Although we today have more information, knowledge, and more advanced technology to prevent accidents than ever before, accidents still occur with a higher frequency than we would like. At the same time, it appears as if some people do not wish to minimize risk. On the contrary, many voluntarily expose themselves to the risk of a serious injury, or even death. People who recreate in avalanche terrain is a good example. Backcountry skiers expose themselves to the risk of being caught by an avalanche every time they venture into avalanche terrain. The aim of the White Heat Project was to find answers to why people voluntarily expose themselves to excessive avalanche risk.
When we decide, we compare the expected costs and benefits of our different alternatives. If we use all information available and choose the alternative that can be expected to maximize our wellbeing in the long term, economists view the choice as rational. If we carry the full burden and reap all the benefits of our decision, economists view the decision-environment as efficient. There are many reasons for why choices related to risk may neither be efficient nor rational. Risky behaviors often have external costs. For example, if a skier triggers an avalanche, other people, infrastructure, cars, and forests in the run-out zone can get hit. In addition, rescue operations and health care require resources that are often funded by taxes. Finally, humans are social animals, and our actions can therefore spur emotional and behavioral reactions in others. Skiers who chose to ride risky slopes do not carry the full burden of their decisions and therefore have incentives to take more risk than is optimal from society’s perspective. There are many reasons for why we sometimes make decisions that are irrational: We rely on rules of thumb to preserve energy and we often focus more on immediate than distant goals even when this harms us in the long run, especially when we experience strong emotions. Our emotions, alongside with the physical and social environment also hold power to affect our perception of the risk at hand.
The White Heat Project analyzed how emotional, social and cognitive factors affect the perception of, and willingness to expose oneself to, danger in avalanche terrain. Our results suggest that backcountry skiing makes people happy and excited, but we find very little any evidence that the prospect of skiing fresh snow (powder fever) affects willingness to expose oneself and others to risk. Instead, we find that the most important factors behind terrain choices in the backcountry are attitudes to risk, perception of risk, skill, and training. Participants who say that they are either willing to expose themselves to risk or have strong skills in backcountry travel are more likely to ski potentially risky terrain. Individuals with formal avalanche training are less willing to ride risky terrain. These findings support the notion that people are aware of the risk and that knowledge reduces risk-taking behavior. This is reassuring.
However, we also find more troubling results. For instance, we find that irrelevant information about past avalanche danger affects both current and future estimates of avalanche danger. Surprisingly, detailed information about the avalanche problem does not remove the effect and individuals with avalanche training are more likely to be affected by consider historic information than individuals without such training. Some of our more preliminary results further indicate that backcountry skiers perceive that they have more control and depend less on luck than comparable others do. These last results are worrying because overconfidence increases the risk of accidents. We are still investigating if irreversible investments in time, effort or money affect risk-taking.
Our research on social factors shows that social signaling matters. Our results suggest that many people care about how their consumption and performance compare to that of others. This is especially the case if the behavior is socially valued. Peer pressure and social aspirations in the backcountry increases willingness to exposure oneself to avalanche risk. We find that risk-willing friends push many individuals to accept more risk than they ideally prefer, that many skiers’ satisfaction with their riding depend on what other riders do, and that these skiers are more willing to ride risky terrain.
Our findings have implications for public natural hazard warnings, education in risk management, and individual risk mitigation; some information in public natural hazard warnings may distort rather than improve risk perception. Warning services should therefore carefully assess the informational content in the bulletin. Knowledge improves decision-ability, but over-confidence and social factors may distort both judgements and incentives. This points to the importance of a greater focus on cognitive and social factors in risk education.