Social Science Problems for Snow Science Research

by Russell E. Costa

“Oddities explain it — oddities of terrain and oddities of psychology, although oddities of psychology aren’t usually as odd as they first seem. What is really odd is how the terrain and the psychology came together in odd ways.” -Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Upon personal reflection, it seemed that two decades worth of books, classes, and on-snow training had outfitted me with a wealth of information about physical factors — snow, slopes, weather, and so on — that contribute to avalanche;, yet I had received relatively little explicit training about the psychological, social, and behavioral factors that contribute to avalanche accidents. Earlier this fall I discussed this problem in a talk about avalanches, decision making, and education at the International Snow Science Workshop in Breckenridge, Colorado (ISSW 2016). The talk was based, in part, on work I conducted this past summer with the help of Jadie Adams and with support from the Institute for Mountain Research at Westminster College. We examined leading popular avalanche safety books and found the literature to be consistent with my experience: Almost 90% of the content of these books was devoted to physical “snow science” factors, while only about 8% was devoted to human ones (roughly 4% was devoted to “mixed” physical-psychological content, including routefinding and rescue techniques). While this work was preliminary, and based on one of the few sources of data available to us in the Utah summer, it spawned interesting dialogue at and after ISSW with members of the avalanche community, and motivated future on-snow projects this winter. A major goal is to build stronger interdisciplinary research collaborations between snow scientists and human scientists — psychologists, cognitive scientists, and decision scientists — to improve knowledge, theory, and practice in the spaces where humans interact with mountains and snow. Similar interdisciplinary approaches to solving human factors problems have led to an increased understanding of risk taking behavior in financial decision making, and to improved safety in aviation, medicine, and other areas. We face two challenges: how to best conduct research on human factors in this domain and how to best educate and train winter backcountry travelers to minimize the likelihood of such accidents.

The emphasis on physical, as opposed to psychological, mental, or behavioral, factors to explain phenomena is not new, nor is it limited to the avalanche domain. In an essay concerning science and myth, British engineer turned theoretical biologist John Maynard Smith quipped:

If, before going into battle, a man sharpens his spear and undergoes ritual purification (or, for that matter, goes to mass and cleans his rifle), he may regard the two procedures as equally efficacious. Indeed, they may well be so, one in preparing the spear and the other himself. If we regard the former as more scientific, it is only because we understand metallurgy better than psychology.

Modeling human psychology and behavior is difficult, in part due to the complexity and variability of human thought and behavior, and the myriad factors that influence it all. Decision making behavior varies from person to person, and from situation to situation and moment to moment even within the same individual. Befogging the problem more is the fact that backcountry decisions are often made in groups, which themselves vary dramatically in their dynamics. The complex intersection of expertise, leadership, skill, confidence, familiarity, emotion, fatigue, altitude, intragroup dynamics, and many other human factors make it tempting to instead turn our lens to snowpack or terrain, even though, as long-time avalanche professional Dale Atkins noted, “The literature and basic research shows avalanche accidents are not a terrain, weather, or snowpack problem; avalanche accidents are a human problem.” The surge in popularity of back- and side-country skiing over the past decade has been paralleled by an increase in public advisories, courses, workshops, books, safety equipment, and other information that is more readily available to the public and to professionals than ever before. Amongst expert winter backcountry travelers, knowledge of the snowpack has nearly asymptoted. Increases in safety, especially amongst experts, will be largely attained not by knowing more about the snowpack’s crystals or layers, but by learning to make better decisions with that information.

The author, ascending the Lavender Couloir on Mt. Sneffels. San Juan Mountains, Colorado. ph: Bob Lee

The challenges of studying human behavior in the backcountry extend beyond just modeling it; observing decision making in real-time, in the wild environments in which it occurs is necessary, yet problematic for researchers. While several informative archival analyses of past accidents have been published, these are indirect measures of decision making behavior at best. While these studies are a strong first step, work that is closer — in time and place — to the actual behavior being studied is desirable. Surveys and questionnaires could be administered at trailheads or other venues before or after ski tours, but my own experiences confirm that self-reports of decision making patterns deviate from actual decisions made on a mountainside. Experienced backcountry skiers will typically respond to such questionnaires in accordance with how they have been trained or taught to make optimal decisions, but not how they might actually make them. There is a split between knowledge/theory and practice in many domains, including wilderness recreation. Trained social scientists are well aware of such response biases, including the social desirability bias, and must account for them as they apply their research paradigms to studying decision making in the mountains. Another research approach could involve researchers observing decision making firsthand, in the mountains, where and when it occurs. This approach, too, has setbacks. First, it would require researchers to interact with touring parties in the mountains, disrupting the independence and solitude that many backcountry skiers seek. Secondarily, researchers in the human sciences — from anthropology to neuroscience — are concerned with reactivity, or the tendency for individuals to change their behavior if they know they are being observed. The presence of a researcher in the backcountry would almost surely change the decision making processes under study, and it doesn’t seem possible, pragmatically or ethically, for researchers to observe avalanche safety decisions covertly. Larger ethical concerns are also present. For example, if researchers observe an individual or party making an unsafe decision, do they intervene? Given that levels of acceptable risk vary from individual to individual, party to party, and even day to day, constructing such a decision line for such intervention would impossible, but not doing so would seem morally problematic.

An avalanche without an avalanche accident (likely a natural release from the day before). Big Cottonwood Canyon, Wasatch Mountains, Utah. ph: R.E. Costa

There is no perfect research method in the sciences, physical or social. A better scientific understanding of complex decision behavior in complex mountain environments will require a plurality of methods that converge on the phenomena, an overall research strategy sometimes referred to as triangulation (or methodological triangulation) by social scientists. Such a program would entail a mix of qualitative and quantitative research, and a combination of observational, self-report, archival, and perhaps even laboratory studies. Finally, it will require collaboration between snow scientists and human scientists, each bringing their domain-specific knowledge and research expertise to the field.

Patrick Ward, taking a quick peak at a seasonally complex late spring snowpack. Never Summer Mountains, Colorado. ph: R.E. Costa
Ward, approaching Nokhu Crags. Never Summer Mountains, Colorado. ph: R.E. Costa

Influential laboratory-based and theoretical models of judgment and decision making under uncertainty by Daniel Kahneman and others have suggested that normal behavior deviates from rational behavior in many important ways (such that rational is often actually abnormal). Common research approaches in this domain will observe actual human judgment and decision making in a particular experimental or real world scenario, and contrast that observed behavior with the optimal manner in which the individual ought to have behaved. Even the best research approaches to understanding backcountry decision making will provide us only with a descriptive model of how individuals and groups actually behave in the unique environment, and all indications suggest this behavior will depart from the ideal, or perhaps safest alternative. A well respected avalanche forecaster once told me, with some resignation, “we can provide people with the best information available through our advisories — in the newspaper, over the radio, on the internet — but we can’t make them use it.” The challenge then extends beyond “just” the human and snow sciences, which may be able to shed light on how terrain and psychology come together in backcountry avalanche decision making. But education and communication also have important roles to play if we are to progress beyond just understanding behavior, and also aim to change it.

Russ Costa is an Associate Professor of Honors & Neuroscience at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. In additional to teaching a highly interdisciplinary slate of classes, Dr. Costa guides undergraduate-driven research projects on cognitive and theoretical models of attention and perception, as well as on risk taking and decision making in the wild. He is an avid backcountry skier and ski mountaineer in his spare time.