Well, it’s very much old news already that we finally got our first “real” storm of the season, and of course that means another winter of avalanche avoidance is upon us. Which to me also brings me to my annual fixation on the decision making process that always come to bear when….really, doing almost anything.
I’ve been on a very mellow kick over the last few years of reading books on decision making, since so much of our fate is determined by our decisions, and if we always made the right decisions, our lives would be eversomuch more better. But fortunately, we can’t see the future, so we make the best decisions we can. Sometimes that means what to have for breakfast, sometimes it means who are we gonna marry, and sometimes it means do I ski this untouched slope and live….. or die? What if we could always optimize those decisions?
The first book I read was aptly titled “How We Decide” by the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer (he plagiarized himself from earlier writings - is that really plagiarism? - and made up quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his later book “Imagine”; regardless, he’s a good writer and it’s a good book). It was a bit of a perfunctory look at our decision making process that is a constant struggle between rationalism and emotion. He talked a lot about the experiences that we have that influence our subconscious state and create the ability to have “hunches” (that Malcolm Gladwell beat into a pulp in “blink”). Memorably, he included an anecdote about the quarterback Tom Brady, who was asked about the decisions he made in the heat of the plays, and he generally shrugged and simply said “I don’t know”. Easy enough (for me) to pass this off as just another lunkhead football player, but actually he was acknowledging that he was letting the many years of the highest-level experience guide him into making “the best” decisions to the point where it had become instinctual. As it turns out, some time later I happened to see a picture of Tom Brady throwing some big TD pass on the front page of the sports section, with the ball just leaving his fingertips. Interestingly, his eyes were squeezed shut. Instinct indeed!
But the major takeaway from “How We Decide” was this: regardless of your decision, acknowledge/understand what led you to that decision and why you are going one way or another. To me this really resonated with travelling in avalanche terrain: while in the past I’ve said something memorably and painfully trite like “It feels good to me!” in the heat of the moment, the truth is that is that the slope – or the river, or the gust of wind, or the flake – doesn’t really care what feels good to you or not, so be careful to make conscious - and conscientious - decisions.
But then I read “The Black Swan” by the “epistemologist” (I don’t even know what that is) Nassim Nicholas Taleb, where he argued that “Black Swan” - the impossible-to-predict, yet hugely impactful - events have far-greater impacts in our lives than we acknowledge (think 9/11), yet we position ourselves to be highly vulnerable to them in our decision-making process by talking ourselves into the notion that those events “can’t happen”. He’s ferociously pompous, but it’s hard to admit he’s anything other than one of The Really Smart Guys and heeding his admonitions to maintain nimbility and minimize vulnerability in our decision-making process is worth keeping in the back of your mind.
The real-deal tome in this genre to me is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. This guy seems to be The Man when it comes to this stuff, having won a Nobel for economics for his studies in why people invest their money the way they do. He’s considered to be sort of the father of the concept of “heuristics” (according to Wikipedia: “heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision.”) and his basic premise is that our minds work on two systems: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional, and System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Both “systems” are super important and remarkable in their own ways, and really provocative in how they interact to create action. If we were perpetually slow, deliberative, and logical, it’d be a pretty maddening to be around us; and if we were perpetually fast, intuitive, and emotional we’d be burning up valuable resources, buying every bright/interesting thing we saw, doing nutty adrenaline sports all the time, engaging in irrationally exuberant investments…..hey, that sounds sorta familiar? Clearly, plenty o’ System 2 happening all around us.
But how to engage even a bit of the safeguarding System 1? I am not a scientist. I have long admired my scientific-minded friends for their practicality and logic, and when I first started backcountry skiing I was pretty daunted because I thought that my propensity to get cross-eyed when faced with actual “science” would get me kilt when I conveniently ignored The Facts. But I’ve come to realize that, like everything, an avalanche is an event that is the result of a series of decisions, and trying to stay abreast of the rationale associated with those decisions is as important as the science itself, if not more so. I think that Bruce Tremper, our venerable director of the Utah Avy center and author of what has become the definitive avalanche book, has become fascinated with this aspect as well, and in fact was the one to recommend Kahneman’s book to me in the first place.
And, of course, no discussion of this is complete without referencing the work of the brilliant Ian McCammon, whose identification of the “heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents” is worth an annual read http://www.avalanche.org/moonstone/DecisionMaking/Heuristics/traps%20reprint.pdf and this one is a bit more readable: http://www.summitpost.org/human-factors-in-avalanche-incidents/188636 (Ian has moved away from the lucrative world of avalanche psychology/sociology to becoming a “risk manager” for the ginormous L3 Communications). I particularly like the Commitment Heuristic: “the tendency to believe that a behavior is correct to the extent that it is consistent with a prior commitment we have made. This heuristic is deeply rooted in our desire to be and and appear consistent with our words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds.”
I take from this three possible commitment foibles:
1) I have committed to this before, so I can – or am expected to - commit to it again (regardless of different circumstances)
2) I decided some time ago that I was committed to something and am therefore committed (summit fever)
3) We have already committed a lot, so let’s keep on committing (throwing good money after bad).
All of which can have devastating consequences if not properly addressed somewhat rationally. To address this, Ian came up with his “lemons” system (ie too many lemons add up to a not-good situation, though it's kind of unfortunate that lemons have this negative connotation; I like lemons!), his ALP TRUTH acronym to help the less-scientific people such as myself keep tabs on our snowy environment, and the FACETS acronym to remember the socio/psychological gyrations that can happen on our wintertime travels (Our buddy Chad Bracklesberg has done a great summary here: http://thebrackpack.com/tag/avalanche/ )
While these are very specifically oriented towards avalanche avoidance, what they represent – very cognitive acknowledgement of the factors that influence our decision making in both our everyday lives and our big decisions – is profound.
So as we struggle on through life, trying to “do the right thing” by making the right decisions without necessarily knowing the outcomes, thinking about how – but probably, more importantly, why – We Decide will hopefully lead to eminently happy trails.