The Human Factor: How it Affects Communication and Decision-Making

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Sarah Carpenter is an owner and lead instructor at the American Avalanche Institute. On her backcountry travels, she takes notice of how the ‘human factor’ affects communications and travel plans, often without us knowing.

What is the Human Factor?

When we talk about the Human Factor, we are referring to how our natural tendencies influence our behavior. As part of this human factor, we also need to talk about risk tolerance, and that we all deal with risk a bit differently.

AAI: The Human Factor and Communication

Defining Your Risk Tolerance

When faced with a new sport or adventure, how do you approach it? As an example, let’s take surfing. Are you the type of person that will rent a surfboard and just paddle out, throwing yourself in and figuring it out as you go? Or, are you more likely to do the research? Study the ocean. Get the right equipment. Take some lessons. Slowly tip-toe into the ocean with small waves.

The same situation above can be applied to backcountry skiing. If you have a higher risk tolerance, you may just head into the backcountry and send it! However, did you make a good decision or did you just get away with it? There are much higher consequences in backcountry terrain if something goes wrong. Therefore, we do not recommend just sending it. So what do you do when learning a new skill?

Heuristic Traps and FACETS

Ian McCammon wrote a great piece, Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications that was published in 2004. In it, he identifies the human factors, things that influence our decisions. He came up with the acronym called FACETS.

F: Familiarity

The more familiar you are with the terrain you are traveling in, you have a tendency to expose yourself to more risk factors. Something that is more familiar to us feels safer. Thoughts might include: I’ve skied this slope dozens of times before, and it has never avalanched.

A: Acceptance

This is the desire to fit in or be liked by the group.  This trap is often seen in mixed-gender groups.  Mixed-gender groups are found to expose themselves to more obvious hazard indicators than single-gender groups.

C: Commitment or consistency

We are more likely to expose ourselves to more hazards and instability if we have made a commitment. The more goal-oriented we are, the more we will put ourselves in harm’s way. Thoughts might include: We’ve come all this way, we can’t turn back now. You’ve committed to friends, you’ve spent hours, and good money to be here in Jackson Hole.

E: Expert halo

Someone in your group with high knowledge or expert skiing ability, or simply the confidence they exude can influence the entire group and dampen all other concerns.  If there is a perceived expert in the group, other group members might not speak up if they have alternative opinions, thinking that the “expert” must know what they’re doing.

T: Tracks/social proof

Previous tracks on a ski slope will give us a false sense of security. Just because other people have skied the same slope, does not mean that the slope is safe.  

S: Scarcity

The race for first tracks can cloud our judgment.  In addition, having a limited resource (fresh powder) will make us take risks we may not normally take.

Reviewing the FACETS is a useful tool to help make better decisions and remove some of the human factors in the backcountry. In addition, we’re written another blog about the FACETS acronym along with another helpful acronym, ALPTRUTH.

The Seven Dragons

The Avalanche Review featured an article in 2019 called Decision Making and in it is a piece by Ken Wiley, a Canadian ski guide. In this piece, Ken refers to a book by Dr. Jose Stevens called Transforming Your Dragons: How to Turn Fear Patterns into Personal Power. In the book, he lays out these seven archetypes that can afflict humans:

  • Arrogance
  • Self-deprecation
  • Impatience
  • Martyrdom
  • Greed
  • Self-destruction
  • Stubbornness

You can have a natural, negative association with all of these words, but having some of these ‘dragons’ could be beneficial. For example, let’s look at Arrogance. This could give you the confidence to speak up in a group. Where it can be a detriment, is if you’re being a jerk and not listening to anyone else.

Impatience could be a benefit in keeping things moving along. However, it could hurt you if it leads to cutting corners. Out of these 7 things, each of us naturally leans towards 1 or 2 of them. In certain contexts, they can be quite positive but taken to the extremes they can be detrimental.

It is worth spending some time understanding which 1-2 archetypes you lean towards.

Choosing the Right Partner

One of the key areas that we also talk about when it comes to the Human Factor is who is your partner and how to choose the right partner. First, what do good partners in the backcountry look like? Second, how do you build those partnerships?

At AAI, we see a good partner as someone we can comfortably communicate with, even in high-stress environments. Someone that listens to what we’re saying, especially our concerns, and is willing to turn back if needed. They consider us when making decisions, instead of just pushing on through.

If I am with a partner that naturally pushes on through, instead of challenging terrain, I will choose to ski low angle, non-committing terrain.

Personal Disaster Flags (PDFs)

During our AAI Courses, one of the things we talk about is what natural tendencies influence our decisions. How can we control them so that we do not get ourselves into trouble?

In order to do this, we need to look at our personal disaster flags or PDFs. Think about near misses, close calls and accidents you’ve had. And not only in backcountry ski touring, but in any adventure sports you like to do.

Once you’ve identified a few, look at the different group dynamics, or human factors that influenced that accident or near-miss. Is there a theme throughout these incidents? Do you tend to expose yourself to more risk when you have a goal in mind? Is that your Achilles heel?

How to Choose a Partner that Balances Out Your Personal Disaster Flags

Knowing your personal disaster flags, and your partner’s personal disaster flags are important. You want a partner that will balance out your Achilles heel. So, if having a goal is your PDF, then the last thing you want is to have all of your partners also be very goal-oriented. Someone willing to expose themselves to more risk to reach that goal will not help you balance the risk equation.

What about if you partnered with a friend that has an Expert Halo? Meaning they have high confidence in their ability and feel they can escape avalanches. However, they are not goal-oriented when they head out into the backcountry. Happy to see where the day takes them. So in this case, they could be a great partner and not be so driven to meet a goal. This is what you want to look for when choosing your backcountry partners.

Build relationships with partners that will be able to look for things that you may not be looking for. A backcountry partner that might catch something that you might miss.

Learn From the Past: Reviewing Avalanche Accidents

Finally, we find it incredibly helpful to review avalanche accidents in order to learn how the human factor may have influenced decision-making. Keep in mind, this is a very difficult process for avalanche forecasters, educators, and snow safety officers. They are not only looking at the data, but also interviewing survivors.

Listen in as Dave Richards, the head of Alta’s Snow Safety Program, Drew Hardesty, forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center and AAI co-owner Sarah Carpenter talk about their own experiences with how the human factor plays a role in avalanche accidents. They also speak about the February 2021 Millcreek Canyon – Wilson Glade Avalanche in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Tune in to Radio West’s latest show, Avalanches and the Human Factor.

You can also purchase the Snowy Torrents, a publication compiled by the American Avalanche Association. In it, you’ll find an in-depth description of all avalanche accidents that occurred between 1996-2004 in the U.S., giving you a chance to learn from the past.


Are you interested in further improving your snow safety knowledge and staying sharp for your next backcountry adventure?

Check out our current in-person or online course offerings:

We are proud supporters of the American Avalanche Association. A3 is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to professional excellence in avalanche safety, education, and research in the United States.

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