Blink; you're in an avalanche!

Malcolm Gladwell was in Zürich last week, talking about his book Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking at a Swiss independent research institute (GDI).

With my mind wandering al over the place as usual, I drew a comparison between his examples of (often critical) decision making and the methods being used to asses the risk of avalanches. The goal there is to decide: do I go on this tour or not? If yes, which route should I ski/ Board to keep the residual risk to an acceptable level?

Very important is the balance between the scientific theory of determining the risk and the human factors influencing both the risk itself and the decision making process! This is where Malcolm's theory becomes relevant: to what extent does our subconscious interfere with the outcome of our theoretical analysis? Or, can it be the other way around? (You 'feel' it's not safe but the reduction method says the risk is acceptable.)

It seems that this is actually taken into account in the standard risk reduction method developed by Werner Munter in Europe. His work is the standard for determining avalanche risk and he has developed the '3x3 risk reduction method' that is being used all over the world.

Notes from a Backcountry Avalanche Workshop on

"Munter's Reduction method is based on the idea that there are two modes of thinking: Scientific or "left" brained; rational, conscious thought, slow, differentiating, based on scientific details and Operational or "right brained"; Quick, responsive, intuitive, gut-feeling, based on past experiences and able to recognise patterns; and the acceptance that we will need to use both modalities in our decision making processes in order to make better decisions.

Studies have shown; in order to make better decisions, the maximum of variables we can deal with is only 3-5, these variables should have no more than 3-5 different values. More information than this quickly leads to overload and does not increase the quality of the decision. It is better to have one basic approach, less details are better."

Malcolm gave an example of situations where decisions based on a limited set of variables significantly increased the success rate: Doctors distinguishing patients who were having heart attacks from patients who weren't using only 4 indicators.

The standard reference book for Avalanche theory by Werner Munter (in German) is: Drei mal drei (3x3) Lawinen. Entscheiden in kritischen Situationen.

A partial English translation can be found in Powderguide by Tobias Kurzeder and others.

The research data that the book is based on is kept at the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research Davos (SLF).

Some quick reference sheets from the SLF:

- Caution - Avalanches!

- Avalanches. Danger!