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January 2023 Issue
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Would I do this if I were here alone?

Avoid conformity; ask yourself ‘would I be here if I were alone?’ Photo: Caleb Smith

The role heuristics play in our decision-making can lead to dangerous situations in the outdoors. By Nathan Watson

Heuristics – a method or set of rules for solving a problem – enable our brains to make decisions faster and more efficiently. Most of the time this is helpful, but in harsh and unforgiving environments, making decisions through mental shortcuts can be dangerous. 

Heuristic traps are key factors in many outdoors’ incidents. Never heard of them? In this series, the NZ Mountain Safety Council explains the most common heuristic traps, how they arise on typical tramping trips and how they can be avoided. 

Most people don’t like to stand out from the bunch. ‘Going with the flow’ and ‘not making a fuss’ are often lauded characteristics. And while many think we don’t ‘show off’, we’d be lying if we said we’ve never done something in order to impress others. Ever laughed at a joke you really didn’t think was funny? Pushed harder than you should at the gym to impress bystanders? The desire to fit in or get approval from others is known as ‘conformity’ or ‘acceptance’.

But conforming or acting a certain way to impress others can lead to bold and risky calls in the outdoors. Imagine you’re tramping with someone new, or someone you look up to. You’re trying to impress them, so you don’t get too concerned when the weather deteriorates. As the situation continues to worsen, you dare not turn back for fear of having been wrong.

Or, you might be out with a group and become uncomfortable with the exposure on an alpine section that others are breezing through. You don’t want to make a fuss so you carry on without mentioning anything. Sometimes the whole group can feel uncomfortable without anyone showing or mentioning it.

The conformity heuristic shows up in very specific circumstances. Classically, in mixed groups, men often seek to impress the women and the women don’t want to create conflict. It also occurs when there are new or less-experienced members of the group, or when there are group members unfamiliar with each other.

When the MSC reviews outdoor incidents, it’s difficult to identify if ‘conformity’ was an issue, as witnesses are relied on to get insights into a person’s behaviour. Conformity isn’t visible or identifiable unless the person has mentioned it. However, certain stats strongly imply that this heuristic is a factor. For example, in avalanche incidents, males are far more likely to end up caught in the avalanche if females are in the group.

Facing up to conformity is a big challenge. The MSC recommends people learn to recognise when something is done simply because of how it presents you in front of others. This requires a high degree of self-awareness. Ask, ‘Would I do this if I were here alone?’ Consider also whether companions would hold you in higher regard if you spoke up when you’re uncomfortable or made a smart call on the weather.

Can you think of times when you’ve caved to peer pressure? Are you likely to be the one who seeks to impress? Or are you the quiet one not wanting to spoil the fun? Focusing on smart actions rather than the ‘cool’ choices will always lead to safer outcomes.

This article is part of a series on heuristic traps. There are six main heuristics that play a part in almost every outdoor incident. Knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help you stay safe. The six heuristic traps are: Familiarity, Conformity, Commitment, Expert Halo, Social Proof and Scarcity.