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Heuristics are a fundamental part of how humans make decisions and judgements. They are intuitive mental shortcuts used to solve a particular problem. Using trial-and-error and rule-of-thumb are examples. Heuristics are helpful because they allow us to quickly make sense of a complex environment, but there are times when using them comes at the expense of an ideal solution. While heuristics are essential to making subconscious and minor decisions in daily life they are potentially lethal in a canyon environment.

Searching the internet for heuristic traps, much of what you find will relate to avalanche accidents. In a research paper published in 2004, “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications” avalanche researcher Ian McCammon reviewed 715 recreational accidents that occurred between 1972 and 2003 and identified 6 “human factors” which he described as “heuristic traps” that helped lead to avalanche deaths in the face of clear and obvious signs of avalanche danger.

“When a rule of thumb gives us a grossly inaccurate perception of a hazard, we fall into what is known as a heuristic trap.” McCammon concluded, “there is good evidence that many avalanche victims fell prey to one or more heuristic traps.

The 6 Heuristic Traps

The six heuristic traps common in avalanche incidents identified by McCammon are often taught by avalanche educations using the acronym “FACETS.” 

  • F = Familiarity. Our past actions guide our behavior in a familiar setting. You’ve skied this slope a dozen times and it’s never slid, so despite obvious avalanche warning signs, you ski it again this time.
  • A = 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, and this causes you to overlook warning signs. 
  • C = Consistency. Having made an initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are much easier if we maintain consistency with previous decisions. We made the decision to ski this slope; now we’re determined to do it, no matter what.
  • E = Expert Halo. Trusting an informal leader, who ends up making critical decisions for the ski group. He or she may not make the best decision.
  • T = First Tracks. This heuristic is commonly referred to as Scarcity; the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them. For backcountry skiers, this is called “powder fever” – wanting to ski untouched powder so bad skiers ignore obvious avalanche warning signs.
  • S = Social Facilitation. Also called Social Proof. The presence of other people enhances risk-taking. You see fresh tracks on the slope you want to ski, so even through avalanche danger is high, others are willing to do it so it must be safe, right?

Check out this great article on the topic by Ian McCammon:

Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications

Please share your comments below. In what ways have you seen the heuristic traps affect group dynamics while canyoneering or other adventures?

Responses

  1. This is really important information. I do other dangerous activities (firefighting) and some of these traps apply there as well. But since we operate under a chain of command and train to a standard, consistently follow that standard and hold each other accountable some of these traps are less prevelant… Or maybe I just have a blind spot.

    But they definitely apply to canyons because of the more informal organization of the group and probably less standardized training. But whatever the case, just understanding these traps will help you avoid them.

  2. At least 3 out of the 6 of these traps are directly caused by people’s *perceived* social hierarchies within their groups (Acceptance, Social Proof and Expert Halo), and their desire to either improve their status among the other members or fall in line to keep the peace. It’s hard to admit, but these traps are caused by our egos.

    When we’re out doing dangerous activities, it’s up to all of us to make decisions based on hard evidence and physical conditions. Canyon leaders—a combination of self-awareness and humility at the highest levels are absolutely crucial for the safety of everyone with you. If you’re simply along for the ride, you’re not off the hook either—be a skeptic and don’t be afraid to speak up!

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