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“Nature doesn’t kill people with avalanches. People kill people with avalanches” (Julavits, 2020, p. 26).
Heidi Julavits tells us that in avalanche school she learned about six psychological concepts* that can cause back-country winter enthusiasts to make poor decisions—and then she went on to discuss how these very same factors led her, her classmates, and her avalanche instructors to make some poor decisions when they went out to the slopes (Julavits, 2020).
Julavits makes it clear that knowing how psychological concepts can have a negative impact on our decisions doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll make different decisions in the moment. This article reminds me—once again—that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient to change behavior. For example, I know what healthy eating and healthy exercise look like, and I know their benefits. That doesn’t mean that I always make the best decisions regarding healthy eating and healthy exercise. Knowledge is good. It’s just not enough.
The Intro Psych thinking chapter or social psych chapter are good places to discuss these psychological concepts—and then help students think through ways of countering them so they don’t get sucked in when needing to make decisions that may indeed be life and death decisions. While the context here happens to be avalanches—and the avoidance thereof—these psychological concepts can be applied to almost any context where a decision needs to be made.
Ian McCammon, a mechanical engineer, started thinking a lot about avalanches following the death of a friend. While his focus has been on the mechanics of avalanches, after researching 715 such accidents, he wrote about six psychological concepts that people may use out on the slopes that can lead to disaster (McCammon, 2004). These are the psychological concepts Julavits introduced to us in her avalanche school article (Julavits, 2020). McCammon (2004) begins with this premise:
As sad as this accident was [the one that led to the death of his friend], the real tragedy is that similar stories unfold in accident after accident, year after year. An experienced party, often with avalanche training, makes a crucial decision to descend, cross, or highmark a slope they believe is safe. And then they trigger an avalanche that buries one or more of them. In hindsight, the danger was often obvious before these accidents happened, and so people struggle to explain how intelligent people with avalanche training could have seen the hazard, looked straight at it, and behaved as if it wasn’t there. (p.1)
The Psychological Concepts
When we are in familiar surroundings, we are more likely to act just as we have acted in the past. That’s fine as long as the conditions are exactly the same. If they have changed, behaving the same way may not be the best course of action. In McCammon’s archival research, he found that people did indeed take more risks when they were in an area familiar to them.
Once we’ve made a decision, it’s easiest to keep making decisions that are consistent with that first decision. Again, this is fine as long as the conditions stay the same. As conditions change, staying consistent with our first decision may lead to trouble. McCammon found that the groups most committed to being out on the slope took the most risks.
We want to be accepted by others, so we do things that we believe will lead to their acceptance. Straight men may make poor decisions in order to increase their chances of being accepted by women. McCammon found that groups that included both men and women made riskier decisions, and this seemed to be driven primarily by men making poor decisions, not the women.
An “informal leader” may spontaneously emerge in the group. This person may have experience or skill, may be older, or may just be more assertive. The group may give this person an “expert halo” and assume the person has expertise they don’t actually possess. McCammon found that groups that had someone that could be identified as a leader took greater risks.
When people are confident in their abilities, the more people that are present, the more confident people become. McCammon found that groups that had avalanche training took greater risks if their group had met up with another group prior to the avalanche. Those who had not had avalanche training were less affected by the presence of another group.
We value more that which is scarce. New, unblemished snow is scarce and, thus, is highly valued. Indeed, McCammon found that skiers heading to untracked snow took greater risks than those headed to previously-skied snow.
If you live where your students ski or snowboard, this avalanche safety example may resonate with your students. In any case, ask your students to consider other situations where a group has to make a decision about whether or not it is safe to proceed. Boating on a body of water with choppy waves? Rafting on a river with unusually high water? Driving in an area where there is a tornado watch or warning? Weighing whether to stay or move inland with an approaching hurricane. Whatever situation is most likely for your student population, ask your students to identify how each of the factors discussed above may lead to a decision that may result in disaster.
Overcoming these factors
Now the hard part. Ask students what they could do to recognize these factors at play in the moment and, just importantly, how they could counteract them. As a take-home assignment, ask students to investigate strategies that help keep people from falling into these traps. During the next class session, ask students to share what they learned.
A lot of what we cover in the Intro Psych course has the potential to change a student’s life. This topic has the potential to save a student’s life.
Julavits, H. (2020, January). Calamity lesson. New York Times Magazine, 24–31, 48.
McCammon, I. (2004). Heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents: Evidence and implications. Avalanche Review, 22(68). Retrieved from www.snowpit.com.
*Julavits and McCammon refer to these concepts as heuristics. In Intro Psych, some of these are considered simply principles or concepts, so I’ve replaced the term heuristics with “psychological concepts.”
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