Camp Tricks

How the Outdoors Will Trap Your Brain, Part 1

January 23, 2017

Part 1 of a 2-part series by Neil Schulman



In a crowded room, we’re all listening to my friend and fellow kayak instructor Paul talk about a kayaking accident that separated his shoulder and smashed his kayak. For dramatic effect, his broken boat is out in the parking lot. But Paul’s purpose isn’t to recount his dramatic misadventure or caution us against the ocean’s power. We’re there figure out out how an accident could happen to a group five highly trained instructors in a place they knew well. Four words leaped into my brain: scarcity, commitment, familiarity, and social proof. They were followed by one other word: Trap.

The most important place in the outdoors is between our ears. What happens there? Some strange stuff, to be sure. This article will cover with some common traps and how we can avoid them. The second in the series. will focus on how we can make better decisions..

Here are a few situations you might recognize:

  1. A group of backcountry skiers is skiing familiar terrain in their home mountains. On a route they’ve done many times before, they cross a steep slope as the weather warms.
  2. Four experienced kayakers drive to the coast to paddle to some scenic islands the last weekend before the islands are closed for the summer. The conditions are slightly larger than forecast. After assessing conditions, they decide to proceed with their plan.
  3. Three mountain bikers come to a steep descent and scout it. The least experienced rider considers walking it. The two more experienced riders suggest that they ride the hill. They think that it’s within his ability and that it will build his skills. They decide to ride it.

While you might not have been in one of these exact situations, you might be able to imagine yourself there. They all contain different mental traps, but first let’s step back and think about how we really make decisions. It’s not how we think we do.

Plans? Our Brains Can’t Make No Stinkin’ Plans!
We’re all taught to “assess the situation”, “brainstorm alternatives”, “develop a plan”, “execute the plan,” and “evaluate”. This looks good on paper, but it rarely happens in reality. This type of analysis takes a lot of time and requires a lot of information. When a storm is moving in and you’re cold, it’s not going to happen. And this approach assumes that we’re rational people weighing probability, reward, and risk; but human decisions are as much driven by our desire to catch the perfect surf wave, fit into a group, save face, and other motivations. It’s easy to rationalize decisions to fit these goals. The rational plan works great when you’re choosing a new washing machine, but not while you’re on a knife-edge ridge and a storm is moving in.

Rules of Thumb
When the situation is fluid and we’re under pressure, we typically do something else. We use what outdoor leadership nerds call “domain heuristics”, or rules of thumb. Heuristics are simple principles that we can remember in the heat of the moment that help us most of the time. We use them semi-consciously: think of sayings like “measure twice, cut once,” (carpentry), “when in doubt, scout” (whitewater), “be off the peaks before noon” (climbing in thunderstorm country), “avoid steep wind-loaded slopes” (skiing in avalanche country), and “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” (conversation/life).




These rules of thumb are can guide us well much of the time. Thunderstorms in the Rockies are a regular event, and a simple rule is one way to avoid a lot of risk. But there are also problems which all outdoor adventurers must guard against. They’re called “heuristic traps”: situations where even trained people repeatedly ignore obvious clues to danger and proceed when the signs are screaming at them to scout, stop, or turn back.

1.The Familiarity Trap
Like car accidents, more accidents happen in familiar territory than new frontiers, and not just because we spend more time there. Familiar territory triggers a combination of relaxation and reliance on past conditions, even when it’s obvious that conditions have changed and are more dangerous than usual.

2. The Commitment Trap
Humans will go to great lengths to appear consistent. Once we take a small action in one direction, we want to keep going that way. It’s the virtuous trait of “keeping our promises” run amok. We’ll be tempted to run a river we told friends we’d run even if it looks higher than is safe. Many outdoor accidents involve continuing with a plan because that was the plan, even when it’s obviously no longer smart.

3 .The Scarcity Trap
The rarer something is, the we value it. The first untracked powder bowl of the season, a tough-to-get river permit, or the last free weekend before you buckle down at work will all create an urge to push on when we shouldn’t.

4. The Social Proof Trap
We take more risks when surrounded by others. Peer pressure and the feeling of safety provided by others makes us more aggressive. That’s why police departments have gone from the “partner” model (the staple of buddy-cop movies) to solo officers. Other people can provide a safety margin, but in many objective risk situations like avalanche zones, the risk is the same whether you’re alone or in a group. Risk rises when group size gets to 3-4 people and is heightened after encountering other groups, because we want to keep up appearances.

5. The Expert Halo Trap
We’ve all followed the advice of someone else who has more experience. This makes sense—as long as their experience is real, applicable, and they’re not falling into one of these s traps themselves. Experts just as likely as novices to be suckered by the scarcity, social proof, or familiarity traps. We often ascribe greater ability to judge risk to the expert in one field (say rock climbing) to another field where their knowledge doesn’t apply (navigation). Nobody in their right mind would say that a surgeon’s medical training qualifies them to fly a jetliner. The same is true in the outdoors.

©istockphoto/Oktay Ortakcioglu

©istockphoto/Oktay Ortakcioglu


1. Be Vigilant
Start seeing these traps. Re-read the scenarios from a few paragraphs back. Recognize anything? If you spotted the Familiarity Trap in Scenario 1, the Commitment and Scarcity Traps in Scenario 2, and the Social Proof and Expert Halo Traps in Scenario 3, you’re on the right track.

2. Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence
Most of the time, when we ignore warning signs we still come home OK—but that doesn’t make we didn’t take foolish risks. It just means we got lucky. If you drove without a seat belt, most of the time you would still be ok because you don’t crash most of the time you drive a car. But it’s still foolish. Ignoring these traps works the same way.

3. Reassess
Establish times on your hike, ski, climb, or paddle to reassess your plan. There still will be energy pushing you on when you shouldn’t, luring you with the ability to rationalize your decision afterwards. But it will help keep you honest.

In the next article, we’ll dive further into how to make better decisions in the backcountry. In the meantime, stay out of the traps!

Thanks to Karl Andersson and Ian McCammon for informing the thought process of this article.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Jane January 25, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

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