Risk Assessment and the Self-Serving Bias
In our article “How do accidents really happen?” we explored how external factors can play into your decision making process. The next important step in understanding risk assessment further is to examine other internal factors that tend to lead to problems on the river. One of the key psychological factors in this regard is known as the Self-Serving or Attribution Bias. This bias plays an important role in how you internally conceive of and deal with risk.
The Self-Serving Bias
"The self-serving bias is people's tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors." –Alice Boyes, Ph.D.
Internal attribution associated with a Positive event typically looks like this: You ran a large rapid with no carnage because you are a great boater!
External attribution associated with a Negative event typically looks like this: You ran a large rapid and flipped. Your friend broke her arm. Clearly the water was too high and the boat was not properly inflated.
Lessons From Backcountry Skiing
There are some great analogies in the world of backcountry skiing that parallel similar factors in rafting. Avalanche researchers Dale Atkins and Ian McCammon point out several factors including the expert halo and familiarity which have historically played a role in avalanche accidents. These factors have clear intersections with the world of rafting. Finally, much like backcountry skiing equipment, rafting gear has experienced a massive leap forward in the last 20 years. This technological advance has also had profound psychological effect on people’s state of mind on the water. It is important to take careful note of how these ideas have played out and if they may be affecting your judgement when you boat.
The expert halo – This psychological concept tends to manifest especially badly in private boating circles. This mental trap is a belief that you are safe when you are boating with someone you perceive as an expert. An experienced local boater may seem like they are safe to boat with when in reality they may have little to no experience with the river you are on. The expert halo is a cleverly concealed trick of perception. The expert halo is in part an appeal to probability logical fallacy. The fallacy is that because this person has run many rivers without incident they must be a good guide. In reality the person may be just statistically lucky. In an America Outdoors article found that the accident rate on river trips is slightly less than 1 per every 1000 trips. This means a guide can boat 5 days a week for 6 months out of the year for nearly 9 years before they are likely to become injured whitewater rafting. The overall forgiving nature of our sport tends to create a long-term confirmation of the positive attribution bias.
Familiarity – Another important factor in understanding internal factors that play into the attribution bias is familiarity with the rivers you run. As we become more comfortable with a stretch of river we tend to let our guard down. You may unconsciously end up downplaying the risks in a certain rapid because you are very familiar with it. My first season as a guide I watched a woman nearly flush drown in a tiny hole that I watched nearly a thousand people swim through that summer without incident. Everyone on the trip had an implicit bias that the hole was not a threat and our familiarity with it only served to reinforce that bias.
Equipment advances – Modern whitewater rafting equipment comes in many forms with new boat designs, sizes, and materials, along with dry suits, better PFDs, etc. Gone are the days of the one size fits all 14’ bucket boat and this has lead the way to equipment that allows you a larger margin of error than in the past. The downside to the forgiving nature of modern equipment is that it can cause us to overestimate our abilities. This clearly plays into our positive attribution bias, however the real question that we must ask is: Are you truly in control or is the river or were you saved by forgiving equipment?
Addressing The Self-Serving Bias
There is an old adage on the river that comes in many forms, but it carries the general theme that you are never in control when you are boating only the river is in control. Yet there are many things that you can do as an athlete to gain control of your situation and surroundings. Thus important question to ask yourself is: What can you do as a boater to gain control over your situation out on the water?
External risk mitigation techniques are a critical skill, but many of those strategies tend to address external factors. An athlete's greatest strength comes from their mind's ability to overcome their internal struggles in the moment. The key to the best athlete's extreme mental fortitude is having the tools to gain control over their mental and emotional state. Here are some tips for avoiding the self-serving attribution bias:
- Practice high levels of internal situational awareness. By understanding how your biases affect your mental state and recognizing that your bias is altering your judgment, you can self-correct your behavior before it becomes a problem.
- Allow yourself to experience compassion toward yourself. When you experience your bias playing out, especially in a negative context there is a strong reaction to not place blame upon yourself.
- Self-compassion is an extremely useful skill for reducing defensiveness and increasing your self-improvement motivation.
- Rumination causes people to think about the causes of problems over and over again, without moving forward. You can use these types of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for reducing rumination.
Being able to identify and have the tools in place to address how the self-serving bias affects you on the water can allow you to take a massive leap forward in your boating ability. More importantly than being aware of the bias is your ability to accurately see how strongly and in which ways the bias may be working on your psychology.