The questions asked in this research project are related to mechanisms behind risk-taking behaviour. More specifically, we aim to analyse how (i) positional preferences (i.e., utility based on social comparisons) linked to social identity, (ii) incidental affect and (iii) the trend in the level of risk affect individuals' perception of, and exposure to, risk. In particular, these questions will be applied to a context of risky behaviour in avalanche terrain. To answer our research questions, we will develop new theory and test our derived hypotheses empirically.
The main challenges to achieve our goals are to: 1) identify and rank social identity, 2) create a valid measure of risk-taking behaviour, and 3) to compile a sufficiently large and representative dataset of backcountry recreationists.
The cross-disciplinary composition of our research group, with expertise in snow science, economics, psychology and geography, along with our location in Tromsø, Norway, and Bozeman, Montana, USA, and our access to a large global dataset on backcountry ski tours, provides us with a unique capacity to face these challenges and reach our goals.
The knowledge produced by the research proposed is valuable for policy makers in a number of settings. If risk-taking behaviour is linked to positional preferences and social identity, this implies that the level of risk-taking behaviour is inefficiently high and that the effectiveness of policy may be improved if targeted at certain groups rather than individuals. If incidental moods or trend in the level of risk affect risky decisions, then policy that target rational decision-makers may not work as planned. Our special application on risk-taking behaviour in avalanche terrain will produce knowledge that can be directly applied to avalanche education and forecasts services.
Both private individuals and public agencies make large investments to improve the safety of our daily lives. In spite of these investments, serious accidents continue to occur with a relatively high frequency. In many cases, the accidents appear unnecessary, caused by reckless behavior. It appears as if people voluntarily expose themselves to the risk of injury, and even death.
In our project, we take a closer look at the puzzle of why people expose themselves to seemingly unnecessary risk. Our focus is on backcountry skiers. Backcountry skiers expose themselves to the risk of being caught by an avalanche every time they enter into avalanche terrain. The consequences of being caught in an avalanche are potentially fatal. Yet, the number of backcountry recreationists has increased dramatically over the past decades. In our research, we want to know why backcountry skiers voluntarily expose themselves to the risk of a premature death.
We build on previous research that 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. In our project, we will analyze how our need to gain acceptance and respect affects our willingness to expose ourselves to risk. We will further test if our capacity to make good judgments in the face of hazard is affected by incidental moods, such as happiness and “stoke”. Finally, we will investigate if the risk of an avalanche is perceived to be lower if the avalanche danger falls from level 3 to level 2, than if it increases from level 1 to level 2. We will also analyze how the trend in avalanche danger affects behavior.
We hope that our results will increase the likelihood that more people get home alive from the mountains, but also that the knowledge produced will reduce the number of accidents caused by excessive risk taking in general.