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Evidence of Heuristic Traps In Recreational Avalanche Accidents

A paper about heuristic traps and avalanche accidents.

In a review of 41 avalanche accidents involving avalanche aware victims, … 83% were due to decision-making errors rather than subtleties of the terrain or snowpack. These and other results have fostered a growing emphasis on decision making skills and human factors in avalanche education. … In this paper, I present evidence that four heuristic traps – familiarity, social proof, commitment and scarcity – have played key roles in recreational avalanche accidents.


Even though people are capable of making decisions in a thorough and methodical way, it appears that most of the time they don’t. A growing body of research suggests that people unconsciously use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, to navigate the routine complexities of modern life. In this paper, I examine evidence that four of these heuristics – familiarity, social proof, commitment and scarcity – have influenced the decisions of avalanche victims. Using a quantitative method to define the level of hazard exposure in 598 avalanche accidents in the United States, I compare the behavior of the victims when heuristic cues were present to their behavior when these cues were absent. Key findings of this study include: 1) evidence that social proof, commitment, and scarcity traps were significant in many accidents, 2) evidence that group size influenced susceptibility to certain heuristic traps, and 3) evidence that the level of avalanche training in victims influenced their susceptibility to heuristic traps. These findings strongly support the idea that tools for managing heuristic traps are essential for effective avalanche education.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, read the full paper.