Human factor Archives – Alpine Dragons

Mindfulness in helping correct heuristic decision making while in avalanche terrain

By | Alpine Rescue, Avalanche awareness, mindfulness, Winter | No Comments


There is evidence that supports the theory that people allow unconscious heuristics to steer their decision making. Although people are able to make methodical decisions they tend not to and use heuristic unconscious rules to make shortcuts. This has often been referred to as auto-pilot decision making. We use auto-pilot thinking and habituation to help us speed up daily decision making to ease an already complex life.

In this article, a suggestion that mindfulness practice and application of mindfulness inquiries could challenge habitual heuristic decision making.


In many cases, avalanche victims had allowed habitual unconscious heuristics to steer their decisions with serious consequences.

In teaching avalanche awareness historically the focus has been on the snow, the terrain the snow lies on and weather. Although these are important key areas, in recent years the focus has shifted onto the human, that ultimately makes the decision, what has been termed the “human factor” and increasingly how the individual operates within a group (group dynamic). Several studies have suggested a more rigorous teaching of how the individual’s decision making and more importantly there role in the group should be taught in avalanche awareness courses. Hard skills, snow knowledge, terrain analysis and weather interpretation had traditionally been taught as a priority as they are solid hard facts that are often easier to teach than soft skills like self-reflection and group dynamics. It requires the instructor to be competent at self-reflection and see truthfully how their unconscious behaviour reflects in their decision making.

Habitual unconscious heuristic:

Six heuristic traps have been identified: Familiarity, Consistency, Acceptance, The Expert Halo, Social Facilitation and Scarcity (Ian McCammon Sept. 30 – Oct 4, 2002 – Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents). The application of mindfulness in decision making could help to challenge heuristic thinking, see bias and allow for a more informative impartial decision-making process.

The role of mindfulness is to allow the participant within a group to see their decisions clearly, see biases or personal traits that may steer their ability to see the truth.

Analysis of available avalanche victim statistics suggests an experienced back-country skier has the same risk index as an inexperienced back-country skier when traveling in familiar terrain. In this case, the experienced skier falls into the heuristic trap of familiarity. Often experienced skiers choose familiar terrain when the avalanche risk is higher as they feel because they are familiar with the terrain it will make the journey safer. It is possible that this skier because they feel the terrain is familiar, don’t look at other key avalanche indicators as carefully as they would while skiing in unknown terrain. There are many things at play here. After a storm, when the snow can be at its most unstable conversely the skiing can be of good quality. For keen back-country skiers, getting the first tracks in fresh soft snow (powder fever) is a must, it gives status and a good feeling of floating in the powder. The skier can, therefore, fall into several heuristic traps. In this example, we have covered familiarity, we also see “scarcity”, the feeling that this is a chance in a lifetime, it won’t happen again. This is a deep-seated feeling and is very strong emotional triggers can form. Mindfulness could help the skier see that this strong feeling isn’t necessarily true. Othe heuristic traps are “acceptance”. This is especially true of the individual within the group, where the group progressively accepts the risk, or blank it out collectively. Again mindfulness could help the skier see they are allowing themselves to be dragged along by the group dynamic, rather than pointing out avalanche risk facts. “Social Facilitation” is another heuristic trap that can be followed. How the individual operates in the group, how they steer it or act as in silent acceptance is a complex and often culturally driven. Depending on the makeup of the group people may feel they don’t have the right to raise questions or disagree with the group’s decision.

In this example if the skier was willing and open to mindfulness training there is a possibility for a more impartial decision-making process in avalanche terrain and that in turn makes for a safer journey.

In Practice:

The running of a traditional 2,5 days avalanche awareness course within the framework of mindfulness practice.

Requirements: 4 participants to 1 instructor. Groups should be kept small to allow better contact between students and instructors.

Quantifying results:

1) Asking participants on a standard avalanche awareness course and a mindfulness-based avalanche awareness course to participate in a questionnaire, prior to the course, during the course, at the end of the course and at a period after the course.
2) Asking participants who have undertaken standard avalanche awareness to participate in a mindfulness-based avalanche awareness course and to undertake a questionnaire, prior to the course, during the course, at the end of the course and at a period after the course.

Analyse the results to see if the key heuristic traps have been challenged and if the thought process in decision-making has been challenged.


The challenges are discussed as preconception of mindfulness, meaningful quantifying of results and to find enough participants to make meaningful analysis.

The mindfulness challenge:

Preconceptions about what is mindfulness. These have been well described by Dr Chris Goto-Jones as the scientist, the monk, the Ninja, the zombie, and the hippy as illustrations of the 5 main preconceptions of mindfulness.

Western culture has an increasing dislike of religion and many see mindfulness as Buddhism by the back door. Even secular mindfulness instructors and text refer to an eastern religious text and often use a traditional metal bowl or bell to define the start and end of meditation classes. The focus group for the mindfulness avalanche awareness course are to a certain extent focused on material goods (skis, clothes) and there is a festival and social media culture (acceptance) within this activity. Mindfulness may be seen as something smothering this fun.

Scheme and questionnaires challenges:

1) Creation of schemes within the questionnaires would require careful consideration so to be able to extract meaningful results.
2) Obtaining enough samples.
3) Motivating continued participation with the questionnaires after the course would be challenging.
4) Identifying bias in answers. i.e. people giving answers they feel they should rather than telling the truth.

Meaningful results:

1) There may just not be enough samples to form a meaningful result set.
2) Guides and instructors are renowned for saying the right thing about avalanches, and then not actually carrying out this in practice.
3) Challenging a culture can be difficult.

Sampling area:

Apart from running the course myself, that would give a small sample size, other providers of avalanche courses could be asked there practisants to fill in the questionnaires to get a larger sample size. This would form unless the other providers were willing to run mindfulness-based avalanche awareness courses, traditional avalanche courses and form a control to see if any changes in heuristic decision making had been made.


Decision making in avalanche terrain has many challenges for the individual not only do they need the hard skills to identify hazards, but they also need a good level of awareness of there decision-making ability. When humans come to make decisions, especially when it directly involves something they enjoy and motivated, like off-piste skiing, they are often poor decision makers, often allow habitual unconscious heuristics to steer them. In the case of ski-touring in avalanche terrain heuristics, especially when looking at group dynamics is forming the most vital clue to why people continue to travel into hazardous areas when the signs of an avalanche are apparent.

Challenges of implementing mindful base decision making into mainstream recreation avalanche courses could be challenging as providers and instructors might have an unwillingness to change course philosophy unless it was a complete cultural change within the off-piste community. Unwillingness for participants to engage in mindfulness-based avalanche courses as they may be unwilling to challenge there own preconception of mindfulness. In this case, when considering changing a philosophy within the off-piste skiing community, it may be prudent to bring mindfulness through the back door under a different name.

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