The role heuristics play in our decision-making can lead to dangerous situations in the outdoors. By Nathan Watson
Heuristics play a critical role in our lives every day, providing mental shortcuts that help our brains make decisions faster and more 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 a dangerous trap.
Heuristic traps are key factors in many outdoor incidents. Never heard of them? In this series, the NZ Mountain Safety Council will break down some of the most common heuristic traps, how they arise on typical tramping trips and how to avoid them, so you make it home safely.
Have you ever had a dose of FOMO? The fear of missing out can be compelling, especially if what’s being missed is a great trip to the backcountry. Most of us are unable to get out enough, so when the opportunity arises we don’t want to miss it. We feel under pressure to achieve something if we’re not sure of the next opportunity.
Remember the mad rush on toilet paper following the first Covid lockdown announcements in 2020? Did people need more, or were they fearful there might not be an opportunity to get more, or any, in the future? This is an example of the ‘scarcity’ heuristic trap.
Scarcity is a factor in many decisions when in the outdoors, but it’s clever at masking itself. In New Zealand, this is more specifically known as ‘scarcity of opportunity’. Because the country experiences such wild weather, there is often pressure to go for an objective despite red flags, because ‘who knows if we’ll ever be back here again?’ It often overlaps with the heuristic trap of commitment, but instead of being influenced by what’s been given up to be somewhere, there’s now the prospect of never being able to do it again.
Imagine you’re on a long and committing adventure in Fiordland. It’s taken time to arrange and cannot be fitted often into your schedule. It could be the last big backcountry adventure before winter.
You’re on the route, approaching the big pass. It’s the most anticipated section, but the cloud is dropping and you’ve been nursing a nagging ankle injury the whole trip. Ahead it’s steeper and more uneven, but if you turn back now will you ever be back?
Unfortunately, scarcity is very common in outdoor fatalities and incidents in New Zealand. If we knew we could easily return in the future, would we carry on when a situation worsens?
When you think, ‘we might never be back here again’, it’s a sure sign of a scarcity mindset. Discuss this heuristic as a group before you go. Ask everyone if they feel pressure to complete the trip for fear they won’t be able to again.
Remember, what is the goal? Is it to enjoy the backcountry with friends or family regardless of the destination? By re-establishing what success looks like, pressure on fixed locations can be reduced and the focus turned towards outcomes which can be adjusted to suit everyone.
Sometimes it’s the journey rather than the destination.
This article is part of a series on heuristic traps. Six main heuristic traps play a part in almost every outdoor incident: Familiarity, Conformity, Commitment, Expert Halo, Social Proof, and Scarcity. Knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help you to better enjoy your time outdoors and stay safe.