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Decisions, Decisions – Unpicking the Puzzle...

Multi-day trips with your teenage daughter and pooch present unique planning challenges! Lily (camera shy), Millie and myself camped by the side of the Sound of Arisaig after an 'exciting' crossing.

Here at Tirio we’re constantly evolving our Packrafting Education Program. Our on going commitment to packrafting education has led us to focus our research on Decision Making and examining how it impacts on packrafting and our community. These essays will examine ‘how we think’ and how it can help us on our adventures. Their purpose isn’t to be prescriptive, but to stimulate self-reflection. The articles are based on our on-going research as part of the development of our latest professional Thesis with the University of Central Lancashire’s Elite Performance Program. We hope that the concepts we share, will contribute to the packrafting ‘community of practice’.

In our previous essay we proposed that to be a competent packrafter we need to possess many skills, not just the ability to paddle well. We also highlighted that the required skills are many and complex, and will take countless hours of training and practice – often in varied environments – to allow us to gain expertise in each. This begs the question, “What do we do while we’re on that journey to becoming competent?” Well, we suggest that good decision-making underpins all skill and, as such, will help us to develop our competence without opening ourselves up to needless risk. In this essay we will examine some of the ‘routes’ our minds typically adopt to make decisions, how, sometimes, these ‘routes’ can lead us the wrong way and, more importantly, how we can relate this to our packrafting.

A Performance Model.

To begin, we’d like to adopt a model that is often used to illustrate the factors that effect psycho-motor skill performance (1) in sport and in particular one that is regularly used for paddle-sport’s coaching (in the UK at least). I’ve modified it to consider ‘decision-making performance’. This could be called a “meta-model”, as it is thinking about our thinking…

We can use this model to consider four factors that influence our ability to make skilful decisions (tactical, technical, physical, and psychological) It is, however, only a model and shouldn’t be seen as ‘true’ in a literal sense – our brain is far, far more complex. But, it can be utilised to give us a good starting point to consider how we can make better decisions. It is worth bearing in mind that these factors shouldn’t be seen in isolation, as we will see they impact on each other and should, therefore be treated as part of a holistic approach.

The Boxer - Technical Considerations.

“All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” - The Boxer. Paul Simon (2)

This ‘Technical’ aspect is predominantly focussed on our Knowledge and Understanding of what decision-making is. In many ways it is the Knowing what you Know and Knowing what you Don’t Know* in relation to how we decide.

In modern history, psychology has shone a light on our understanding of how our minds make decisions and has suggested various ways to help us understand the ‘routes’ the mind takes to decide on a course of action.

Many of the early suggestions focussed on ‘rational’ methods of decision making – these suggested that people follow a process of weighing up pros and cons and thinking about what to do in a logical way. Researchers quickly realised that this isn’t necessarily true, and offered methods that showed people are more instinctive in how they decide to act (3, 4). What modern attitudes agree on is that there is actually a blending of the two ideas (5).

Current theories of how the mind works, illustrate that our thinking has evolved to help us survive exceptionally well in a complex and often dangerous world (3, 6). This development allows us to be able to make rapid decisions when required – often making us respond before we’re even aware. Think of those, lightning fast decisions we make when we’re running that rapid. And yet, our mind can also be rational; capable of detailed and constructed thought allowing us to tackle complex and difficult situations, like anticipating the challenges we might face on a multi-day trip (7).

Something else science has taught us about our minds, is that they are prone to taking the easiest and fastest option to get to a decision (3, 5). Concentrating and holding conscious thoughts is hard work – it takes real effort – and so often our minds opt for the simpler and more intuitive route to decide. What is more, the rational part of the brain often just ‘accepts’ the intuitive decision and applies its effort to selecting evidence to back up the choice – convincing us that we made the right call (3, 5). With this in mind, it becomes apparent that to develop our ‘decision-making’ skills, we need to understand the influences that can bias our decision-making performance.

Psychological Factors.

As we mentioned in our previous essay, there are many Psychological Biases that can impact on how we act – they just are something all humans have. Exceptionally varied and complex, they can stem from cultural, religious, political or personal beliefs or from the influences of media, training, groups or friends. Some of them are just in built into our minds. Because they distort our understanding and judgement, they will obviously affect our decisions. To list and explain all of the mental biases that exist would make for a long and boring read! (If you’re interested then here’s a starting point to find just how many there are!) Suffice to say, that actively reflecting on how and why we made a decision and trying to be aware of any biases that are present can increase our Self-Awareness and as such reduce the chance of the same bias applying in future. We’ll talk more about this “Reflective Practice” in our next essay.

* See our previous essay – What Makes a Competent Packrafter?

Mental Short Cuts…

These inherent traits mean our minds are prone to intuitively giving a rapid solution to a problem and then rationally finding evidence to say it was the right thing to do (3, 5). Which, with a little thought, I’m sure we can agree isn’t always going to give us the best outcomes. In many instances the Intuitive mind uses Heuristics (8, 9) these are mental “rules of thumb” or shortcuts that we use to make rapid decisions. Heuristics are often influenced by habits that we have formed over time. There are many different types of Heuristic and they are used to great effect, as they’re really good at freeing up mental capacity in situations that we are familiar with. Although used continually and often successfully in everyday life, in complex and riskier environments Heuristics sometimes can lead us into dangerous situations.

Heuristic Traps.

“Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength.” David Henry Thoreau, Walden (10).

In the early 00’s Ian McCammon (9) noticed that despite good information on avalanche risks in some backcountry ski areas, there were still experienced skiers getting avalanched and killed. He set out to understand why they chose to ski in areas that were high risk. His research led him to focus on the decision making of the groups and he quickly realised that they were using everyday heuristics to make their choices. Whilst useful in day to day life, they were totally unsuitable for the backcountry environment. He identified Six Heuristic Traps (11), all can be transferred to packrafting.

Here are the Six traps explained with paddling examples, see if you can relate to having experienced or witnessed any:

Familiarity (or Availability) Heuristic. Our perceived familiarity with: a way of doing things, a place or a situation can lead us to base decisions on what we assume will be the case. “I’ve always done it this way!” is a sure-fire way of getting caught out. Especially in a complex and dynamic environment (3).

Example: Let’s consider one of the fundamental rules of river running, “Never run a rapid blind”. We know that all rivers change constantly, debris and hazards can be found where last time there were none. And yet, how many times do we see folks doing the opposite, they’ve been here before, they know the run and they just ‘send it’.

Another version of this Heuristic is when we choose only to pay attention to the information that is readily available. We tend to think things will be like they are when we make the decision not when the decision will count.

Example: It’s a very warm day in May on the west coast of Scotland and so an individual decides not to wear their dry-suit. With some additional thought, they would realise the fact that the water is extremely cold and a swim could easily lead to Cold Water Shock or Hypothermia.

Consistency Heuristic. This occurs when, due to the commitment a person has placed in a decision they have made and their ‘need’ to see it through. We see this often when a decision starts to go awry and yet people just carry on regardless, leading to more and more bad decisions. This often creeps into decisions where we’ve chosen a location that turns out to be less than ideal.

Example: Let’s imagine a group have planned to make a crossing of a large body of open water from their island camp, on day four of their journey. Despite, less than favourable conditions, they decide to go for it. Half-way across, the fetch is getting bigger and the rafts are starting to swamp and yet, having come this far, they elect to go on…

Another, type of consistency heuristic is the need to maintain a ‘consistent self-image’; if someone perceives themselves to be ‘hardcore’ we will tend to have to play that role out in a situation. This can be driven by a need to identify with lifestyle trends such as those driven by manufacturers and other influencers or it can be defined by the image people try to portray of themselves, such as through social media posts.

Acceptance Heuristic. People will take more risks if they want to be accepted by a group. McCammon studied the effects of mixed gender groups, however, it’s not just limited to trying to impress, this can equally apply to social acceptance in a group or the wider community.

Example: Often, a new group member will feel as if they should just go along with things, even if they’re unsure about it, as they may not want to challenge the group’s decisions.

The Expert Halo Heuristic. This heuristic assumes that due to someone’s apparent status we are inclined to just accept that they know best causing ‘blind’ following. Interestingly, the status isn’t one that the person necessarily generates themselves, but it is one that others may appoint to the person. The ‘status’ can be due to a given role – such as a guide or leader on a trip, or just that the person looks or acts like they know best. This could even be the case when our perception of the person comes from social media.

Example: We haven’t run this drop before; whilst inspecting it a kayaker, who’s eating lunch nearby, points out that the left-hand line is way easier, he’s wearing top quality gear and has top spec boat. He must know his stuff… Right?

It can also, work in the reverse – leading us to ignore someone who doesn’t fit our perceptions as being knowledgeable or experienced. For example, dismissing the person who has less expensive gear, is older or who may not match the stereotypical image of what constitutes ‘expert’ or ‘knowledgeable’.

Social Facilitation Heuristic. This is based around the individual’s need to be perceived in a positive way by onlookers. They will go the extra mile and take risks to gain that social acceptance. This can be particularly evident in some people’s desire to get that shot or video for social media.

Example: The next rapid is pretty hardcore and would make a great video. So, the group combines the role of the safety person with taking pictures. This emphasis means that the ‘safety’ is holding the camera and videoing the run, rather than being correctly positioned to make an effective rescue.

Scarcity Heuristic. Perceiving something as ‘scarce’ can lead us to over value it. This often plays a part when we’re planning for a journey when time is a factor, or where we may not have chance to do the trip again for a while.

Example: You and your friends have driven for hundreds of miles on your one week off work to run this river. When you arrive at the put in you see that the river is in spate flow – far from ideal; if this was the local river you’d give it a miss. But it’s the only chance you’ll get to do this river for months and you’ve driven so far, so you decide to run it anyway.

Mitigating Against Heuristics.

One of the best ways to avoid Heuristics is to simply be aware of them, although this is easier said than done. We can also, use simple decision models to act as a checklist when time allows, examples of these are CLAP (Communication, Line of Sight, Avoidance, Position of Most Usefulness) and STVE (Self, Team, Victim, Equipment). Other ways to minimise their effects are to get an alternate view of a situation; one of my favourites the “pre-mortem” is an exercise in getting group members to imagine where things can go wrong and why. These mental models act as prompts to help our rational brain to think critically about what we are doing (12). I’m going to focus on these and some other Tactics in the next essay.

Physical (Physiological) Factors.

There are a number of physical factors that can have a significant negative impact on our performance both physical and mental unless they are looked after carefully. Let’s consider what I believe are the Big Four

Sleep. A lack of or poor sleep can have huge effects on our ability to concentrate, remember and, of particular importance, take in new information (13). If we’re operating in a dynamic environment and we cannot pay attention to or take in the environmental information (such as weather, sea state, river features, etc.) we will be operating at a significant disadvantage. Sleep is a declining commodity in the developed world and often people see the need for sleep as a ‘weakness’ (Want to know more? Here’s a great video!).

On multi-day trips I often find that clients and course candidates don’t pay enough attention to ensuring they get a good night’s sleep. In particular, they see the weight of sleeping kit to be significant factor and so they often skimp on it. Opting for lighter weight gear that isn’t as warm or comfortable. I’ve learnt over the years that a few more grams to secure a good kip are well worth the additional effort. Another common problem is pushing on too late on a journey and not leaving sufficient time to establish a good camp and being forced to eat late. Both of these will often find people getting a bad night’s sleep leaving their physical and mental performance impaired the next day (14).

Food and Hydration. When teaching Backcountry First Aid I define the Brain as a ‘Goldilocks Organ’. By this I mean that the Brain likes to be “Just Right!”, especially when if comes to sugar levels and hydration. Low energy levels (Glucose) and dehydration (Hydration) both degrade mental performance and contribute to poor decision-making (15, 16), the onset can be subtle and often we don’t realise we’re low on food or water until it becomes significant and our decision-making is already impaired. This needs thought in the planning phase to ensure that suitable food is carried to allow grazing throughout activity and nutritious meals with sufficient calories are available.

For water I generally rely on a mini filter that I carry on my person. I will regularly stop and drink straight from the river or lake throughout the day. One tactic to allow for this is to reduce mileage targets to allow time to eat and drink as you need.

Temperature. Temperature is another one of the ‘Goldilocks Organ’s’ needs. Heat or cold stress significantly impairs mental function and in particular impedes our ability to focus and concentrate on tasks (Temp Stress). Making the Rational brain’s job of reasoning our decisions much, much harder (17). Whilst excess heat will definitely impair mental function, I’m going to focus on being cold because here in the UK it’s not normally too hot! Its not uncommon to spend long periods damp and cold when Packrafting in the UK. Especially, if we elect not to wear a drysuit. Paddle drips, rain and wind all add up and over a few hours on the trail or water our brain will drift outside of its goldilocks zone and become too cold. Again, this change can be insidious, often by the time we realise that we’re getting really cold we’re already making bad decisions and it’s much harder to warm up. Getting caught out by weather whilst on the water is another sure-fire way to get cold. A trick borrowed from the sea-kayaking community is to carry a waterproof jacket a couple of sizes too large. Have it to hand in your boat. If the weather changes or you start feeling cold you can just pop it on over your Buoyancy Aid.

Being cold, further compromises food stops – as a break from the exercise of paddling, hiking or biking means we will cool down more – and so our reluctance to stop can lead us to take on board fewer calories. Having the right fuels available and the means to stay warm while we stop, such as additional warm layers, group shelter, etc. are essential.

Finally, whilst talking about cold we must consider capsizing and the physiological effect on the body (See above), failing to plan appropriately for this eventuality can be fatal. Disappointingly, we regularly see Social Media pictures of people packrafting without buoyancy aids or paddling in insufficient gear. These images contribute to the Availability heuristic and may gain validity through the Expert Halo.

Other Physiological Factors that impact our decision-making are underlying health conditions, for example: diabetes or mental health problems. In addition our levels of fitness also play a major part in ensuring we able to make effective decisions.

Going Forward and Tactics.

We would suggest that decision-making is the foundation upon which we can develop all the other skills that are essential to become a competent packrafter. By being able to make effective decisions we can ensure we progress our learning and gain the necessary experience without putting ourselves in undue danger. Without accurate reflection we tend to make decisions using intuition and subsequently rationalise evidence to support the decision we have intuitively made. These short cuts, or heuristics, while useful in everyday life can often lead us into traps in the outdoor environment. Understanding the Technical aspects of how we make decisions and the Psychological and Physical factors that influence them will give us greater insight and make us more able to develop Tactical tools to prevent us. These decision-making tactics and tools will be the focus of our next essay. Stay Tuned!


Co-Founder of Tirio



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2. From “The Boxer”, written by Paul Simon.

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