Need to Know  Understanding Heuristic Traps?

Make good outdoor decisions. Johnny Mulheron warns of, and describes, heuristic traps.

The objective of the Backcountry Accidents columns, which we are currently loading onto wilderlife.nz, is to provide a learning resource to assist people to avoid similar tragedies in the future. A recurring theme in the reports is desire over-ruling judgment. Heuristic traps contribute to this.

Heuristics are simple rules that people use to make decisions about complex events and situations, such as safe river crossing sites and whether a slope is safe from avalanches. We tend to apply these rules frequently and subconsciously. In the outdoors, the rules must be relevant to the actual hazards and risks for them to be effective. If they are not, accidents will eventually result.

Heuristic traps occur when the simple rules we use are influenced by factors not relevant to the actual hazards. Being aware of these traps may reduce the likelihood of this. Some of the more common heuristic traps are (from Decision Making for Wilderness Leaders: strategies, traps and teaching methods by Ian McCammon, PhD):

  • Familiarity of a setting or situation: ‘If I’ve done it before then it’s what I should do now.’ For example, I have crossed a snow slope similar to this one before, and it didn’t avalanche.
  • Authority i.e. credible expert opinion: ‘If an expert believes it then it’s what I should believe.’ For example, the guidebook author says this climbing route is only a Grade 2, and therefore I should be capable of it.
  • Social proof or the behaviour of people similar to myself: ‘If people like me are doing it then it’s what I should do.’ For example, my friends traversed Broken Axe Pinnacles, and they thought it was easy.
  • Commitment, consistency and the opportunity to validate prior actions and decisions: ‘I should remain consistent with my prior opinions and actions.’ For example, I crossed this pass before in bad weather and therefore it should be fine this time too.
  • Liking, conformity with actions by a person or group that I like: ‘If someone I like is doing it then it’s what I should do to be accepted.’ For example, our leader reckons the river crossing looks OK, and I respect him, even though I think the crossing could be too dangerous for our party.
  • Scarcity and competition for a limited resource: ‘If something is scarce then I should desire it.’ For example, this is my only holiday this year and I want to complete the tramping trip even though the weather doesn’t look great.

(this article first appeared in the FMC Bulletin – June 2008)

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