If you're a backcountry skier, you spend a lot of time thinking about the snowpack. You pay attention to the impacts of weather and time on the layers hidden below surface. You anticipate where there may be strengths and weaknesses, and then you dig big holes in the snow, seeking evidence. You investigate, rigorously, because you know your life depends on it. But how rigorously do you investigate the universe of cognitive principles hiding beneath every thought you have in and about avalanche country?
In Whitefish, Montana, one skier is digging into the rich fields of psychology and economic theory to advance the entire ski community’s understanding of backcountry behavior.
Every winter, Dr. Sara Boilen, a licensed clinical psychologist, teaches skiers in local avalanche workshops about decision-making. This includes a lesson in the human factors, a theory that dates back to a 2002 paper published by the engineer and avalanche researcher Ian McCammon. In an analysis of more than 600 avalanche incidents, he observed certain reoccurring mental shortcuts that undermined otherwise good judgement: familiarity, acceptance, commitment, expert halo, scarcity (tracks), and social proof. Acknowledging the presence and danger of these heuristic traps, commonly referred to by their acronym FACETS, has become an essential element of safety dialogue over the past 16 years.
"FACETS gives us a simple, easy way to organize a complicated world—but it's just not the ending point,” Boilen says.
Currently, she is working on a new paper, alongside Montana-based snow scientist Erich Peitzch, that takes one step closer to the source of backcountry behaviors: the brain. Boilen is exploring how skiers utilize certain well-studied cognitive processes to receive, interpret, and use information while planning ski trips and traveling through avalanche terrain. She doesn't have a nifty mnemonic device, but she does have a catch-phrase. Her work investigates how our "dumb hearts and lazy brains" work against us while we try to make cool, calculated decisions.
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When we engage in planning, organization, strategy, and other complex behaviors, the prefrontal cortex lights up with activity. When we get emotionally overwhelmed—say, from stoke or from fear—cognitive activity shifts over to the limbic system, which is what we talk about when we talk about the heart. We no longer think as methodically, because the limbic system just doesn't interpret data as well as the prefrontal cortex. We may make dangerous decisions because we're fixated on glorious shiny things, like powder and sunshine. Conversely, we may make overly conservative decisions because we're excessively anxious. This is the dumb heart in prime form.
"There are ways to disengage our limbic system activation, and pull us back," Boilen says. "I teach that you can use your body, your words, or your outside surroundings. [Processing these stimuli] happens in our cerebral cortex. So if I can engage my cerebral cortex, I've broken the rhythm in my brain."
Choose a physical cue, like clicking your ski poles together, wiggling your toes, or clapping your hands. Boilen’s personal stratagem is to sing the Grateful Dead's "El Paso" aloud. She frequently counsels clients to name every color they see—not so helpful for skiers, she jokes, but the idea is to somehow focus, analytically, on the outside world. Maybe try to name every mountain in sight. Boilen says our brains sometimes mistake a rapid heart rate for anxiety, so the top of a really steep bootpack is not an ideal place to make big decisions, for example. Stop in a safe place for a snack break, harness your mind, and then evaluate your plan.
Even when our dumb hearts aren't dominating our decision-making, we unknowingly use an enormous collection of processes to efficiently synthesize information and make judgements. Normally, this is helpful. But if unconscious processes steal the mic in high-stakes scenarios, they can give us bad data, resulting in a faulty analysis. That's our lazy brain at work.
"We're always [using these processes]," Boilen says, "But we're not aware that we're doing it, and sometimes it's not really serving us."
Anchoring describes our tendency to hold super tightly one piece of information, and to compare all new information to that reference point. It's the cognitive process advertisers exploit when they show how much an item was priced before a sale, so you anchor to the original price point and view the discount more favorably in comparison, regardless of how affordable the item is. For many backcountry skiers, the avalanche report and observations are likely anchors. While these sources offer valuable data, conditions change and microclimates exist. When digging a pit, Boilen recommends taking a moment to isolate your evaluation to the data right in front of you. There are other types of anchors, too: Boilen says she's anchored to the concept that snow is really dangerous, which can result in challenges related to being over-conservative.
You're probably familiar with confirmation bias, the propensity to see data in our environment that supports our original hypothesis. Expecting green-light conditions, and overlooking red flags, is clearly dangerous. "I recommend assigning somebody who is knowledgeable, confident, and willing to speak up in your group to be the Devil's Advocate for the day," Boilen says. "This person's job is to battle confirmation bias. They are going to come up with valid arguments against whatever the group is moving toward."
And you've likely heard of sunk cost: "I've been planning this for two weeks, I drove all the way here, I spent all this money, I paid for this helicopter," Boilen says. "Here's the tricky thing, if I invest, say, $1,000 or six hours that has led me to this present moment… I can't do anything in this moment to actually get back that $1,000 or six hours, but I make decisions about the future as if it will, somehow." If you notice this thought pattern, try to tap into that logical brain.
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Sunk cost has a buddy, Boilen says, in opportunity cost. "I think economists don't really know what FOMO is, but we do," she explains. "However, we tend to overestimate how disappointed we will be… and so we think, 'If I don't ski that line today, I'm going to be crushed, and then when I see it on Instagram, I'm going to be devastated and I'm probably never going to get out of bed again.'” One familiar maneuver for slowing your roll is the pre-mortem analysis: What would they write about you in the avalanche fatality report? "Super morbid, really helpful," Boilen says. Additionally, creating time to debrief can correct memories that may someday fuel opportunity cost anxieties. "What we know about memories is that we change them every time we remember them, and especially when we talk about them,” she notes. This happens when we re-live our best days on snow. “We can have a script that highlights that this was a dangerous thing we did, not just a fun thing that we did."
Defaulting is exactly what it sounds like. "Our brain loves to not decide things," Boilen says. "We love to default, or revert to the mean, or do what we know." In the backcountry, this acts in concert with anchoring, leading us to rigidly stick with a plan. If we have a Plan A, we may default to it even when conditions change, because, as everyone knows, Plan B is not as desirable. Boilen recommends changing the letters: perhaps form a Plan N and a Plan K, or label your plans with route descriptors. "Suddenly, your brain is like, ‘I can't be lazy, I have to think about this.’ And that's what we want."
"I'm really beating up on the brain," Boilen says. "But, hopefully, in the spirit of empowering ourselves to make better decisions."
Like any of your backcountry skill sets, your awareness of cognitive biases and the ability to interrupt them can improve over time, with practice. If you can manage terrain and snow hazards, you can manage your brain. Make it a habit to observe your thought process, and determine whether these brain traps have taken over. Think of it like digging a snow pit of the mind.