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Inside the mind of a potential avalanche victim

Published December 2, 2004 12:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Before he started writing avalanche research papers with lofty titles, Ian McCammon was a mechanical engineer working on robotics and machines.

"Now he is trying to turn people into machines," jokes Bruce Tremper, director of the USDA Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center and a friend of McCammon.

But helping backcountry travelers act more like machines and less like human beings may be the only way to avoid the inherent and obvious dangers of avalanches. The human mind has a tendency to make too many shortcuts.

In papers with titles such as "Heuristic Traps in Recreation Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications" (published in The Avalanche Review in December 2003 and February 2004), McCammon has delved into the psyche of backcountry winter travelers. After losing a close friend he knew to be well-trained in avalanche education, he wondered why seemingly knowledgeable people get caught in snowslides.

"There are patterns embedded in our humanity. To understand them could help us get a better understanding of ourselves and what we do in the face of certain events," said McCammon, a Salt Lake City resident who travels the nation sharing his research with avalanche experts.

Research on more than 700 accidents between 1972 and 2003 led McCammon to identify several "heuristic" traps, or situational cues, that can lead to poor decision-making by rookies and experts, even in the face of unequivocal avalanche indicators.

McCammon is not the first to explore the human factor in avalanche tragedies, but he has approached the subject in a different way.

"It's a paradigm shift in the way we think about avalanche education. Every time Ian gives a talk I just go 'wow.' We have . . . [been] preaching the avalanche gospel for years, but the accidents just keep going up and up. . . . Ian's research shows there is more to safe travel in the backcountry than just being able to recognize avalanche danger; it is being able to recognize when you are ignoring that danger," Tremper said.

McCammon found the advertising world a fertile field for ideas about the effect of human factors on decision-making.

"They want people to make a decision to buy their product and they use the same mental traps we fall into in the face of avalanche danger to make those products more desirable even when the product is not exactly what the person might want," McCammon said. "This kind of advertising has been around for thousands of years."

Which makes it all the more difficult to recognize. Like consumers falling for products they don't need, potential avalanche victims are unaware they are making life-and-death decisions based on subconscious factors.

See AVALANCHE, E2

McCammon and Tremper, both seasoned backcountry winter travelers, admit they still fall prey to these errors in thinking even though they talk to people about ways to avoid them.

The mental "traps" identified by McCammon in his research on avalanche victims include:

Familiarity: Cameron Carpenter felt safe, at least initially, the day his best friend died in an avalanche near Guardsman Pass in Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1986.

"It was one of our favorite places to go. We had been in that same spot a lot, even during that winter," said Carpenter, who lost his friend Brad Lindsey when they were both caught in the avalanche. "It wasn't until we were on the mountain for the second time that we realized we could be in trouble."

McCammon explains the familiarity heuristic this way: Rather than figuring out what behavior is appropriate each time we visit the backcountry, we tend to rely on past actions in that same place. Familiarity can help with decision-making, but it becomes dangerous when the avalanche hazard increases. McCammon found that 71 percent of the accidents he researched happened on slopes known to victims. When people travel in familiar places, they appear willing to expose themselves to almost four times as much avalanche hazard than when they travel in unfamiliar places. Familiarity also apparently negated the advantage of avalanche education.

Acceptance: The theory here is that people tend to engage in activities they think will earn them notice and/or respect. Call it the "bragging rights" or "testosterone" heuristic.

"Men, in the presence of women, will behave more competitively, aggressively or engage in riskier behaviors than when women are absent," McCammon writes.

Tremper says he understands the acceptance heuristic all too well.

"When I'm by myself I'm very cautious. Add a trusted partner and I'm willing to go places I probably wouldn't before. Add a group of six people and a couple of attractive females and I'll do just about anything," Tremper said.

McCammon reports that groups that include women appear to expose themselves to greater risk than those without, but not because women take more risks. Of the 1,355 individuals present in accidents McCammon studied, only 10 percent were female. And only 9.1 percent of the avalanche victims were women.

Commitment: When he first heard about the commitment heuristic, Carpenter said it probably did not play into his accident, but the more he talked about that fatal day, the more he realized how it had affected his and Lindsey's decisions.

"It was snowing hard. One of the other guys got cold and went back to the car. We were pretty committed to making another run," Carpenter said. "We made an effort to get up the canyon and weren't going to sit in the car."

McCammon found that people who were highly committed to enter the avalanche path that eventually caught them took more risks than those less committed to a certain goal or objective.

Expert halo: People appointed as "backcountry experts" by the group tend to expose the party to greater avalanche hazards than groups that make decisions based on consensus. McCammon found that leaders with the expert halo appear to make riskier decisions as the size of the group increases.

Individuals appointed as experts may suffer from a false sense of confidence in their avalanche awareness skills even if they are actually quite knowledgeable in the backcountry.

Tracks/scarcity: This may be among the most dangerous heuristics because the desire to find fresh powder increases along with the avalanche hazard. New and deep snow has a tendency to make many people ignore obvious dangers. The thrill of being the first to make tracks on fresh snow tempts many backcountry travelers into terrain they would otherwise avoid.

Social facilitation: McCammon found that groups who met other people before their accident exposed themselves to more hazards than those who had not encountered other groups that day. Parties of three and four people appeared more prone to this phenomenon than groups of other sizes. McCammon theorizes that people who are good at something believe they will do it better with an audience. But unskilled people believe they will perform even more poorly. The trap is that people with some avalanche avoidance skills take more risks.

The question for avalanche educators now is how to incorporate McCammon's research into effective prevention.

"The Europeans have had some great success with rule-based decision-making. There are certain rules they follow in certain situations," Tremper said. "That makes a lot of sense, but it still does not address the ability by people to justify certain risks, many times without even realizing they are doing it."

bpretty@sltrib.com

Flawed decision-making has been the folly of even the most experienced backcountry traveler

Mind traps

Six decision-making traps in recreational avalanche accidents identified by Utah researcher Ian McCammon:

Familiarity - If the geography is familiar, we tend to do things we did before, despite changing risk factors.

Acceptance - A tendency to engage in activities that will get us liked or accepted.

Commitment - Focusing on an objective or goal to the exclusion of important hazard information.

Expert Halo - Placing decision-making and responsibility on a person perceived to be the most knowledgeable in the group even if the person isn't a true expert.

Tracks/Scarcity - If fresh, untracked powder is scarce, it is perceived to have more value and be worth the potential risk.

Social Facilitation - People who believe they have good avalanche skills are more likely to take risks in the presence of other people; people who feel less skilled take fewer risks.

Source: "Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications" by Ian McCammon