Cognitive Bias and Decision Making
My first thoughts were of those who had chosen to stay on the far side of the stream. I couldn’t help but question, with all the information they had on hand, why they chose to stay instead of head to safety.
It wasn’t until years later I learned about cognitive bias and how it is that one bad decision can cascade into a series of bad events, potentially leading to a catastrophic outcome. Deep in our subconscious we are hardwired to use mental shortcuts, also called heuristics, to make complex decisions based on the limited information available at the time. Somewhere along the evolutionary chain our caveman ancestors started using heuristics to stay alive.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.” This approach in the backcountry is less than ideal at best, and at worst likely to get you killed. In contrast, Charlie Munger’s philosophy of making decisions that are consistently not stupid rather than concentrating on making a few really good decisions is more practical and likely to get you to your objective and home.
In the early 1990s, Charlie Munger, the executive vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, gave a series of talks in which describes 25 heuristics he believes to be the root of humans’ bad decision making. In his discussions he explained that by being cognizant of the decision making process, and how heuristics work, one can be armed against making bad decisions. While the 25 described have far reaching applications, three relate directly to backcountry travelers.
The first is what he calls the Doubt-Avoidance Tendency. Doubt, if left unchecked, can be mentally crippling. By suppressing doubt, our caveman ancestors were able to make split second decisions while in fight-or-flight mode to avoid being eaten. When time is in short supply, and a decision needs to be made quickly, removing self-doubt from the equation enables us to make a quicker, albeit hasty, decision.
Next, Inconsistency-Avoidance Tendency is the inclination to make decisions based on what we have done, or what has worked in the past, without analyzing the information in our current situation. In order to conserve precious cognitive space, our brains have evolved to rely on this tendency to speed up our decision making process. Coupled with doubt-avoidance tendency, our minds can be hard wired to make poor decisions based on past actions that may not have any correlation to the situation in which we find ourselves in.
Finally, Excessive Self-Regard Tendency is a propensity to overestimate our abilities or overvalue the decisions we make. After several trips in the backcountry, it is common to develop confidence in our abilities. Sometimes we are placed in situations where we overestimate our abilities, and this is where excessive self-regard presents itself. Combining this with the tendencies to avoid doubt and inconsistency stacks the deck against us.
Take those campers on the far side of the river. Their overconfidence in the decision to stay put based on previous monsoons led them to Inconsistency-Avoidance even though they had ample information screaming it was a bad idea. The tendency to avoid doubt, coupled with excessive self-regard, worked together to reinforce a potentially catastrophic decision. Had they been more objective about the situation and looked at their decision from other perspectives it is likely they would have relocated with us up on high ground.
The topography of the canyon was forever changed that night. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the storms had caused a breach in an earthen dam far upstream, unleashing the waters it had held back for ranchers’ livestock. The resultant second surge rerouted the course of the stream, bypassing Navajo Falls, a popular spot for cliff jumping. The village center was spared, but the surrounding homes were not as fortunate. Many were damaged beyond repair, and others lost livestock vital to survival in the remote Arizona canyon. The trail out of the canyon was washed out and impassable.