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Smarter, Safer Spring Skiing: Part 6

What will they think if I don’t send this line?

We all have some desire for Acceptance from our peers, and it often influences the decisions we make. This desire can vary in its source as well as how and when it manifests itself. Inevitably, it helps drive our choices when playing in the mountains. Social Acceptance is the sixth and final heuristic trap of this decision making series.

Heuristic traps, introduced in Part 1 of these human factor posts to The Pit, are mental shortcuts often resulting in common decision-making flaws that can be identified in skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and others who travel through snow covered mountains. We can’t turn them off, but we can acknowledge and actively counter these flaws. Our desire for acceptance is no exception.

The partners you ski, snowboard, or climb with are often the primary driver of the Acceptance heuristic trap. Hopefully you actually like the folks who you travel with in the mountains, so as a result maintaining their acceptance is probably of value to you. Disappointing these peers is rarely our intent, and we would often prefer to impress them. The stronger the desire to impress, the greater the influence of this heuristic trap.

New backcountry partner? You certainly want to show them your best stuff. How about someone you have a romantic interest in? Men do bold things in an attempt to impress women. While gender is not an absolute driver in this stereotypical scenario, it’s tough to ignore this glaring flaw common in male decision making. Regardless of your romantic preferences, the accidents inevitably resulting from an increase in risk taking behavior rarely impress anyone.

In a highly social and often crowded backcountry ski setting like Tuckerman Ravine, you might also be motivated to gain acceptance from people you don’t know. On busy days, this is obvious. We even have a cheering crowd. These motivations are closely tied to perceived norms of how we can and should ski or snowboard on steep slopes. As discussed in Part 5, we often look to the example others set for an indication of how to conduct ourselves. These examples might be someone you just watched ski in person, but the action sports media is another primary driver of our perceived norms. We’re inundated with footage of people pushing the envelope.

The Acceptance heuristic trap can manifest itself in a number of ways. When planning a trip, our perceived norms might influence a group to develop high-risk objectives. More importantly, you could suppress concerns about a particular plan in effort to please the others in your group. This act of not voicing a concern is problematic in the field, naturally. If you feel uneasy with a situation but don’t speak up, there is a very strong chance that desire for social acceptance is driving your behavior. Noticing a risk while staying silent and watching it happen isn’t of much benefit to anyone. This also contributes to the Commitment to a goal heuristic trap, our tendency to stick to established plans.

In the big picture, seeking acceptance can lead us to obvious hazards, like skiing a no-fall zone in bulletproof ice conditions, ripping powder turns on an avalanche prone 38 degree slope when a High danger rating has been issued, or simply hucking your meat off a big cliff. We can easily recognize these hazards, but social pressure might prevent us from speaking up or altering plans. At a more nuanced level, our desire for Acceptance might urge us towards pushing to faster speeds or choosing a more aggressive, high consequence line. FurtherFurthermore?, remember that as mental shortcuts, it’s common to be unaware of the influence of heuristic traps on any decision.

The indirect motivation for Acceptance though social media cannot be ignored. While outdated these days, the meaning behind the term “Kodak Courage” is as relevant as ever. We’ve already established our propensity to do bold things to impress just small numbers of people; impressing large numbers of people can easily provide even stronger motivation. With smartphones, cameras and direct access to social media are nearly everywhere we go. It’s tough to not record your backcountry exploits.

With potentially wide ranging sources from which we seek approval, countering the Acceptance heuristic trap requires a diverse approach. First, as always, we must acknowledge that this heuristic trap does indeed influence us, that none of us are immune to it. Second, seek to identify your specific source or sources of social pressure. Constantly question your motivation to travel in the mountains, particularly the details of how and where you like to travel. Chances are you’re not motivated by the experience alone. You probably want others to know about your Dodge’s Drop descent.

Prior to a trip, consider who you plan to travel with and associated social dynamics. Have you skied in the backcountry with them before, or are they new partners? Is it a date? It’s crucial to understand their acceptable level of risk and how it might affect yours. Accordingly, be aware of your motivation to impress these people. As plans formulate, consider the inspiration of the trip, or if you’re motivated by the photos or video that you’ll post to social media.

In the field is when your decision making flaws will play out, and these themes continue. Question how and where you are actually travelling. Are you going along with an uphill route because you don’t want to be the one to second guess another’s decision? The same can be said for the descent, or even where you take breaks. If the alarm bells are going off in your head, but you say nothing, your desire for acceptance is probably at play. Accordingly, consider your group’s communication. If limited or without much meaningful discussion of present hazards, this should serve as a warning sign. Finally, is there a camera, and what potential audience might you be trying to impress with your bold actions?

Our desire for Acceptance is just one of the six F.A.C.E.T.S. heuristic traps, each with the potential to make or break your day or even life when you ski, snowboard, or climb in the backcountry. Familiarity addresses the potential for hazards to go unnoticed when we’re in terrain we know well. Acceptance from our social peers can lead to excessively bold action. Commitment to a goal can limit ability to realize safer options. Blind trust in a more experienced partner characterizes the Expert Halo. The desire for fresh Tracks and associated scarcity of snow allows subconscious risk perception sacrifices. Finally, Social proof helps us feel safer when following the example of others, regardless of actual hazards present.

These heuristic traps should only be pieces of your human factor puzzle. This overall process of risk assessment and resulting travel decisions is essential to your longevity in the mountains, unless you’re incredibly lucky. From planning, to the up track, to the descent, and finally the beer in the parking lot, ask yourself and your group how you could be wrong. Better yet, acknowledge that you ARE wrong about some safety element and seek to discover it. Remember, we inherently look for the “Go” or “Yes” decision, otherwise we’d never leave the couch. One hundred percent safety is impossible in the backcountry, but we could all be a little safer. The art of saying “No” isn’t easy, but it might lead to the highest quantity of good skiing in the long run.