bridges said. In short, people often see what they expect or hope to see, what Bridges calls expectancy, confirmation bias, and optimism bias. The subconscious brain triggers a chain-reaction of subconscious responses, which is why your heart races, your eyes dilate, and your sense of time tends to slow down as the moment of truth approaches.
When we see bits and pieces of information, the brain often “fills in” details to complete the picture and blocks out details that do not fit that preconception.
This happens in our daily lives too. Have you ever walked up to a car in a parking lot believing it’s yours, only to become perplexed when the key doesn’t fit the lock? It’s a similar phenomenon. Motorists sometime report “not seeing” motorcycles or bicycles, because they are “looking” for cars or trucks.
“The bottom line is, given the latest research, any one of us has the capability to make this kind of mistake. No one is entirely immune, whether it is the first time you’ve been hunting or the thousandth,” Bridges said.
Hunter orange clearly helps, but not everyone sees colors and the brain can misinterpret colors as well.
Certain hunting conditions may increase the odds of a mishap. Poor light, thick cover, and snap shooting may contribute. But mental factors are important too, Bridges says. Hunters who feel under pressure to make a kill, either from peers or internal, self-imposed standards may be predisposed to trouble.
“These incidents are tragic. They destroy lives, they destroy families and communities,” Bridges said.
Complacency can be deadly. While we all share a responsibility to know our targets 100% before pulling the trigger, it’s well worth an ounce of humility and a pound of caution. Be aware that your eyes and brain can trick you. Always take that extra moment to confirm before you accidentally make the biggest mistake of your life.
Feature image via Captured Creative.