Why your subconscious could be trying to kill you, using Heuristic traps

Updated: May 27

Need to Know  Understanding Heuristic Traps?




Every moment your brain makes a decision, which way to walk, what shortcuts to take, how to handle that potentially dangerous implement.




Some of these decisions are less than optimal

and sometimes outright dangerous,

this is due to Heuristics.



Heuristics are simple shortcuts that people use to make decisions about complex tasks and situations , Heuristics enable us speed up the decision making process, such as driving manoeuvres, where to climb or when selecting a scramble route. We tend to build and apply these shortcuts frequently and subconsciously.

Context, is the key. Heuristics have a large purpose in our lives. Decision making can be complex and require a lot of time and focus. This is why we look for a short cut, this is great for tasks such as problem solving where we can use information we learnt in another task, and helps form our biases. This is great on the right context, but becomes a problem when applied to the wrong situation. A shortcut used in the wrong context either leads to a failure or even worse if we survive the scenario or manage the task it can become part of future decision making, this is known as forming a confirmation bias. It worked therefore it was right.

Heuristic traps occur when the simple rules we use are influenced by factors not relevant to the actual hazards. Being aware of these traps may reduce the likelihood of this. Some of the more common heuristic traps are (from Decision Making for Wilderness Leaders: strategies, traps and teaching methods by Ian McCammon, PhD):

  • Familiarity of a setting or situation: ‘If I’ve done it before then it’s what I should do now.’ For example, "I always stand on the edge un-roped" or "I always solo this circuit, I never wear a helmet."

  • Authority i.e. credible expert opinion: ‘If an expert believes it then it’s what I should believe.’ For example, "the guidebook author says this boulder problem is only V1, and therefore I should be capable of it"," my coach/instructor says I need to fall off more."

  • Social proof or the behaviour of people similar to myself: ‘If people like me are doing it then it’s what I should do.’ For example, "my friends traversed Broken Axe Pinnacles, and they thought it was easy","everyone is running out routes and it looks easy" or "no one else is wearing helmets."

  • Commitment, consistency and the opportunity to validate prior actions and decisions: ‘I should remain consistent with my prior opinions and actions.’ For example, "I can always climb this route/grade" or "I crossed this pass before in bad weather and therefore it should be fine this time too".

  • Liking, conformity with actions by a person or group that I like: ‘If someone I like is doing it then it’s what I should do to be accepted.’ For example, "they say the routes easy so i'll give it a go", "or they say the anchors safe so it'll be fine."

  • Scarcity and competition for a limited resource: ‘If something is scarce then I should desire it.’ For example, "we've just gotten our first chance to climb in weeks, I'm getting on it", "other people want to get on that climb, so i'm going now.", or "I only get to climb outside once a month, so I'm not wasting time on easy climbs"

Growing the wrong mindset. I love it when subjects cross over. Growth mindset is the concept that we have belief that we can grow, Heuristics is one way this happens and most are not aware of this.

Step one we take action, that result creates and confirms our belief, we grow using that belief which enables us to take more action. this would be great with something like building good habits or learning a difficult skill.

But belief can help us build a defensive wall.

When approached while making an error most people feel defensive, I do also. This is because these decisions come from our personal experience, so its got to be right. This is how we grow belief.

Not the Author, just a cool shot with possible heuristics

  • Experience: No one else wore a helmet,

  • Action: so I didn't, and I didn't get hurt.

  • Belief: helmets are not needed.

Once this happens it becomes a cycle where we develop a narrative, and when it does go wrong we create a story making it an exception, a rarity, a freak accident.. This is where the narrative comes in


  • Act of god: A helmet wouldn't have helped, we did everything right, it wouldn't have changed anything

  • Bad egg: They only got hurt because they are reckless, I wouldn't have done it if they were there.

  • The amateur: They didn't know any better, they were the new guy, they didn't have the right equipment or experience

You read these in the media, its the presumption why an incident happened with out blaming the injured person(s) or other participants.

How to not get trapped 1. Question, everything. This is number one for a reason, question your coach/instructor, review your actions, question your friends and their equipment. Don't just draw up an assumption. 2. Practice being wrong, as soon as you get criticised feel free to be defensive but then play with the idea of them being right. It might be you learn something or they do. Everyone wins. 3.Learn, Seek professional advice, and compare it to what you know and question the advice to help you understand it, see number 1,

4. Practice best practice, so we can justify why it is safe to stand on this particular edge without protection, but what is my habit? Could I practice being safe here to help build habits for later. 5. Role model, whether you see yourself as a role model or not someone will see you and someone will mimic your actions at some point. Think about the source of your actions and consider the actions of those that joined you on their adventures. We all influence our climbing partners. Stay safe, and don't get trapped.

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