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A most interesting article on risk and judgement

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I found this on the rec.boats.paddle newsgroup. Although it's about whitewater, it pertains to all risky sports.


Whitewater roulette

Assessing danger is an essential skill in chancy sports like whitewater kayaking. The problem is we're lousy at it. Or so say the research guys in the white lab coats.

By Charles Duhigg, Times Staff Writer [email AT: charles.duhigg@latimes.com]

Photos and video at:


The paddlers scout the waterfall, their kayaks as bright as bits of candy against the Sierra Nevada's sculpted gray granite. Behind them, water blasts into the mountain air through a misshapen rock spout, then hammers down on the rock ledge below. But Seth Warren's eyes are on Phil Boyer's hands.

Boyer, 35, is a two-time whitewater rafting world champion. Warren's home is a van he drives across the nation on behalf of a sports clothing company. They speak in the soft patois of surfers, earn less money than many fast-food workers, can finish a jug of cheap wine in less than 20 minutes and kayak nearly every day. Their lives are the envy of river aficionados worldwide.

Today they stand over "the teacups," a largely vertical stretch of the Kern River, because, when it comes to running rapids and assessing risks, they are sure they're among the nation's best. They also know the river could kill them anyway.

Approach from the left, then charge hard to the right, Boyer says, mapping out the run with hands that have become rock, water and kayak.

Warren, 26, watches and listens intently. To a point.

"Don't overexplain the rapid to me," he finally cautions. "I won't be able to run it."

Random fatalities

Warren and his companions know a kayaker broke both his arms here two years ago. Boaters die in similar waterfalls every year. In 2000, the last year for which complete statistics were collected by American Whitewater, a river-sports advocacy group, at least 47 paddlers drowned nationwide. Some perished because of inexperience or lack of safety equipment, but many of the deaths conform to no pattern.

In one case two kayakers successfully cleared a 6-foot waterfall and slid through a rock-infested landing zone, according to incident reports. The third kayaker, however, slightly misguided his boat and ran it into a rock. Water pressure pushed the craft against a boulder, flipping it over and plunging his head underwater. The impact was so great that it collapsed the top of his craft, clamping his leg and preventing escape. It took four men using tools to eventually remove the dead body from the kayak.

In another instance, a kayaker easily surmounted a waterfall in North Carolina amid rain, sleet and high winds. Fifty yards downstream, a small ledge in the riverbed created a "hole" — a depression in the river's bottom where water dangerously recirculates, as if in a washing machine. The six other kayakers accompanying the paddler approached the hole only seconds behind him and saw his helmet flash in the backwash. He recirculated for four minutes, each cycle holding him under for 20 seconds, allowing him to surface briefly, then pulling him under again. Then he popped out of the hole and floated serenely, already dead. None of the others even brushed danger.

Each year almost as many people die on calm, moderately challenging rapids as on large, expert-only waterfalls.

Warren and his companions believe they know how to identify and avoid risks. And to a degree, they are right. But much of their confidence is an illusion. While humans are exceptionally good at identifying risks, we're notoriously fallible at estimating the likelihood that a risk will materialize.

In kayaking, hazards lie beneath the water's surface and risks are unpredictable. If one of these kayakers dies, it will likely have far less to do with his abilities than with the fact that we humans are, at our core, awful risk assessors.

Risk aversion

"I have a plan for every stroke before I even get wet," Warren says as his bright orange boat glides through the first teacup, paddles flashing like the blades of a windmill.

As he and Boyer approach the drop — an 8-foot tube of water that angles at 45 degrees — they are confronted with a choice. To the left of the lip, water falls calmly but a small rock juts out, a slight though obvious hazard. To the right, the water churns viciously. There may be dangers underneath, but they are hidden from sight.

As they analyze the options, the human weaknesses that plague decision making emerge.

The mistake Warren is about to commit was discovered decades ago in a series of experiments. In one of the first social science laboratories, professors in white coats recruited human lab rats and presented them with two alternatives: a traditional insurance plan, in which the premium is $100 and all stolen belongings are replaced, or a new type of insurance in which subjects pay only a $45 premium, but if their belongings go missing the insurance company will flip a coin. If it comes up heads they'll pay the claim, but tails pays nothing.

From a rational perspective, the $45 choice is superior: Subjects received 50% coverage for only 45% of the premium. But subjects overwhelmingly chose the $100 insurance policy. Why? Because most humans instinctively seek to eliminate risk rather than merely reduce it.

Warren's natural instinct, like that of people choosing between insurance plans, is to eliminate the river's risk. But this desire is so strong that the slightest of cues can encourage the perception that risk has been removed.

As Warren and Boyer paddle forward they begin subconsciously classifying obstacles as either risky or safe. Their natural instinct is to choose the path that seems completely riskless, rather than the avenue that contains small, potentially risky obstacles that can be avoided.

The greatest hazards in whitewater kayaking are unseen. A decade ago Boyer surmounted a waterfall when his boat suddenly stopped, the bow pinned beneath an underwater log. His boat slid farther under the log until the wood pushed against his body, forcing him underwater and preventing his escape. All he saw were white bubbles, then green light as his head dropped below the surface.

Suddenly a current caught the back of the boat and pulled it free. If not for the chance surge, he would have died. From the surface, the log was invisible.

On the teacup, the turbulent water to the right might hide anything. But the instinct to eliminate risk, rather than tolerate a reduced hazard, pushes them toward the frothing portion of the fall.

"I couldn't tell what was going on to the right, but I assumed it was safer," Boyer says later.

Both kayaks twist slightly as they enter the waterfall, the boats rocking as the underwater hydraulics push and pull. Then they shoot into the air and plop into the next pool. There have been no underwater obstacles. After a brief delay, both men successfully surmount the second waterfall, riding the water as it sprays over a rock protruding like a giant's brow, and pause in the cold water beneath.


Warren and Boyer paddle to the lip of the next waterfall and look at each other.

"Do you remember looking at this drop?" Boyer asks.

"Uhh, no," Warren replies.

If they could step onto the rocky bank, they would see an 11-foot fall, the rushing water filtering the light like sea glass and making the rocks underneath pale and wavy. But from their kayaks, all they can see is a thin line where the drop begins, and the horizon. They stood above this fall only 10 minutes ago, trying to memorize all six drops. Now their memories are blank.

"Well, I guess that means it's OK," Boyer says hopefully, and he paddles to the edge.

Certainty is an integral part of kayaking. "You have to be 100% confident," Boyer explained earlier. Every kayaker feels a little bit of fear on the water — that's part of the excitement. "But if you start thinking about the mistakes you can make, you'll make them."

But confidence can be dangerous. After the white-coated experimenters learned about humans' instinct to eliminate risk, they began to ask why. One answer is overconfidence — a compensatory instinct that pops up when humans crave control but are confronted by random chance.

Boyer's confidence in his abilities may be so high because he has so little control over the river's dangers. In a series of experiments, professors tested how people respond to random events: Subjects were shown reports on 12 stocks and asked to predict the stock market's future, and to rate their confidence in their predictions. Researchers found that if the average stock buyer is asked to predict, say, the price of Wal-Mart's stock over one year, most will admit ignorance. But when confronted with a new high-flying Internet offering and lots of meaningless tables and charts, many will make predictions with unwarranted confidence.

For his part, Boyer seems as confident as the granite as he teeters atop the fall and smoothly drops over.

"No problem!" he shouts up to Warren, who follows him over the edge.

The big fall

As they approach the big waterfall, Warren doesn't think about the warnings Boyer mentioned earlier. Instead he focuses on not focusing and dips his paddle deep into the rushing water.

Psychology supports Warren's instinct. Eventually researchers began wondering: If everyone is prone to overconfidence, why do some people consistently make the right call?

The answer, they discovered, may have to do with which part of Warren's brain is doing the heavy lifting. The prime goal of decision making is to move thought from the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, where deliberate, conscious decisions are made, to the posterior neocortex and amygdala, where thought processes are more automatic. Athletes refer to it as being "in the zone"; psychologists call it "flow."

As he approaches the big fall, Warren scans the water almost lazily, paddling into the waterfall's spray and twisting his body as the kayak goes over the drop. He lands softly. "I tried not to think too much," he shouts up as explanation.

Warren and Boyer know they paddle better when they are in "the zone." But as their thinking becomes less deliberate, it falls prey to a psychological weakness: the subconscious perception of patterns where none exist. They believe that previous successful runs prove they are ready for these dangerous rapids. But the truth is that their previous successes may inspire them to believe in patterns that blind them to dangers that can quickly emerge.

The teacup falls are similar to rows of horizontal and vertical lights laboratory geeks used in the 1950s to discover what happens when different parts of the brain try to predict the future. Subjects were shown the lights and asked to predict which row would light up. They were told the lightings would be random.

In spite of this knowledge, subjects of the study were incapable of choosing randomly. Rather, they were influenced by whether their previous prediction had been correct. If so, there was up to a 72% chance that they would make the same guess. Even when subjects were offered financial rewards if they chose randomly, they were unable to do it. Subconsciously, subjects saw patterns where none existed and were influenced by a cause-and-effect relationship that wasn't real. The same instinct enriches casinos every day.

As they think about kayaking, Warren and Boyer perceive patterns. "I've run a thousand falls," Warren says, "and they've gotten me ready for these ones."

Warren is right. Years of practice have prepared him to confront bigger and more deadly risks — as long as those risks increase incrementally. But if the risks suddenly become exponentially more deadly, his instinct to rely on patterns may expose him to danger, says Baruch Fischoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

As a river rises from 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 2,000 cfs, it may become marginally more risky. But the same river may be significantly more deadly as soon as it hits 2,500 cfs. To someone seeking out patterns, it appears the flow has only increased incrementally. Skeptics know that the risk has surmounted a tipping point and is now exponentially more dangerous.

Boyer and Warren both have an instinct to base future predictions on patterns, and they are both experienced kayakers. But they have never run these waterfalls before.

"People typically imagine they are more in control then they really are," says Fischoff.

Boyer concentrates as he approaches the big fall. Others have warned him to push his boat high onto the rock wall and use it to slide over the turbulent flow. He focuses on the granite walls, hardly looking at the water around him, and paddles toward the incline.

His boat tips over the fall, rides up the rock and stalls, the bow almost out of the water. The river whips the stern around. Boyer twists hard to compensate, but by then the kayak is jutting over the drop, teetering. It pushes over the edge and falls, rotating clockwise through the air as it builds speed, then smacks into a ledge, bouncing and beginning to flip. Boyer loses control. The kayak corkscrews. His head barely missing the rock, he plummets over the falls upside down and lands that way in the water.

A vicious twist propels his body upright.

"I missed it!" he screams.

He runs his hand up his neck, making sure he is uninjured.

Moments later, the men pause in the chain's final pool.

"Should we do it again?" Boyer asks as they pull their kayaks onto stone.

"Sure," Warren says. He looks up, scanning the immutable rock and ever-changing water. "These falls are a no-brainer," he says. The men start climbing.

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Guest guest

Interesting article, but I don’t buy any of it…just because someone is paid to write an article doesn’t mean it’s factual. ( Mike Barnacle and others know how to fabricate and dupe readers for years).

The ability to perform well in fast moving, difficult situations comes from repeated periods of exposure to these situations. One persons risky situation is a snooze to the more skilled, so risk itself may not be real. Repeated exposure to tough fast problems develops instincts for what you will do, how you will react. You can’t know what you’ll do till you’re immersed in the problem, but you have the experience to be confident in your instincts “to know you can do it.” You can look at a problem and “know” its too much for me, or I don’t know exactly what I’ll do but I “know” I can do it.

One of the unique things in the sea kayak culture is the belief that most dangers have a prescribed answer that can be memorized way before the paddler ever comes in contact with the situation. There is much less of this in whitewater.

Could they write a similar story using a sea kayak situation that club members can relate to. Why is it that whitewater is though to be the place to find stories for armchair discussions about paddling risk and they pick a situation that only 1% of all paddlers even have the nerve to try.

Remember that 90% of all canoe and kayak deaths (ACA reports) are over weight middle aged men in cotton clothes who have fallen out of a canoe in a cold pond with a fishing rod in hand and no pfd.

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The point of the article was to show how people assess risk and where our ability to do so accurately breaks down. They happened to use whitewater paddling as the vehicle to demonstrate their points, but it could just as easily been sea kayaking, climbing, mountain biking or one of myriad other activities that involve risk assessment, including the fishermen you elude to. No one is picking on whitewater specifically, but the case in question certainly seems to provide several good examples.

Notice that the author did address your point about skill. It definitely helps a person deal with unexpected situations when they occur. However, the situation in the article occurred due to poor risk assessment and reliance on flawed memory. The paddler dealt with it using the skills he had learned, but it seems pretty evident that the outcome could easily have been tragic. To then turn around and proclaim that the falls were a "no brainer" says worlds about the distored view of risk we may have. Survival doesn't imply a lack of risk or an abundance of skill. Dumb luck plays a big part.

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Risk assessment is one of my favorite topics. I've dug out some interesting articles on this over the years. A few gems:

People consistently over-estimate the danger of very low probability hazards (tornados, nuclear power, exotic cancers).

People consistently under-estimate the danger of relatively high probability hazards (heart disease, traffic accidents).

People also consistently over-estimate the danger of hazards over which they have no personal control (weather, environmental) and under-estimate the danger of hazards where they have some control (sports, diet).

All this adds up to a very unrealistic picture of what is likely to injure us. It skews liability laws, insurance premiums, personal activities, and makes for bad off-season arguments between folks who are otherwise friends in sports-related web-based-clubs.

It is very hard to get expert opinions on this. Even your doctor can't properly advise you on the medical risks...they know the direct medical issues, but just aren't trained to put it in perspective (some club doctors wanna argue with me on this?). Next time your doctor tells you to do something to reduce your risk, ask her/him to compare the risk to something you know about (how many cigarretes, how many miles driven without a seat belt).

Brian's article DID do a good job of pointing out the optimism involved in under-rating a high risk activity, where the risk is all discretionary...exactly the sort of thing where people are shown to consistently under-rate the risks. It is very hard to be totally rational, to not indulge in "wishful-thinking", to not "go for it" after you've climbed that hill with the boat. Good article. (And the Kern is a nasty river...I've hiked past long stretches of it, and would never imagine getting in it in any kind of boat).

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it's enlightenment but ....I give up

The Kern was use last summer for the World Cup Wildwater Championships. It's been the site for many US National's many that I competed in.

100's from the whitewater paddling countries came and race the class IV and V sections.




June 22, 2003-- Kernville, CA -- It's hard to imagine a more perfect wildwater course than Limestone. This section includes two stout drops including the intimidating Limestone rapid that has messed up more than one persons day, and Joe's Diner were a wrong line means big stern hits. Otherwise it's continuous chop, minimal flats and a road along side for scouting, splits and for clocking athletes at over 25mph! This course is what wildwater racing is all about. It's adrenaline packed, all action, and huge fun.

World Cup number 5 is a classic or long race starting about 5 minutes upstream of the crux rapid called Limestone and finishing about 10 minutes downstream at Willow Point. With solid whitewater almost the entire way, those paddlers with excellent whitewater skills and the power to drive through the chop would dominate the day.

However, the line through Limestone rapid was tight and a surprising number of elite athletes were spinning out during practice. If the same were to happen in the race it would surely dash hopes of a solid finish.

Not surprisingly, Vladi Panato (ITA) handily won the C1 competition over Stephan Stiefenhoefer (GER) and Stephane Santamaria (FRA). His power and grace through Limestone was awe inspiring for all those that witnessed it. Top ranked American Tom Wier finished 11th leading the the remainder of the pack.

The big upset in the K1-W competition was when top ranked French paddler Magalie Thiebaut severely damaged her boat forcing her to pull over and dump out the water in order to finish the event. At the top of the womens competition familiar names duked it out.

Italy's Vladi Panato is the 2003 World Cup Champion--did we expect anything less? Photo ©2003 Mike Edmonson.

Michala Strnadova (CZE) took top honors over Sabine Eichenberger (SUI) and Nathalie Leclerc (FRA). The top ranked American paddler was Alena Sumner in 11th.

Perennial favorites Vala and Slucik were victorious on the Kern. Photo ©2003 Mike Edmonson. In C2 multiple World Champions Vala/Slucik (SVK) won again over Fahlbusch/Fahlbusch (GER) and Raus/Pecek (CRO). The weight and momentum generated by these C2's really helped them flatten out the tough Limestone rapid. Bailey/Bailey placed 5th as the top ranked USA boat.

Czech powerhouse Kamil Mruzek not only won the K1 event. He also crushed the competition, winning by over 10 seconds which is a huge margin at this level.

He left Florian Wohlers (GER) and Charles Chalet (FRA) wondering where that 10 seconds had vanished. Chris Hipgrave was the top-placed American again in 18th place just in front of Middy Tilghman (19) and Eric Giddens (20).

World Cup 6 is a sprint race through Limestone. A sprint race involves two runs through the same course. Times are added together to determine the winner. Consistency and speed and mandatory requirements for a good finish. The sprint course was short at about 2 minutes, with Limestone slap in the middle.

Organizers did a great job picking the start and finish lines to ensure paddlers would be entering Limestone right when the lactic was kicking in.

Magalie Theibaut proved that consistency was queen in her victory over Michala Strdnova of the Czech Republic. Strdnova won the overall World Cup rankings, however. Photo ©2003 Mike Edmonson.

And it sure caused some entertainment for the crowded banks of spectators. In C1 the top ranked Tomislav Hohnjec flipped and swam, while Stephan Santamaria (FRA) also struggled and had to improvise his exit out of the rapid. Italy completed a sweep in C1 with Vladi Panato wrapping up with another victory over Harold Marzolf (FRA) and Stephan Stiefenhoefer (GER). Tom Wier (USA) remained consistently smooth to place 10th as the fastest American paddler.

Carlo Mercati strokes to the finish. Photo ©2003 Mike Edmonson. After a devastating classic run the day before, Magalie Theibaut (FRA) added to her frustration by swimming in practice, but bounced pack to win the Sprint race over fellow French teammates Nathalie Leclerc and Nathalie Gastineau for a complete French sweep of medals. The unbeatable Michala Strnadova (CZE) ended up swimming in her second sprint much to the amazement of all the spectators and competitors. Katharine Edmonson topped the USA charts in 10th.

Vala/Slucik (SVK) wrapped up the World Cups with one more victory over team mates Grega/Sutek (SVK) and Raus/Pecek (CRO). Bailey/Bailey (USA) placed 5th despite a quick spin-out in run two.

With a lot at stake in the K1 event, there was little holding back to be done and it was great to see Carlo Mercati (ITA) winning this event over team mate Robert Pontarollo and Florian Wohlers (GER). Watching Carlo power through Limestone without missing a beat was like poetry in motion. Olympian Eric Giddens (USA) proved himself again placing 14th topping the charts over Simon Beardmore (18), Chris Hipgrave (19), Middy Tilghman (21), Dave Hammond (22) and Austin Krissoff (23)


View the overall results here.

Chris Hipgrave is Tresurer of the U.S. Wildwater Committee and a K-1 Wildwater racer living near Bryson City, NC. Reach him at cxh@compuserve.com.

Copyright 2003 USAWildwater.com

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I deal with risk:benefit ratios a lot at work, determining when more risk is acceptable to gain greater benefit. On thing the scientists and this author ignore is the acceptance of more risk in order to increase the benefit - more fun, more experience and becoming a better paddler (moutaineer, astronaut... ). At the same time, we minimize risk as best we can (take lessons, pratice, listen to forecasts).

Yes, humans are pretty bad at risk assessment (esp. males aged between 3 and 25 years old). But I'll bet for some of us, the best day we had on the water will have involved the phrases, 'did you see the size of that ******* wave?', 'holy cow, that was close', 'that was a big bang, does my stern look low?'...

It's no fun if it's too easy.

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I totally agree, Andrew. Note that I didn't make any judgement calls. I actually agree that a life lived by the actuarial tables would be pretty boring -- and am usually willing to backpack and paddle solo, among other frowned-on activities.

My point was that we should strive to take on risks with open eyes and rational judgement, not that any particular level of risk or risk-avoidance was a good thing. Avoiding wishful thinking is a real good (and very difficult) first step.

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We all have our own level of risk tolerance, which may change from day to day, one situation to the next or simply with age. There's a very close connection between excitement and fear; sometimes it's the latter that creates the former. I'm sure that many of us have the physical and/or psychological scars to prove that our judgement isn't always up to the task, which was the premise of the article.

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