Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Risk Homeostasis, ABS packs, and Subjective Perception

It's been a while since I've written anything, but don't worry its not because I've taken on a new sedentary lifestyle.  In fact, its just the opposite, the skiing is good, the ice is thick, and the partners are many.

As the sun rises and the snow heats up for another Wasatch wet cycle I reflect on comments that I've been hearing, seeing, and doing.  Bruce Tremper, Avalanche forecaster here in SLC has an excellent blog about the effectiveness of ballon packs.  I've added it for you here.


As always please support your local avalanche forecast center, because they are the ones that help us stay alive day after day.  I really only want to talk about one thing bruce mentions, and then throw in some life philosophy to go along with it.  My thoughts are in regard to 1.) Risk Homeostasis and 2.) Subjective perception.

First off, Risk Homeostasis is basically when we have a technical device that increase our safety, we then increase our risk.  Therefore negating some or all of the increased safety.  Each individual has some level of acceptable risk and trends to unconsciously push to this level.  With the addition of increase safety, the individual will then push the limit of risk farther, because more safety exists.  Thus the cycle continues.  For more on the details check out this paper here:


In skiing, climbing, kayaking, driving, flying, eating unhealthy foods, (the list goes on) we can apply this theory.  Lets start with skiing.

Example 1, we just had a big dump of 20 inches of new Wasatch pow and we are trying to get to a safe slope, but first we must cross a small 38 degree chute.  Practicing safe travel techniques, my partner waits in the safe zone, I bite down on my Avalung and skin out onto the slope.  Stop right here.  So you must then ask yourself, did I skin onto the slope because it was the safe decision? or was it because of the perceived additional safety associated with being able to breath through my Avalung?

Example 2,  two different days I pull up to the second half of the bob sled trail (a high speed downhill mountain bike trial filled with fun features and easy outs).  One day I pull up on my Intense 6.6 with a full face helmet, long pants, and body armor.  The other day I pull up on my Epic Carbon race bike in full spandex.  How do you think my behavior will change as I charge down the trail?  Does the big travel bike with big tires, helmet and armor provide additional safety?  Yes But since things are more safe I double my speed, and take the car jump, the big double and the 12 foot drop at the end: effectively increasing my risk dramatically.  So the question is did I increase the risk at an equal rate of increased safety?  Thereby maintaining a perceived median of risk?

I think in both cases we have to deal with actual risk, perceived risk, and actual and perceived safety increases.  How often are actual risk and perceived risk equal (Ra=Rp, where Ra= Actual Risk and Rp= Perceived Risk)  Additionally how often does actual safety the same as perceived safety (Sa=Sp, Where Sa=actual safety and Sp=perceived safety).  In Tremper's example we see that advertising causes a huge confusion on actual increases in safety.  In the case of the ABS pack, the increase in safety is big, (possibly about 1/2 more saved that would have died).  But its not nearly as big as what we see from the numbers (i.e. airbags are 97% effective)  Its actually at MOST about a 8% increase in safety.  So then does Ra=Rp if we base our ideas on what we hear from the advertisers?  Not at all, in fact the advertisers would lead me to believe that my safety has increased by 97%.  In actual its increase by about 8%. My Perceived safety is now almost 10 times greater than my actual safety(Sa).  Stated another way: Perceived risk is about 10 times lower than actual risk.


As you can see, Applying Risk Homeostasis theory here actually causes us to push the perceived acceptable risk line 10 times farther than we would have previously without the additional safety. (This is just a basic example, and many important factors are being left out, but the point still applies.)

One other important note is that everyone's perceived risk (Rp) is different based on there personality type, experience, age, and knowledge in the particular area.  An Alabaman snowshoeing in the backcountry for the first time may have no idea what actual risks (Ra) they are taking on and perceived little to no risk (Rp)  Ra>Rp.

So how do we deal with Risk Homeostasis in our outdoor environments?  Well, the answer is not to leave all your safety gear behind.  But the idea MAY be to trick your mind into thinking you left all your safety gear behind.  Or maybe better yet when you are making safety related decisions to cognitively realize your natural Perceived risk and try to accurately align it with your Actual risk (Rp=Ra).  It would be helpful to ask yourself questions like:

1.) how would I deal with this slope without my avalung (insert airbag, helmet, body armor).

2.) How much increase in safety does this item really provide?

3.) What would Tremper do? (funny I know)

4.) Ask your trusted partners what their opinion is without pressuring them.

5.) My favorite, What would your significant other say, or if your wrong, what would you be giving up?

We (meaning me) need to realize that our perceived risk often doesn't actually equal actual risk (Rp not equal to Ra) and that our perceived safety isn't usually equal to actual safety (Sp not equal to Sa).  For most of us interested in this blog it likely means Ra>Rp and Sa
Human Application:  This leads to more personal realization of subjective perceptions.  All of us look at the world through a slightly different filter based on lots of things.  But the point being, its different.  And my filter isn't better than your filter, and yours isn't better than that over weight lazy guy next to you at the office.  C.S. Lewis would puts it nicely in a paper named Meditations in a Tool shed. (get it here for free  http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~ivcfgf/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/C-S-Lewis-meditation-in-a-toolshed.pdf )  As Lewis describes the Tool shed he talks about a beam of light entering through a crack.  Depending on how you view the beam of light depends of the perception you receive.  Such is our experience in life.

If our perception is subjective, our judgement will also be subjective.

I think this applies in everything we do.  I see the lemming suited snowboarder coming off the back side of the canyons stealing my line.  I judge him from my simple, limited perception of who he is.  But what if its Drew Hardesty on a split Board trying out some free digs?  (This isn't based on a real experience) Then would my perception change of him?  What about that crazy polygamist down the street? Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to judge.  I'm not judging you, by the way, only myself.  Your ideas may seem totally crazy to me, but maybe its my crazy perception.

In closing, lets do our best to objectively judge not only the risk associated with our current adventure, but also our friends, family, and other people we experience throughout life.

An addition interesting reference about risk in life is worth a read here: