Daily, we make a lot of decisions. Should not be a surprise that decisions are continuously being made in the backcountry. And, when you add others to the mix well, it can get dicey.
As humans, there are certain decision making traps that we are prone to. Even experienced backcountry travelers succumb to these decision making traps … regardless of experience. Being aware of you backcountry partners, being cognizant of intent of your decision will allow you to identify human factor traps and take deliberate steps to enact solutions and correct errors.
Social Pressure – social pressures exert an invisible and powerful force on perception and mentality.
• Peer Pressure. People are susceptible to peer pressure making it difficult to be the lone dissenter. Authorities have additional status within the group and the potential to affect decisions.
• Social Proof/Risky Shift. Also known as the herding instinct (the illusion of safety in numbers). Social proof is the belief that an action is correct because other people are doing it. As a result, a group may accept a higher level of risk than an individual might choose alone.
• Scarcity. The pressure of a window of opportunity or a diminishing resource. The desire to capitalize on a special, limited opportunity can cause people to make poor choices believing that another opportunity might not present itself.
• Acceptance. Engaging in activities that we think we get us noticed or accepted by our peers, or by people whose respect we seek. It is easy to see how this pressure can influence people to make poor backcountry decisions.
• Individualism. A compulsion to feel uniquely individual. Those who do not embrace a team mentality often show an inability to communicate effectively, a lack of empathy for other group members and an unwillingness to listen to the group. This leads to a lack of cohesion in the team and can adversely influence group decision making.
Overconfidence and Low Self Confidence – generally results in more risky behavior.
• Overconfidence Effect. A well-established bias in which one’s subjective confidence in their judgments is greater than their objective accuracy.
• Actual v. Perceived Risk. The gap between perception and reality. This trap leads to miscalculations of risk and poor choices.
• Technology. Technology has made possible the inconceivable. People sometimes demand more from their equipment and electronics than the technology is able to provide.
• Education. A little knowledge can offer just enough confidence to overreach on decisions. It takes a lot of experience on top of training to make consistently good decisions.
• Abilities Outperforming Experience. Confidence in physical abilities has a tendency to transcend to overconfidence in decisions that could be impacted by more experience.
• Low Self-Confidence. This can lead people to distrust their instincts and allow them to agree with a decision that they intuitively feel is wrong. At times, people with little formal training or group members with less experience than the leader, may observe or become aware of significant data that are crucial to the decision being made. These people are often unwilling to challenge or question the experienced leader or status quo in the group.
Closed Mindedness – the filters below affect the ability to observe, process and respond to information resulting in a deceptively incomplete picture.
• Conservatism. Failure to change one’s own mind in the light of new information or evidence.
• Recency. Recent events dominate past events which may be downgraded or ignored. Often more recent information is used to override more relevant information from the past.
• Frequency. More frequent events dominate those that are less frequent.
• Availability. Making decisions based on past events easily recalled by memory, to the exclusion of other relevant information. The availability of memories to be recalled may cause unusual or exceptional events to be treated as more common and may bias the decision maker to disregard other important data.
• Prior Experience. People tend to see problems in terms of their own background or experience in lieu of looking at the environment with a different perspective.
Shortcuts – ways used to simplify complex scenarios. Humans tend to find the most energy efficient path and it is generally easier to abandon or shortcut the complex process.
• Stress and Logistic Pressure. Feelings of stress and pressure can complicate decision making. Uncorrected errors might result in increased stress. Time constraints applies additional pressure.
• Rules of Thumb or Habits. Independent rules of thumb may be functional at times but they often oversimplify the problem and habits tend to shortcut thoughtful evaluation. Dependence on rules will lead to a decrease in accuracy.
• Decisions from Few Observations. Observations take time and energy to gather. Consider if the quality or quantity of observations represents reality or are simply convenient support for the desire to not find instability.
• Back to the Barn. The urge to simply get it over with and return to safety, food and shelter is powerful. Commonly, people make poor decisions late in the day, when people are tired and nearly home.
• Expert Halo. People with more experience or knowledge tend to be perceived as experts. Group members often shortcut their own cognitive processes and allow someone they perceive as more competent to dominate the decision making.
Impaired Objectivity – circumstances where people fail to objectively perceive reality but rather see the world through their own subjective filter.
• Search for Supportive Evidence. People tend to see what they already believe to be true and gather facts that lead to certain conclusion and disregard facts that threaten them.
• Familiarity/Non-Event Feedback Loop. People often feel comfortable in familiar areas. They let their guard down or base their current decisions on past experience. The traveler may have been simply lucky and this develops habits.
• Blue Sky/Euphoria. Great weather equals positive hormones released and can cloud judgment.
• Optimism. Also known as wishful thinking. The more one prefers an action the stronger the bias toward deciding to do it. Optimism to the exclusion of disappointing information can result in poor results and definitely poor judgment.
Reference: Modified somewhat from Level 1 Decision making in Avalanche Terrain handbook.