In the first article in this series we learned how we’re trained to be rational when making decisions, but that in the outdoors we tend to make decisions in the moment based on simpler rules of thumb. And because our decisions are often driven more by emotional human frailties such as excitement, fear, and the desire to save face, factors, it’s easy to ignore these rules. The first article covered the traps we fall into: commitment, scarcity, social proof, familiarity, expert halo, and so on. Now we’ll dig a bit deeper into what happens inside your brain.
What Really Happens In Our Brains
You’re leading a group down the trail in a wooded area. From off to the side you hear the unmistakable growl of a saber-toothed tiger.
You go into action in a fraction of a second. Your amygdala, the part of your brain that handles emotions, sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus, which signals the adrenal glands to flood your system with adrenaline. The adrenaline pushes oxygen to the muscles and heart, increasing your pulse rate and breathing. Sight and hearing sharpen. Glucose from stored energy enters the bloodstream, readying you for action. All this happens before the tiger is even finished growling. And your hypothalamus also presses a second button, the HPA axis. This releases cortisol, which keeps your body highly revved for a while. Long after the saber-toothed cat is gone and the group has moved on, you’re still hyper-alert and ready to flee or defend your group. To free energy for this metabolic surge, your brain had to draw energy from the cerebral cortex—the part that’s in charge of the long-term planning and thinking.
Obviously, saber-toothed cats have been extinct for 11,000 years. But our fight-or-flight response which developed in that era still works the same way. It’s triggered when we perceive immediate threats: an unseen rock in the middle of a rapid, a car that veers into your bicycle lane, and when your boss angrily calls you into their office.
Why the Plan Approach Doesn’t Work
This fight-or-flight response makes it impossible to make plans under stress. All that “assess the situation/develop alternatives/make a plan” stuff has to have happened beforehand and everyone needs to know it. And even then it can still go out the window when fear sets in.
Rules of Thumb Make Sense, but…
Rules of thumb work better in the moment because they fit the tiny amount of brain space we have under stress. Stay to the inside of bends in whitewater. When in doubt, scout. But as we now know, we’ll still likely to ignore those rules when the scarcity, social proof, commitment, and familiarity traps set in. We’ll even ignore long years of training. So what do we do?
What Really Works
It’s time to look at what the real experts do. Highly trained firefighters, EMTs, high-risk investors, pro athletes, and whitewater and mountain rescue pros all do something very different from either slow methodical planning or keep-it-simple rules of thumb. It’s called “recognition-primed decision-making”, or as it’s called more commonly, pattern recognition. As a situation evolves, experts can very quickly and intuitively recognize a situation from a set of cues, tap into a massive data bank of situations from training, practice, and experience, and respond. It often happens quickly, without them even really knowing what they were doing. And it works far better than anything else.
A common examples of pattern recognition would be your friend who does a lot of birdwatching and now instinctively knows a bird’s species just by its silhouette; he doesn’t know why exactly he can recognize it, but he just knows it to be true. Another example would be when a group of kayakers are river playing in some eddies when one of them starts struggling. Without even thinking, the leader drifts downstream and yells at everyone to group up; everything is still organized, but that calm response was a predictive action to prevent impending disaster.
We’ve all heard the saying “judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.” This is a risky and painful way to build long judgment. While there aren’t many shortcuts to developing the knowledge base for pattern recognition, there are ways to move it along—or at least make sure you actually do learn from the experiences you have.
Reflection: The Best Way to Learn
Reflect on outdoor adventures, both yours and others’. When something goes wrong, step back from the tendency to defend, blame, or attribute it to uncontrollable factors. Spend some time with your buddies figuring out what happened, why, if and how it could have been prevented, and most importantly, why it wasn’t. Resist the urge for simple answers. Most outdoor accidents are the accumulation of small factors that built to a crescendo.
But even more importantly, debrief when things go fine. What made them go well? How can you replicate that? Did risks exist that simply never came to a head? Remember, if you drive without a seat belt, you’ll still be fine if you don’t crash that day, but that doesn’t make it smart. When a friend leads a trip, debrief with them and vice versa. That way you both add data to your pattern recognition bank.
Keep a Logbook
Keeping a logbook gives you a place to put all this information. You can go back to our notes if you need to. And writing it down helps it stick in your memory. Keep more information than just miles hiked or river flows, but what happened.
When you create your original plan, before you leave, conduct a “pre-mortem”. What could go wrong? Does your plan still hold water? The pre-mortem hinges on two scenarios:
- Imagine that your plan was implemented just like you intended, but still failed.
Why did this happen? Did the weather move in earlier than forecast? Was a key campsite already taken, so you had to go further?
- Imagine that the easy parts of your plan were implemented fine, but the challenging parts were a mixed bag.
You may make slower time along a ridge, or may or may not be able to make the crux move in one rapid, which led to a swim, which cost time. Then what happens to the rest of your plan?
The Pre-Mortem does two things. First, it helps you spot the weakness in your plan. Second, it reminds you that we’re dealing with both environmental unknowns and human unknowns. Everyone in the group should participate in the process, even though the leader may have final say.
It’s Teachable and Learnable
Pattern recognition can be taught, and not just by bad experiences. Other people’s experiences, scenarios planning, peering over the shoulder of people with decades of experience, and a planned cycle of prediction—experience—reflection accelerate the learning process. It will still take time, but not as much.