Counteracting Heuristic Traps
Words: Rachel Reich
Heuristics: types of decision-making strategies (often thought of as rules of thumb) that simplify decision making by reducing the number of cues analyzed, thus reducing the cognitive burden on decision makers and increasing decision efﬁciency.
Selecting what slopes to ride in avalanche terrain can be a complex process. Hopefully, you’re gathering a lot of information throughout a season and on any given day that you are out in the backcountry. You’re then synthesizing this information to make a plan on what zones, aspects, and elevations should be safe (and fun!) to ride. This process is not necessarily easy but is one that you can get better at over time. Additionally, avalanche centers are consistently putting out reports and there are numerous courses you can take to help sharpen your understanding of all the information that’s available to you.
So, where’s the challenge? Make an educated plan and stick to it, right? This is where heuristics and heuristic traps come into play. These traps are often commonly referenced by the acronym FACETS first coined by Ian McCammon in his work “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications”.
Familiarity: our past actions guide our behavior in a familiar setting. You’ve ridden this slope a dozen times and it’s never slid, so despite obvious avalanche warning signs, you ride it again this time.
Acceptance: the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect. You want to impress others in the group causing you to overlook warning signs.
Consistency: after an initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are much easier if we maintain consistency with previous decisions. Ex. we’re determined to ride this slope no matter what.
Expert Halo: trusting an informal leader, who ends up making critical decisions for the group. He or she may not make the best decision.
First Tracks: referring to scarcity and the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them. This is called “powder fever” – wanting to ride untouched powder so bad we ignore obvious avalanche warning signs.
Social Facilitation: the presence of other people enhances risk-taking by a subject. You see fresh tracks on the slope you want to ride, so even though avalanche danger is high, it must be safe, right?
No matter how well we’re educated, how many times we’ve been out or how much confidence we have, statistically we can still fall victim to any of these situations. In fact, according to McCammon’s paper referenced above, at least 48% of parties involved in an avalanche accident had formal avalanche training, knew how to recognize the hazard, and how to avoid it. What happens in these incidents? That answer can be complicated, but in many cases, human factors are the culprit – the inability to recognize that you’re falling into a trap.
So, when you’re out on a mission with your partners how do you avoid these traps? After all, the challenge with using rules of thumb is we hardly know when we’re doing it. First, knowing the traps exist is important, but more so, thinking critically about all the aspects of your day and employing some of the strategies below can help build good routines and habits.
Heuristic traps can be tricky to manage when making choices in the backcountry, but following the strategies outlined above can make falling into one less likely. Having good communication with your team before, during, and after your mission is the common thread to all the strategies. Have a plan and speak up while you’re in the field. And remember, each day is a learning experience and opportunity so treat it as such. We are all lifelong students in the backcountry.
Rachel Reich is a splitboard mountaineer and marketing strategist based in Jackson, WY with notable descents in AK, WY, CO, UT, and Norway. When she’s not working, you can find her plotting her next mission or hanging out in the nooks and crannies of the Tetons. She has her Wilderness First Responder, is an athlete for Mammut North America, and spends upwards of 100 days in the backcountry each season.
Want to learn more?
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254316946_The_Roles_of_Heuristics_Avalanche_Forecast_and_Risk_Propensity_in_the_Decision_Making_of_Backcountry_Skiers [accessed Dec 19 2018]. (Cohen, 1993; Gigerenzer, 2007)(PDF) The Roles of Heuristics, Avalanche Forecast, and Risk Propensity in the Decision Making of Backcountry Skiers.