January 19, 2024

Heuristics! Are the mountains mis-selling you avalanche terrain?

Heuristics! Are the mountains mis-selling you avalanche terrain?

If you have done any training or reading on avalanches you will probably have come across Heuristics or human errors due to pre programmed ideas and feelings. Interestingly these are the same feeling/processes that marketeers use to sell you products. 

Evidence is showing us that human factors play a massive role in avalanches, and that being educated about avalanche safety isn’t enough, it’s about how you apply that education. When evaluating case study’s it’s often easy in hindsight to spot the human errors that have led the skiers and boarders in to danger.

Ian McCammon identified that there are 6 main heuristic traps that mountain users fall in to and these make up the acronym FACETS which stands for: 

F: Familiarity. Things that are more familiar to us feels safer. 

A: Acceptance. This is the desire to fit in. So not wanting to be the person who says no or to ask too many questions.

C: Commitment or consistency. We’ve come all this way, we can’t turn back now. 

E: Expert halo. Someone in your group with high knowledge or expert skiing ability, or simply the confidence they exude can influence the entire group and dampen all other concerns. 

T: Tracks/scarcity. The race for first tracks can cloud judgment. .

S: Social proof or social facilitation. Previous tracks on a ski slope will give you a false sense of security, but doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe.

When you reads the above it all seems like common sense and it’s easy to believe that once you know about it you will be able to avoid falling into them. But it’s just not true, these traps play on deep processes in the brain and are very hard to spot and stop, especially as there is often no opportunity for feed back on your choices of where to ski etc. It’s possible to fall into all of these traps and yet still have a good day skiing and not get avalanched. Your brain will then tell you that you made good calls, but it could have been down to luck. 


Let’s look at them from a different point of view. Marketing and sales - they exploit the exact same pre programmed ideas to encourage us to part with our hard earned money. We have all probably experienced these and have fallen for these tricks, because they work. It’s good to look at them from this perspective as its a safe (well physically safe if not for your wallet) environment that allows you to examine how they feel and work and they’re easy to examine when you’re shopping in the future.

F. Familiarity - In marketing there is a Familiarity Principle coined by Robert Zajonc

The familiarity principle is the tendency among humans to develop a preference for things (be they people, products, ideas etc.) which they see more often. They also tend to be more nervous or apprehensive when they are new to things. Marketers mainly use this by creating a brand that people get used to, they spend millions of pounds getting their brand recognised. Why?  So that you feel safe with them and automatically choose them. In short you will go with what you know or have done before. If you're spending big money you should really examine each option as an individual choice to decide if it is best for you. This is the same with picking your ski line, it should be based on what you know not just on where you normally go.

A: Acceptance. - The fashion industry has been using this for years, think back to when you were a kid and how important it felt to have the right trainers or how many stripes you had on your tracksuit bottoms, it plays to our fear of being excluded and its very deep set. Even as adults it's the same, we want to fit in and be in the cool gang. I am sure most of us have brought something over the years because everyone else had one and we wanted to fit in.  When out skiing its not about fitting in its about be honest with yourself and the people your out with about how you feel and what you want to or not want to ski.

C: Commitment or consistency. 

In marketing consistency is activated by looking for, and asking for, small initial commitments, which then encourages bigger commitments. Companies do this all the time start out by ask for small commitments such as filling in a survey, watch a demo or make a small purchase. Once committed These actions will create a sense of trust, obligation and investment in the product, and make it harder for to say no to the final offer.

Dr Cialdini author of, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion writes:

“Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”

This is also why we are often easy to upsell to, when we have already started to invest in a product it easy to be tempted to the next thing.

In the mountain if you have made the effort to head out and make that walk in, you have already invested a lot, and so are far more likely to convince yourself to commit to the next stage of skiing that line, even if it’s not the best idea. 

E: Expert halo. -   Flaunt Your Expertise to Build Credibility (quote from marketing website)

The more authoritative you are as the seller, the easier it is for potential customers to trust your sales pitch. 

Companies spend a lot of time and effort convincing you that they are the experts. To build your trust or to get you to put faith in them to be right. A classic example is this, I remember talking to builders and mechanics and them explaining x y and z and I nod along agreeing, then when asked later by my partner what’s happening having to admit that I haven’t got a clue, but they must know what they are doing they are the experts? This hasn’t always worked out well. 

This is the problem, we assume they know best and can’t make mistakes or forget things, so we don’t ask questions or challenge them. It’s the same in the mountains someone will take the role of leader whether this is an official leader or an unofficial one.  They may very well be an expert but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a mistake or miss something, or some time they don’t really know anything but are just confident. 

T: Tracks/scarcity. - This is easy its the fear of missing out (FOMO) it’s a classic marketing trick, and I can guarantee you will have felt it at some point.  Fear is an emotion, and a pretty strong one. Marketers have been channeling fear to create a sense of urgency in the purchasing process, they do this by limited offers, buy now to get a discount, first x customers get a discount and only 5 left in stock. All these tricks are used to stop us thinking rationally and to act now. Even when we know what they are doing, it’s hard to stop. 

Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, makes scarcity one of the seven primary principles of persuasion, saying 

“It is easy enough to feel properly warned against scarcity pressures; but it is substantially more difficult to act on that warning. Part of the problem is that our typical reaction to scarcity hinders our ability to think. When we watch something we want become less available, a physical agitation sets in.” 

In the mountains it’s just the same, powder or ice and good conditions are a limited resource and the desire to get first tracks or finally do a specific route can overpower our thoughts.

S: Social proof or social facilitation - what are others doing?

If someone doesn’t know how to respond in a certain situation, they tend to see how others cope with it. The same goes for buying decisions: When a customer is in the market for a particular item, but is not sure of what to choose, they will look to others to help make the decision for them. This marketing strategy is known as "social proof.”

In practice companies use this by review’s, testimonials, case studies and most recommended, it is designed to give people confidence, think of Amazon’s best sellers they catch your eye and make you feel safer in your choice. This is can be such a big influencer that companies have taken to creating fake reviews etc, so the savvy shopper always treats them with a healthy dose of scepticism, and questions if it’s the right product for them.

It is exactly the same effect when you’re in the mountains. Seeing other people skiing lines or tracks heading down slopes makes you think it the right thing to do. But maybe they are fake reviews and leading you in to danger.

How can we prevent these traps?

The main point of this article is that although we all probably know about these marketing tricks, we still fall for them from time to time.  It is not enough to know about them we need to use tools to help us not fall in to these traps.

There are some things we can do to not fall in to marketeers traps. But it’s no surprise that they work well for Heuristic traps in the mountains as well.

Make a list - Lists keep you on track and take the emotion out of it, you just get or do what’s on the list. There are lots of avalanche tools and cards and apps out there like - http://beaware.sais.gov.uk . Lists help you with your planning, whether that is kit lists of things to take or things you need to tick off before you do a route such a suitable avalanche report, good observations etc having a list and following it reduces the risk of falling in to a heuristic trap. 

Evaluate against a list of criteria - if you making a big purchase you will often make a table showing the pro and cons of all the various models of things you’re looking to buy.  This allows you to make choices based on facts and not on emotions, you can do the same in the mountains.  Working through all the evidence you have such as an avalanche report, snow conditions, etc and making sure it is a pro not a con or a green light not a red. Knowing that if you don’t get a green light, you don’t go no matter what you heart is telling you. Again there are study cards and app that can help set your criteria to help keep that emotion out of it.

Setting a budget - before you start shopping and telling everyone what it is, can help make sure that you stick to it.  You can do the same in the mountains, if the evidence is telling you to stick to slopes below 30 degrees or only ski south facing slopes, then agree thats your budget before you leave, so as your skinning in you can ignore anything steeper no matter how nice it looks. It’s outside of your budget.

Open communication and questioning - Does the following example sound familiar?  After the purchase - you head home with you new skis, rucksack or ices axes feeling very please with yourself, only to have your other half annihilate you with cold logic and reasoning.  Such as how many sets of ski’s do you need, what was wrong with your other 5 rucksacks and will slightly lighter ice axes make you climb any harder (thats a no by the way), and we soon realise we may not have brought with the most effective logic. Joking aside this is why when looking at avalanche case studies its easy to spot errors others have made because you’re not emotionally involved. When making decisions imagine explaining them to someone you know who would pull you up on poor choices and think about what their response might be.

Tyre kicker - Often when spending a lot of money on something like a car or house, we take someone with us who is not emotionally involved to help us buy with reason not with our hearts. They are there to point out the things we may have missed or our emotions have hid from us, and to help us walk away if it's not 100% right. In other words they kick the tyres of the car and point out all the issues with it. This is what we need in the mountains, we need others to point stuff out so that everyone is aware of it and things don’t get missed, we need people to ask questions, no matter where you see yourself in the group.  There are no silly questions, some groups will have a natural tyre kicker if yours doesn’t try to appoint someone to that role. But as well as asking questions be sure to get answers that you are happy with and understand (don’t fall for expert halo), as you could be betting your life on them. If you’re leading, embrace the questions and see them for what they are - help to keep you on track, and remember as Albert Einstein said “If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.” So if you can’t answer it in a way everyone is happy with then, maybe it’s the wrong call. Open communication is one of the best ways to keep you safe.

Hungary and tired

I will add one more that is not a Heuristic trap but I still see it as human error - making a decision when hungry, cold and tired. 

Have you ever been in the supermarket when hungry?  Its a nightmare as you always come out with more stuff than you went in for, mainly cakes, crisps and chocolate. This is because you can’t make rational decisions as your mind is focused the hunger. Or when you have spent all day trudging around the shops looking for something only to give up when tired and just buy something to end the pain, even though it’s not perfect.

This is important in the mountains you need to make sure you have a focused mind to make decisions, so stay on top of your wellbeing and be bothered to make right choices.

In the mountains it's not money you could lose to a bad purchase but your life, so remember be a savvy shopper and shop for safe slopes (try saying that after a few beers).

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