• Kathleen

Human Factors in Assessing Risk

Avalanches are a very real risk in backcountry skiing. Learning about when and where avalanches are more likely to happen is critical to staying safe. And yet, experienced and knowledgeable people get caught in avalanches. What gives?

This is the question Ian McCammon asked back in the 1990’s. Why were people who *should* have known better getting caught in avalanches? These people had the knowledge and experience to identify the risk. These people were generally cautious and not into taking foolish risks. Something else must be going on.

McCammon studied the case files of hundreds of avalanche incidents to identify reasons why someone who should know better would accept an unreasonable high level of risk. He found that many of the unconscious decision making heuristics (rules of thumb) that work well in our daily lives can create a false sense of security in the unpredictable world of avalanches. The six heuristic traps McCammon (2002) identified were:

  • Familiarity: “The familiarity heuristic relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings. Rather than go through the trouble of figuring out what is appropriate every time, we simply behave as we have before in that setting.”

  • Consistency: “Once we have made an initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are much easier if we simply maintain consistency with that first decision. This strategy, known as the consistency heuristic, saves us time because we don’t need to sift through all the relevant information with each new development. Instead, we just stick to our original assumptions about the situation.”

  • Acceptance: “The acceptance heuristic is the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect, or by people who we want to like or respect us. We are socialized to this heuristic from a very young age, and because we are so vulnerable to it, it’s no surprise that it figures prominently among the heuristic traps embedded in advertising messages.”

  • Expert Halo: “In many recreational accident parties, there is an informal leader who, for various reasons, ends up making critical decisions for the party. Sometimes their leadership is based on knowledge and experience in avalanche terrain; sometimes it is based on simply being older, a better rider, or more assertive than other group members. Such situations are fertile ground for the expert halo heuristic, where an overall positive impression of the leader within the party leads them to ascribe avalanche skills to that person that they may not have.”

  • Social Facilitation: “Social facilitation is a decision heuristic where the presence of other people enhances or attenuates risk- taking by a subject, depending on the subject’s confidence in their risk taking skills.”

  • Scarcity: “The scarcity heuristic is the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them, especially to a competitor. Those familiar with the “powder fever” that descends on recreationists after a big winter storm have seen this heuristic in action, as individuals take seemingly disproportionate risks to be the first to access untracked snow.”

Since this discovery, avalanche safety training programs have incorporated a significant discussion about how human factors affect decision making in avalanche terrain. This shift in education is one of the reasons that avalanche incidents have remained relatively constant despite the surging popularity of backcountry skiing.

Of course, heuristic traps are not limited to backcountry skiing. As human beings, we use the same psychological processes to make decisions in all aspects of our lives. Most of the time heuristics work, but when things get complex, they start to fail us. The COVID-19 pandemic was a perfect opportunity to observe these heuristics in a different context.

As the novel coronavirus emerged, I found myself asking “what’s the big deal?” The virus didn’t seem to be all that much worse than the seasonal flu. Looking back it seems ridiculous that I didn’t immediately make the connection that since no-one was immune to it the sheer number of people who would get sick would be staggering. I was caught in the familiarity trap.

The acceptance trap has been showing up in various ways as well. As COVID-19 arrived in British Columbia, at first no-one seemed to change their behaviour much, perhaps because no-one wanted to be seen as being paranoid and overreacting. Then, as the severity of the situation sank in, suddenly it became important to do the right thing by self-isolating, maintaining physical distance, etc. It was interesting to see the attitude of the local ski touring community flip from "ski touring is an ideal way to social distance" to "ski touring is an unacceptably risky activity."

I think the panic buying of toilet paper can be explained by the scarcity trap. I know that I bought one (just one!) extra package when I had the chance. Not because I was worried about the supply chain, but because I was worried about other people snatching it all up. Because I was worried about not being able resupply when we needed to, I became a part of the problem!

Learning about the powerful influence that these “human factors” have on our decision making in the backcountry and seeing them show up in our behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic makes me wonder why there isn’t much research into the human factors in organizational risk management. If you’ve come across anything, let me know in the comments below.