Institute of Expert Witnesses

Providing specialist advice and support in accident cases

The Institute of Expert Witnesses offers professional impartial and independent advice and provides qualified expert opinions to support the legal process of resolving cases of accidents and injury.

Heuristic Traps In Adventure Tourism

In this blog our Chairman looks at HEURISTRIC TRAPS IN ADVENTURE TOURISM. There has recently been a focus and comments made on heuristic traps, which are many fold that we as human can fall into. Much of the commenting in principle is agreed and it is generally accepted in the sector that the main four trap areas (there are others that link back to the main four that readers my wish to ponder on) identified that are applicable to adventure tourism situations are:

Social proof
Instructor Halo (Expert) 

“I have done that / been there before or done that activity many times before so I don’t need to think about any associated hazards/risks that lesser mortals might need to consider.” The familiarity heuristic is possibly the most powerful because it is simple and frees our mind of complex time consuming decision making processes again and again.  It allows us to arrive at usually the same conclusion without much thought for what may have changed!

“I am committed to the tsk, so I’m going to do it regardless.” The commitment heuristic is slightly more complex and could be considered as time bound; our decision making process can become flawed due to the constraints that we as mountaineers may have placed upon ourselves.  One can think of many examples as one progresses through a mountaineering career for example trying to tick off quality mountaineering days for a log book and maybe  commit to the summit or route without making an objective assessment of the weather, time and ground conditions, especially in winter conditions.

This heuristic is our tendency to believe that our decisions are correct because there is evidence that other people are engaged in the same activity – possibly on the same mountain/ river or route that we are intending to undertake.  This a powerful heuristic that provokes our sense of completion and pride and the notion that if somebody else is there it must be safe for our party. Obviously, competency plays a vital role and only to assume (to our detriment) we have the technical competence , experience and capability of the others who we may not know personally compared to our own group’s attributes, which we may have greatly over estimated.

“that person who knows what they’re doing so I don’t need to think about any possible hazards.” This heuristic trap involves an assumption that someone else is making appropriate safety decisions.  This sometimes, Blind faith assumption may be based on that person’s experience (perceived or actual), qualifications or personality.


The psychology and behavioural science behind this considers that individuals may tend to use mental short cuts (linked to heuristics) in everyday decision making. This tend to work through the laws of average most of the time but shine brightly when the conditions for an accident to occur presents itself and can potentially be put down to a fatal errors in the decision making process (see the IEW The Safe System blogs). As instructors, leaders or recreational adventurers we should aim to plan for any foreseeable eventuality and also look inwardly to the decisions we make whether venturing into the adventurous environment, professionally or even on recreation.

An article signed by our Chairman, William Duncan MacKay IFMGA, ISIA & FRGS.

For any questions regarding Safe Systems or if you need expert witness advice on a case in the Adventure Tourism industry, please do not hesitate to contact our Expert Witnesses on 0117 986 2194 or at

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