We're Caught in a Trap
Updated: Apr 3
How can avalanche tragedies help us become better paddlers? Heuristic traps rose to fame in avalanche research. They explain why the most experienced of skiers can fall victim to avalanches and find themselves in dangerous conditions. Whilst heuristic traps are widely understood by the skiing community, I feel they are equally useful for paddlers to understand. In this blog I plan to explain what heuristics are, the problems they can cause and how we as padders can improve our decision making process armed with this knowledge.
What are Heuristics? Heuristics are mental short cuts which reduce the effort of making decisions to arrive at satisfactory outcomes/solutions. Most of the time they are really useful and include gut feel, rules of thumb and educated guesses. Some examples are...
When the TV remote stops working, you change batteries as that is the most likely fault
In an unfamiliar situation, you copy how others behave i.e. etiquette in a foreign country
Believing people just because they are in a position of authority
Quickly deciding that you like someone because they remind you of a friend
Humans use heuristics hundreds of times a day (if we thought through everything, we'd never get anything done) but these unconscious decisions can have lethal consequences for paddlers. Heuristic Traps are when we rely upon a heuristic that gives us a grossly inaccurate perception of a hazard. The video below explains some examples of these in the context of skiing.
The video mentioned 6 heuristic traps found in skiing (the six traps form the acronym FACETS). In reality there are many more types but FACETS gives us a good starting point to understanding them and applying to the field of whitewater.
FACETS / examples of heuristic traps in whitewater paddling:
Familiarity - Making decisions based on previous experience.
I've paddled this river 100 times and I have never seen a wedged tree after this bend.
We don't need to scout the rapid as I know the line at this level.
Acceptance - The desire to be noticed and to fit in to the group.
I should run this rapid otherwise everyone will think I am a scaredy cat.
I don't want to be the person that says "we shouldn't get on" because the river is too high.
Commitment - It is hard to deviate from a plan if you have invested a lot in it.
We have driven 3 hours to paddle today and even though the river is higher than expected, we should still get on.
Some weaker paddlers unexpectedly turned up on the club trip today. This river is too hard for them but they are here now so let's just get on with it.
Expert Halo - Trusting a group member that you perceive to be more experienced to make the right decision. I am paddling with an experienced, local instructor, if something was up, he would say.
The group leader will tell me if they don't think I should paddle this drop.
Tracks (fresh powder)- Tunnel vision focus to get on the water/ run the drop.
Rushing to get on the water and forgetting an important bit of kit i.e. throwbag.
Running a drop before your safety team is ready.
Social Proof - Copying other people's behaviour assuming it is right for you.
Someone else in the group paddled the rapid so I'll be fine to as well. I have seen hundreds of people paddle the Moriston top drop so I'll be fine.
Scarcity - Putting higher value on something that is more difficult to get.
This river rarely runs so let's get on quickly.
We are only up in Scotland for a week so let's go big.
I'm sure all of us have been in these situations before and have gotten away with falling into the traps. The trouble is, when bad decisions start stacking up, much like holes in slices of Swiss cheese, accidents occur that could have been prevented. The difficulty with heuristic traps is that they are unconscious decisions so it is really hard to spot yourself making them. I try to preempt them so I am more likely to see them occurring. For example if I am on my local run, I have the familiarity heuristic trap on my radar. If I have driven a long distance or walked in, I am looking out for the commitment heuristic trap. Next time you are making an important decision on the river, ask yourself "Am I falling into a heuristic trap?".
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog and I'd love to hear your thoughts or experience on the subject.