Alongside a decision making framework such as BAA, it is well known that even high levels of avalanche education/awareness can be over-ruled or ignored by simple primal human tendencies. Theses human factors (or heuristics) can significantly influence the decision making process and are very hard to mitigate against as many feature a subconscious component that can be hard to spot let alone quantify. An awareness of how they can impact our decisions offers some protection particularly if we force ourselves to reflect during our later planning stages or at any key points phase during the journey.
Some of the main human factors (heuristics) can be summarised as follows – each with examples of how they might present themselves as conscious thoughts or words:
Commitment – “we’re so nearly there. If we can just….”
“If we turn around now it’ll be disappointing for everyone not just me”
“So far so good, well done us!”
Ironically, a thorough planning phase will already stack a certain amount of commitment to undertaking a particular journey. This could be both the time, energy and effort of planning as well as the physical execution. Nobody likes to call into question their own judgement – especially when so well thought out(?) instead preferring to believe that a behaviour is correct because decisions that have brought you to that point prove it. As a journey continues the commitment heuristic is therefore enhanced. A key defence against this trap are the key points identified earlier in the BAA process. Each key point should trigger a comprehensive and open-minded re-evaluation of the plan including conscious or deliberate consideration of how much has been invested in the trip thus far and whether that is likely to have an effect on the desire to continue. It should also be an honest reflection on how much of the decision making has gone to plan and how much has been in reaction to unexpected events.
Scarcity – “Half-term will be my only chance to go winter walking this season”
“I want some fresh tracks today”
“It will be safer to get to the route first”
Unlike our planning phase which sets out to channel our options towards good or preferred outcomes (or to identify specific areas on the mountain to avoid), the scarcity heuristic could be described as behaviour arrived at due to the imposition of barriers or restrictions to our enjoyment. Our decision making becomes skewed to the extent that we overvalue our motivations or even actively rebel against what we know to be sound decisions.
Familiarity – “I’ve never seen an avalanche there”
“That run has been great all week”
“(location) is a good choice in bad conditions”
Repetition of the same or similar decisions at the same or similar venues often puts us at risk of short-cutting the decision making process (and potentially missing critical bits of unique information). Ironically, this may be a greater factor for those most regularly making avalanche avoidance decisions. We should try and ensure that our decisions come from the full evaluation of each set of circumstances – even though this can at times seem a bit tedious. Again, the use of key points can offer pre-determined opportunities to re-look at the environment and group from a fresher perspective.
Social Proof – “No-one else seems uncertain so it’s probably just me”
“Other folk have the same idea so it can’t be bad?”
“I’m not going to be the one who says I’m nervous”
Sometimes it can be advantageous to refer (defer?) to the actions of others in an effort to arrive at a sound decision but always ask yourself what may be influencing their decisions. It always tends to feel better when other people have chosen a similar option but it can be very hard to determine whether actively conforming or deliberately avoiding an existing behaviour has advantages or not . Even within a group, some members can be swayed by complicated dynamics within the group and create a skewed consensus. The subtle difference between peer encouragement and peer pressure would be one example of this.
Visit www.glenmorelodge.org.uk for further information on avalanche avoidance and details about Avalanche Awareness courses.