The White Heat Project is a cross-disciplinary 4-year research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The research team consists of researchers in behavioral economics, psychology, snow science, geography and political science.
White Heat aims to identify factors that motivate backcountry riders to expose themselves to excessive risk, and to analyze how cognitive biases affect decision making in avalanche terrain. We hope that our findings can be used to reduce the number of avalanche incidents, but also that the results will increase the understanding of decision-making under uncertainty in risky environments other than avalanche terrain.
Our research framework builds on previous research, which show that human behavior rarely matches that Homo Economicus, who rationally weighs benefits to costs. Rather, we are social and emotional beings, and in spite of our relatively large brain, we sometimes lack the capacity to make good decisions.
White heat has three overarching research questions:
Does our need to be an accepted and respected member of a social group (i.e., backcountry riders) affect our willingness to expose ourselves to risk?
How does incidental moods and arousal, such as “stoke” affect risk perception and risk tolerance?
Does trends in, and the relative level of hazard, affect our perception of the hazard?
Thus far, we have analyzed motivating factors behind decisions in the backcountry among Norwegian and American skiers. Our results suggest that choices in avalanche terrain are affected by both rational and irrational factors. On the rational side, we find that backcountry travel skills, attitudes to and perception of risk affect preferences for terrain. Our results further suggest that individuals with formal avalanche training are less willing to ski relatively risky terrain. This is reassuring!
However, we also find that the presence of a more experienced skier reduces perceived risk, even when this presence adds no new information about actual risk, and that individuals who look up to people who ski steep or exposed terrain, are more willing to ski down risky runs.
In our American sample, we find that about a third of the sample experience a reduction in wellbeing if other riders ski more challenging terrain than they do, and an increase in wellbeing if they ski more challenging terrain than others do. These individuals are more likely to post pictures of bold lines on social media, more likely to talk to friends about bold lines, and more likely to perceive that riding steep terrain is associated with social respect, than are individuals who do are not affected by other riders skiing activities. Most importantly, our results suggest that positional riders are more likely to accept to ski potentially risky terrain, regardless of their level of avalanche training.