Thursday, June 14, 2012

Your Relationship to Risk

Welcome, Guest Blogger, Michael Pardy*



Your Relationship to Risk


A common definition of risk is the potential for harm or loss.  Loss or harm can be physical (E.g. illness or injury); social (E.g. embarrassment or even ostrasization); financial (E.g. damage to equipment or property); even psychological (E.g. stress, anxiety, psychosis).  As implied in this definition, most of us think of risk as a negative consequence.  Certainly law makers and enforcers spend a great deal of time and money trying to keep us safe from the potential negative risks of daily living.  Mandatory seat belts, bicycle helmets, and health inspections of restaurants are three obvious examples.  This view is particularly useful when the risks are assumed involuntarily, for example, manufacturing standards for cars or trains.  In recreation, however, risk is often assumed voluntarily, and as a result, we need another definition when we talk about recreational risk.  

It is also useful to think of risk as the potential for rewards.  Rewards can be physical (E.g. fitness and relaxation); social (E.g. friendship); financial (E.g. money); even psychological (E.g. stress reduction, confidence).  Indeed in conversation after conversation with kayakers, most cite the potential for rewards as the reason for their ongoing participation in the sport.  In other words, most of us paddle, not in spite of the potential for harm, but because of some tangible benefit. 

A quick survey of some of my paddling friends highlights some common benefits including:
  • Physical challenges and fitness
  • Exploration of the natural world
  • Social interactions with other paddlers

It is worth taking a few minutes to think about what motivates you continue paddling.  These motivations are a guide to the kind of trips and people you should be paddling with. 

In the context of low, medium, and high consequence decision making, the consequences can be negative and positive.  Positive consequences include self confidence, a feeling of accomplishment, meeting personal and professional goals, and making new discoveries.[1]  Defined this way, risk exists along a continuum defined by loss and reward.  How do we reconcile these seemingly opposed visions? 

At the level of the individual, I think the answer rests with a concept call the “Dangerous Edge”, a concept originally articulated by Michael Apter,[2] and modified for this article. The Dangerous Edge exists at the boundary between excitement and anxiety, relaxation and boredom.  Recreation is voluntary; we choose to participate, often seeking the rewards of excitement and/or relaxation.  On trip, and indeed, throughout our lives, we are looking to optimize our level of arousal (in the clinical sense!).  If we are over stimulated, we can easily cross the Dangerous Edge from excitement (reward) to anxiety (loss).  Conversely, if we are under stimulated, we also cross the Dangerous Edge from relaxation (reward) to boredom (loss).  Viewed this way, we modify our exposure to risk according to our needs, seeking an optimally level of arousal that balances rewards and losses.[3] 

This model of risk implies that we actually need some risk in our lives, and recreation is one important source.  When setting goals and laying out expectations for wilderness travel, it is important to understand
  • What end of the continuum you are moving toward (relaxation or excitement); and,
  • Where your Dangerous Edge lies. 

Risk and Kayaking

Kayak touring is a very safe sport.  Canadian and US coast guard statistics, and studies by the American Canoe Association (ACA) support this statement.[4]  By safe we mean, that in comparison to other water based activities, kayak touring has fewer and less severe accidents.  There are at least three important factors that contribute to our collective safety:
  • Kayakers wear PFDs
  • Kayakers don’t drink and paddle
  • Kayakers are male and female, and over the age of 25

As a community, we have embraced the importance of safety.[5]  We wear our PFD’s, avoid alcohol on the water, buy our immersion gear, and practice our rescue skills. [6]  There is no doubt this has contributed to the high level of safety our community has achieved.  This is not to say that kayak touring has no risks. Reviews of incidents and accidents from community publications, safety reviews, SAR personnel, and anecdotal reports highlight some common patterns that have contributed significantly to incidents and accidents.
  • Lack of local knowledge (especially about local hazards). E.g. currents around headlands or gap winds. 
  • Travel into areas of higher risk without increasing safety. E.g. traveling around headlands or through surf without tightening group communication, reviewing safety protocols or donning safety equipment.
  • Many, if not most, incidents happen in or around the campsite. E.g. strains or breaks because of stumbles on logs or rocks or burns and small wounds from the kitchen.
  • The most dangerous part of a trip is driving to and from the launch site.
  • Intragroup conflict

Obviously, we should continue with our rescue practices and training with our rescue equipment.  In addition, we should learn from the hard lessons of others.  It is easy to feel safe inside a dry suit with a high float PFD, flares, and a VHF radio strapped to our body.  The reality is, though, that this equipment doesn’t keep us out of trouble.  Proper planning, local knowledge, communication, leadership, and good judgement (based on thoughtful reflection of previous experiences) do.  Peer groups planning trips should not only review basic skills and check and practice with safety equipment but also ensure these other, less tangible skills and resources are in place. 

In the messy reality of an incident this planning and practice will prove invaluable. 

One simple model that I use divides decisions into three groups based on their potential consequences. 
  1. Low consequence;
  2. Medium consequence; and,
  3. High consequence.
I use these groupings to set priorities in planning and to anticipate potential sources of conflict during the trip.  Many of the medium and high consequence decisions can be anticipated during the planning of a trip.  Some of these decisions can be made during this phase of planning. Others will have to wait for the trip, but at least the group can have an initial discussion. In some cases, especially for high consequence decisions, it may be worthwhile laying out strategies for making these decisions in advance.  In fact, the bulk of this article is about strategies for making decisions about fundamental structures, which fall within the medium and high consequence groupings.
Low Consequence Problems
The vast majority of problems that groups face have very little potential for harm or reward.  The choice between pasta and rice for dinner is an example of a low consequence problem.  Other examples include many of the daily problems we face as paddlers, often giving them little time or thought, which is entirely appropriate because of their limited consequences.  If group members experience conflict over LCDs, it is often symptomatic of deeper and more important conflicts. 
Medium Consequence Problems
Other problems have the potential to affect the safety and enjoyment of the group.  The potential consequences of this level of problem solving may not be immediately evident.  For example, the problem of deciding whether or not to wear immersion clothing can have moderately serious consequences in the event of a capsize. 
High Consequence Problems
The decision to travel around a large headland or paddle in strong winds, on the other hand, has a high potential consequence both for harm and reward.  These types of decision are definitely worth thinking about. 

Rational Model(s)
When it comes to solving problems, it helps to have some tools to hand.  Most of us have been exposed to some version of the analytical problem solving model where we are told that problems can be broken down into 5 (at least) discrete stages:
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Gather information about the problem
  3. Process the information
  4. Act
  5. Reflect
This model works well if you have lots of time to make a decision, away from environmental (wind, rain, cold, heat, swell, current, surf)  and social stresses (relationships, gender, age), and other distractions.

The reality is that we do not often go through this kind of detailed process to make (m)any decisions in our lives.  I will leave the question of whether or not this is a good thing to others.  Instead, I will highlight the fact that despite seeming irrationality, we often manage to make good decisions.[7]  We rely on other problem solving tools such as heuristics and categorical frames to guide us in complex situations. 

Heuristics simply refers to the use of short cuts (common sense rules) in decision-making.  Its main advantage is that we can rely on it for quick, satisfactory and sufficient answers. Unfortunately, heuristics also have pitfalls.  We can overlook critical information, or simply have no previous experience from which to draw answers.  The snap decision is often good enough, but not always.

For example, my dog will run after a ball, whether or not I actually throw one.  He uses the heuristic rule of my arm moving back as if I am throwing a ball to guide his decision to run.  In this case, the heuristic often works but occasionally it does not.  His “common sense” does not always work. 

Another example is crossing an eddy line.  The set of variables necessary to make a detailed and calculated crossing are too complex to gather and process.  Instead, most paddlers rely on a more intuitive approach that restricts the number of variables to some combination of current speed, forward momentum and angle of approach.   This heuristic works well enough in most circumstances.  Micro adjustments in forward momentum and angle of approach can be made as we approach the current. 
Categorical Frames
Ultimately we are able to discern patterns between decisions; this can lead to the development of categorical problem solving, which recognizes that many problems are related and share characteristics and therefore share solutions.  This principle-based model informs much of the risk and safety training in paddle sports.  Categorical statements such as “New paddlers should avoid wind speeds over 15 knots and currents over 3 knots” are examples of categorical frames for problem solving. 

These generalized solutions come from “experts” with large bodies of experience, knowledge, and skills.  These experts know there are exceptions, and offer these categorical solutions as guidelines.  Newer paddlers should be encouraged initially to follow these rules, and as they also gain experience, knowledge, and skill to challenge and test their validity and discover the exceptions for themselves. 

[1] The push and pull of rewards and losses is particularly evident in many of the narratives of exploration and adventure that line many of our bookselves.  Certainly, if folks like Magellan, Terry Fox, and others only considered the potential for loss our lives, our cultures, would be that much poorer. 
[2] Michael Apter The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement
[3] At the societal level, this model of risk as a balancing of loss and reward is best articulated by Gerald Wilde in his two books Target Risk and  Target Risk II
[4] ACA Boating Safety Report, Conversations
[5] Many outsiders actually joke about the intense devotion to safety of many sea kayakers; this devotion, it is argued, is out of proportion to the real risks, and as a result borders or obsessive. 
[6] The five ‘T’s” are present in most accidents, in urban or wilderness environments: tequila, twenties, trailer, testosterone, tattoo, toothless.  Dr. Mel Otten(?)
[7] Sometimes called satisficing, these decisions are satisfactory and sufficient to address our needs.  

* Michael is the past president of the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of BC. He is also a Lead Guide, Guide Trainer, and Examiner with the SKGABC. He is a Senior Instructor Trainer with Paddle Canada. Guiding and instructing paddlesports for over 24 years, Michael also has extensive retail and business experience in paddle sports. He coauthored the 2002 Handbook of Sea Kayak Safety and Rescue, published by Ragged Mountain Press. When is not kayaking, Michael teaches at Royal Roads University.

Green River, UT

Green River, UT
Photo: Shawna Franklin