The role heuristics play in our decision-making can lead to dangerous situations in the outdoors. By Tom Harris
Heuristics – the rules we use for solving a problem – play a critical role in our lives every day, providing mental shortcuts that help our brains make decisions quickly and efficiently. Most of the time this is a good thing, but in a harsh and unforgiving environment, making decisions through mental shortcuts can lead to dangerous traps.
Heuristic traps are key factors in many incidents in the outdoors. Never heard of them? In this series, the NZ Mountain Safety Council breaks down some of the most common traps, how they arise on typical tramping trips, and how to avoid them so you make it home safely.
First up: ‘Familiarity’. This is when we make decisions based on past similar experiences. You probably drive the same route to the supermarket without thinking about it. Familiarity has taught you the most suitable route, and considering alternatives becomes unnecessary.
Clearly, in many everyday situations this is useful. In the backcountry, however, succumbing to familiarity is a common mistake that can lead to complacency and overlooking key risks that may make all the difference to your safety.
Imagine you’re planning to complete a track you’ve done before. You know how long it should take, how difficult it is and what the climb to the top is like. This prior knowledge is helpful as you plan and prepare. Based on your prior experience you may also expect track conditions to be fine, as they were last time. On this occasion, however, the weather is quite different, with gale-force winds above the bushline. You weren’t prepared for these conditions and now you’re wishing that you’d paid more attention to the wind forecast and brought an extra windproof layer, hat and gloves.
In this situation, familiarity with the track has caused you to be under-prepared and complacent.
So how do we avoid this heuristic trap? The first step is to be aware of heuristics so that you consciously think about them. Approach every trip like it is the first time you’ve been there. Don’t make assumptions based on past experiences. Always carry essentials like a rain jacket, first aid kit, emergency shelter and emergency communication device even if you’ve never had to use them before.
Can you think of a time when you or your group fell into the ‘familiarity’ trap? Chances are everyone has, and probably will in the future. But by being aware of this heuristic trap, you’ll be more likely to avoid it or have some safety margin built in just in case it does creep up on you.
Six main heuristic traps play a part in almost every outdoor incident: Familitary, Conformity, Commitment, Expert Halo, Social Proof, and Scarcity. Knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help you stay safe. We’ll be writing about all of these in future issues.
– Tom Harris is the Alpine Advisor at the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council