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Cultural Bias in Risk Management


By Jason D. Martin

Jason Martin climbs to the top of Mt. Rogers in southwestern Virginia. Jason Martin nears the summit of Mt. Rogers. Photo by Jim Mediatore.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings teach us about biases that society has programmed into us. The trainings are meant to help us understand these biases in order to overcome them. But unfortunately, wilderness risk management training seldom takes this kind of bias into account.

When bias is discussed in wilderness risk management, it is explored from the perspective of decision-making. Heuristics are the processes from which we make decisions by using mental shortcuts that are influenced by an individual’s unconscious – and sometimes conscious – biases. When these biases influence us to make a potentially dangerous decision, this is referred to as a heuristic trap.

The research indicates that there are several heuristic traps that can impact decision-making in outdoor adventure


Familiarity Bias

This is where we develop a deep level of comfort in a given area. We know the area well. We’ve recreated in the area a lot. In the back of our minds, we believe it’s unlikely anything bad will happen there.

For backcountry skiers in our area, this is Bagley Basin. For rock climbers, this might be Mt. Erie.

Consistency Bias

Sometimes, after an initial decision has been made, it’s easier to stick with that decision than it is to make an error correction. For example, descending onto a potential avalanche slope where taking off skis and hiking uphill will be much harder than going down. It’s always easier to stay committed, even if it can be the more dangerous decision.

Social Acceptance Bias

When we engage in activities that we think will get us noticed by those we like and respect, we are leaning into a social acceptance bias. The mountain biker might do a jump that’s too technical in order to be noticed by his friends. The climber might go a little too far without adequate protection. In each case, a person may be doing this to be seen, liked and accepted by their group.

The Expert Halo

Sometimes there’s a formal or informal expert in the group. In some cases, the person earned this role as an expert; but in other cases the person is just more assertive. Regardless, if a group perceives a person as an expert, they may not speak up when something appears dangerous. They assume the expert will mitigate the hazard.

Social Facilitation

Sometimes people engage in risky behavior in a group that they wouldn’t engage in alone, because there are people around them. The need to impress is strong, and group dynamics can often degrade common sense.

Scarcity Bias

When a resource is scarce (e.g. powder for skiers), people will engage in risky behavior to be “first.” In some cases, basic safety protocols are not addressed.

Non-Event Feedback Loops

Sometimes people say that they’ve always done something a certain way, and since there’s never been a problem, they believe that what they’re doing is safe. Unfortunately, when this is pointed out, some are unwilling to change. This can be particularly true with men and people in leadership positions.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

When an individual has a little bit of knowledge, they can occasionally conflate that with expertise. This is particularly true when the individual is the only person that has had some training in a particular type of adventure outdoor recreation.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can easily be combined with an unearned expert halo, creating a heuristic trap that could impact a group as negatively as a landmine.

Cultural Bias in Outdoor Adventure Risk Management

Cultural biases are a combination of conscious and unconscious biases that we learn throughout our lives. These are biases that we’re intentionally and unintentionally taught through our upbringing, our education, our media choices and through the communities that we exist within. These are the biases that are more commonly explored in traditional diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Though there has never been a definitive study, anecdotally there is strong evidence that cultural biases – especially unconscious biases – may enhance heuristic traps in outdoor recreation.

Following is an abbreviated list of potential cultural biases:

  • Racial Bias - bias for or against a person due to their racial makeup or the color of their skin.
  • Gender Bias – bias for or against a person due to their gender.
  • Socioeconomic Bias – bias for or against a person due to their real or perceived socioeconomic status.
  • Agism Bias – bias for or against a person due to their age.
  • Weight Bias – bias for or against a person due to their weight or physical fitness.
  • Disability Bias – bias against those who are differently abled. This bias may include mental health or addiction.
  • Heteronormative Bias – bias for those who fit into heteronormative stereotypes and against LGBTQ+ people.
  • Religious or Political Bias – bias for or against a person due to their religion and/or politics.

Each of these may be viewed on a spectrum. For example, one might have a deeper racial bias against a person of color with darker skin than a person of color with lighter skin.

So that brings us back to heuristic traps and cultural bias. Imagine a situation where a group of skiers is trying to decide whether or not to ski a slope given the potential avalanche hazard in the area.

One common refrain in the backcountry ski world is, “everyone has a veto.” In other words, if someone feels uncomfortable, they can call the trip and the team will turn around. But if there are unknown cultural biases stacked on top of classic wilderness risk management biases, it may make the decision to turn back much harder.

Imagine a group that includes six men and one woman. Without knowing anything else about the group dynamics or their interpersonal relationships, how likely is it that all of the men will immediately respect a veto if it comes from the woman, if she feels uneasy in the setting? What if it’s an LGBTQ+ person? A young person? A person who struggled with their fitness? And what if the person checks more than one box, if there’s intersectionality? In addition to that, we must ask if one of these people would even speak up given the cultural dynamics of their identity?

Though every classic wilderness bias listed here has some cultural bias within it, the social acceptance bias, the expert halo and the Dunning-Kruger effect are much more deeply affected by cultural bias than the others.

Those who have a perceived lower cultural status may wish for acceptance by the group by making risky decisions or tolerating a higher level of risk than they would normally be comfortable with. Conversely, a well-intentioned person may push an individual to do something dangerous to help that person change their perceived status in the group.

It is no secret that our culture has an unconscious (and often conscious) bias toward older, white, cisgender, heterosexual males. This allows them to fall into both the expert halo realm where others perceive that they have a higher skill level than others – whether earned or not – as well as into the Dunning-Kruger realm, where they think that they have a higher skill level than they actually have.

So What Can We Do About This?

There’s some evidence that affinity programs (programs specifically for women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, etc.) decrease learned cultural biases in a group. Some people certainly feel safer speaking up about potential hazard in affinity groups.

It is important to note that affinity does not completely eliminate cultural bias as a potential heuristic trap. Many people are intersectional and live in multiple spaces where there’s bias. Affinity cannot erase all of these potential cultural biases.

Smaller groups where people know one another well are always better at making decisions in outdoor adventure recreation. The longer people know one another, and the more they recreate together, the less likely they are to lean on cultural bias when making risk management decisions.

When it comes to smaller groups of people who don’t know one another well, or larger facilitated groups, it is imperative that people understand all the common biases that lead us into heuristic traps. Noting these biases exist and creating a culture where everyone really does have a veto, can increase the margin of error in outdoor adventure risk management decision-making. X