I have been working as a mountain guide this winter, taking clients backcountry skiing in the mountains of Hokkaido, the north island of Japan. Clients come to ski the best lines in the best, untracked snow and it was my job to find it.
This particular day, the snow, as usual, was deep after another dump of ½ a meter of snow had been put down with a NW wind. I skied up with 6 clients on skins for 3 hours with our eyes on a particular ski line called ‘Time Warp’, that would be the grand finale for the day. We skied a few other lines in great powder with my clients excited about ‘Time Warp’, which would take us back down to the valley floor.
I had a niggling doubt. The slope aspects we had skied had all been less wind loaded and ‘Time Warp’ took us onto a steep slope and into a large gully with an aspect that could have been wind loaded from the previous day’s storm. An avalanche would take us straight into the gully with severe consequences. Expectations were high and the slope was ‘probably’ all right. The other slopes had been OK, but this slope was different. Decision time. Go or no go? Disappoint clients on the final and best run of the day? The pressure was on to make the right decision. Maybe I could find a way to keep off the suspect slope? Safe descent systems might keep the risk manageable? I’d skied the line a few times before and it had been no problem.
Then a little voice said ‘Phil, you could be skiing straight into a Heuristic Trap.’
I abandoned the line and took everyone down the way we had come up.
What sort of trap?
We make decisions heuristically everyday of our lives, using rules of thumb or trial and error to quickly make decisions that would otherwise take time and effort to analyse. That’s why branding is so important. Pick up the blue box of toothpaste because that’s the one that was OK last time.
Like the day in the US when I grabbed the green nozzle in the petrol station to fill up my hire car with unleaded fuel. I was initially perplexed when it didn’t fit the car filler, then I noticed the sign above it, saying ‘Diesel’. I’d only focused on one bit of information, the green nozzle, same colour as in the UK, without taking note of any other information before making my decision.
Heuristic decisions are quick and effective; we practice them every day and do them without noticing. Trial and error works just fine, unless there are significant consequences for getting it wrong.
For many years now, avalanche safety has recognised human errors in many decisions that lead to accidents and we can learn from them in all walks of life, including safety and business decisions.
Taken from a presentation by Ian McCammon at the International Snow Science Workshop, Penticton, British Columbia, 2002, McCammon identifies 4 main traps:
Trap #1: Familiarity
The familiarity heuristic is the tendency to believe that our behaviour is correct to the extent that we have done it before. In essence, this heuristic amounts to a kind of mental habit where our past actions are proof that a particular behaviour is appropriate. For example, when we drive to work each day, we generally don’t review the pros and cons of all possible routes; we simply take the most familiar one.
Trap #2: Social Proof
The social proof heuristic is the tendency to believe that a behaviour is correct to the extent that other people are engaged in it. Cialdini (2001) provides a comprehensive review of research supporting the idea that others’ behaviour, and even mere presence, has a powerful influence on our decisions.
Trap #3: Commitment
The commitment heuristic is the tendency to believe that a behavior is correct to the extent that it is consistent with a prior commitment we have made. This heuristic is deeply rooted in our desire to be and appear consistent with our words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds.
Trap #4: Scarcity
The scarcity heuristic is the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them, especially to a competitor. We can therefore distort the value of the opportunity and can expose ourselves to greater risk.
Knowing that Heuristic Traps exist when making decisions is all very well, but how do you avoid falling into one?
Protocols - Check lists – mental – tick off checks before taking a course of action, develop a habit of double-checking systems
Team working - Involve others in decision making to check your thinking, observations and assumptions.
Noticing - Take time to take in all the information available and be aware of cascading events. We can develop our noticing skills or situational awareness to catch situations before they develop.
Inner voice - Listen to your quiet inner voice and act on it. It’s sometimes there and can be recalled in hindsight
Take two - First introduced by Du Pont and trademarked in 2007, "Take Two" stands for "take two minutes" and is a quick and easy process that enables individuals and groups to analyse the safety of a particular course of action, or task.
Stop and reassess either personally or as a group
- Has anything changed / or is out of the norm?
- How am I, or the group feeling?
- Is anything not as planned?
- Have I taken in all available information?
- Could I be affected by any thinking biases?
- How am I currently making decisions – intuitive, rule based, creative?
- What is the main priority – is it correct?
Usually heuristic decision-making doesn’t matter, unless the consequences are significant, so be on your guard when getting it wrong would be serious.
Can you work out which traps I was exposed to on my ski day?
Phil Poole is our Global Health & Safety Advisor.