Group Think vs. Safety Culture

When I think about how industry in general approaches the analysis of an incident, several specific areas of focus come to mind. We look at the outcome, events, work methods, tools, environmental factors and personnel training. We research standard operating procedures and company safety policies. Prior safety records are analyzed. Additionally, third-party groups can be used for testing and evaluation of equipment.

Near misses happen, and we should share them. You can easily get a triple- action carabiner open with your climbing line in certain configurations. This is an example we should share as a near miss. That carabiner connects the hitch system and pulley as the adjustment for the lanyard. All photos courtesy of the author.

During this process, personnel interviews are conducted throughout the organization or company. All of these factors are used to reverse engineer the incident and come to a fairly analytical conclusion of why the incident happened and what factors might have prevented it.

As an industry, I think we do a fantastic job of analyzing job-site incidents. Over the 25 years I’ve been in the industry, we’ve progressed to a place where greater emphasis is placed on identifying, documenting and planning for workplace hazards prior to the execution of the work plan. We have grown to see a lack of safety awareness and practices as unprofessional rather than a badge of courage. Our current standards are comprehensive and are emphasized at all levels of the professional culture.

A key piece of the puzzle in preventing and analyzing these incidents is understanding group dynamics and psychology. Whether it be an accident at a job site, a recreational tree climb or a tree-climbing competition, group psychology plays a major factor. The following content will argue that this phenomenon could be the main causal factor in many situations.

A look at the backcountry avalanche community

In 2019, at the first Aerial Rescue Challenge, a multidisciplinary training and competition held in odd years in Washington state, Allen Taylor with Conservation Tree shared a fascinating article coming out of the avalanche community. In “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications,” by Ian McCammon (Avalanche News, No. 68, Spring 2004), McCammon explained that he set out to understand how his close friend, Steve, was killed in an avalanche.

Past actions guide our decisions in similar settings. Consider evaluating the safety of climbing a hazard tree. Since no absolute way of knowing the integrity of the tree may be readily available, we go by previous experiences in similar situations.

Steve was a highly respected backcountry skier and avalanche expert. McCammon was close friends with Steve and had spoken to him at length about how their lives had changed and how taking risks no longer seemed attractive or prudent. Some people attributed Steve’s death to foolish decisions; however, McCammon did not accept this explanation.

Climber looking down at climbing gear

McCammon set out to scientifically analyze 715 documented recreational accidents that occurred in the United States from 1972 to 2003. What he found was that only 4% of incidents were actually accidents with no leading indicators. McCammon’s goal was to understand why the indicators of accidents were ignored 96% of the time. The explanation of this pattern brought him into the realm of group psychology.

What I found interesting was the similarity between the backcountry avalanche community and the arboriculture profession. When reading the articles and associated studies (“The Roles of Heuristics, Avalanche Forecast, and Risk Propensity in the Decision Making of Backcountry Skiers,” Leisure Sciences, September 2010, 32(5):453-469 DOI:10.1080/01490400.2010.510967), I was easily able to substitute arboriculture with backcountry sports. The tendencies toward situational extremes and the stimulation both groups get from “extreme-sports”-type scenarios are interchangeable.

Heuristic techniques

This brings us to the main subject of this article. McCammon and the avalanche community learned about heuristics. Heuristic techniques are ways to approach solving a problem using mental shortcuts not expected to be perfect or used to aid in creative thinking. The theory of heuristics was introduced by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Sigmond in the 1950s. It was developed in the ’70s and ’80s by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Kahneman, Daniel; Slovic, Paul; Tversky, Amos, eds, 30 April 1982, “Judgement Under Uncertainty.” Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, doi:10.1017/cbo9780511809477. ISBN 978-0-51218-414-1). Heuristics are mental shortcuts enabling people to solve problems and make decisions quickly and efficiently. These decisions are a rule of thumb, often based on previous experiences, that circumvent the in-depth analytical thinking.

Heuristics are used in everyday decisions because they are fast, unconscious and automatic. Unfortunately, they’re also error prone. Complex decisions, on the other hand, are slow, conscious, effortful and reliable. We use heuristics as mental shortcuts. We use simpler, yet related questions in place of complex and more difficult ones. This is to reduce mental effort for choices and decisions. These decision models are faster and circumvent the outcome-based decision-making modeling.

Example of heuristics in our everyday lives

An example would be the route you take to work every day. Using heuristics, you would base your decision on previous experience. “Main Street is always busy at 7 a.m. and West Street isn’t. I’ll take West Street.” Think of all the data you would have to consider for an outcome-based decision. Time of day, weather, day of the week, season, population, timing and number of traffic signals, mileage, residential vs. commercial travel, public events, scheduled road maintenance, etc. You would need to sit down and scientifically analyze all the data to arrive at the same decision you could reasonably achieve using heuristics.

Using heuristics, you would base your decision on previous experience. “Main Street is always busy at 7 a.m. and West Street isn’t. I’ll take West Street.” TCIA staff graphic.

When thinking about this example, recognize how using heuristics in some situations would not be the optimum approach. The avalanche study showed that in 96% of the incidents heuristics were used, and those decisions may have played a major part in those accidents. One important thing to remember is the study was conducted based on data and “can only establish correlations between victims’ behaviors and the presence of ‘heuristic-trap’ cues.” Decision making can be further complicated because decisions were made in small groups rather than by individuals.


There are 20 heuristics, but we’ll focus on those six of the recreational industry defined as “traps” and how they apply to our industry. The acronym FACETS can be used as a tool to remember them.


Our past actions guide our decisions in similar settings. Similar event, location, group, structure, health, weather, etc. A strong example would be to evaluate the safety of climbing a hazard tree. Since no absolute way of knowing the integrity of the tree may be readily available, we go by previous experiences in similar situations.


Sometimes we tend to engage in activities we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect. In an effort to impress others in the group, you overlook warning signs or fail to identify them. An example of this could be wanting to get into the tree quickly on a recreational climb and failing to fully evaluate your anchor placement.


After any initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are much easier if we maintain consistency with previous decisions. An example is sticking with a decision to proceed with a climb when there may be details indicating a questionable outcome.

Expert Halo:

Trusting an informal leader who ends up making decisions for the group. This individual may not have the experience commensurate with the decisions being made. The decision motivation of the “expert” may be motivated by other heuristics, such as acceptance. Dominant personalities tend to thrust themselves into the expert halo out of the need for control. Group dynamics can prevent or encourage this. An opposite manifestation could be reluctance of anyone to accept the leadership position or not wanting to undermine anyone’s respect from the group. Recognizing its potential is key. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge,” according to Stephen Hawking.

First Tracks:

Referring to heuristic scarcity. The tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance you may lose them. For backcountry athletes, it could be fresh powder. For arborists, it could be a certain tree to climb involving trespassing, unsafe conditions, hazardous location, time of day or lack of resources.

Social Facilitation:

Presence of other people enhances the risk-taking by the individual. Groupthink and lack of central leadership are contributing factors. An example would be creating unsafe rope angles in order to reach a location in the tree because others have done so, or to impress them. Acceptance also can factor into social facilitation.

Recognizing heuristic traps

McCammon defines heuristic traps as, “When a rule of thumb gives us a grossly inaccurate perception of a hazard, we fall into what’s known as a heuristic trap.” One of the key factors in countering heuristic traps is recognizing their presence. Good, open communication and teamwork can mitigate many of the leading indicators of a heuristic trap. Encouraging group input respectfully, without shutting down the timid or inexperienced, is essential. Be mindful of the group dynamic. There may be individuals within the group who have a propensity for overruling others.

Though many of these traps are related to a group setting, understand that the group can create a heuristic trap for a single individual within the group and not the group as a whole. We have to recognize risk homeostasis. Each individual maintains their own level of risk. Not enough risk is boring, and the level of risk is based on personal experience and expertise. Dramatic levels of risk acceptance complicate the group decision-making process. (McCammon, Ian, “The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States 2000,” ISSW)

Near-miss reporting

While discussing heuristics and how they contribute to accidents, we would be remiss to neglect discussing near-miss reporting. Near-miss reporting is different from an accident or mishap report. A near miss is simply an event that almost happened or had the potential to be more catastrophic than it was. For example, I wrote an article titled, “Tree Inspection, A Continuous Process,” that ran in the February 2020 issue of TCI Magazine. This article discussed a near miss on a crane pick, with a large oak having included bark in a union close to the cut. The union explosively failed during the lift and placed the climber in jeopardy.

The comments I received and the personal discussions surrounding the article were largely positive, educational and constructive. I think we can all probably agree, this positive and supportive response is not the norm when it comes to sharing near misses. I often see people sharing their near misses and being treated in a way that discourages them and others from sharing again. The premise of arborist-fails-type platforms comes to mind.

The shaming and poking fun at those who are selflessly sharing incidents holds us back from becoming safer as an industry. It takes away the learning experience for those who made the mistake and others who might.

Public humiliation creates obstacles for open dialogue

Public humiliation of someone who has a near miss creates obstacles for an open dialogue. We’re faced with concerns about our reputations: loss of professional acceptance, social shaming, loss of inclusion, fear of ridicule and loss of position on the soap box. It tends to castigate the individual instead of the environment or the incident. The key for all near-miss reporting to succeed is absolute humility and acceptance.

Near-miss reporting is present in many industries. The airline industry, chemical manufacturing, mining and the fire service come to mind. The key is to define what a near miss is and create a way to identify and report these incidents. This allows for a nonjudgmental, unbiased assessment of the situation, leading to the identification of a solution. The system and network then disseminate the information to the industry.

The point to this type of program is to identify negative trends and training needs before an actual accident occurs. It fosters problem solving by individuals, not just the safety personnel and managers. Reporting increases individual ownership in safety and self-esteem. Valuable information is shared, which fosters positive safety attitudes.

Beware of obstacles to accurate reporting

These programs have enough potential obstacles aside from the social and ego-based disincentives. Often the same complacency leading to the incident is present with the effort it takes to participate in the reporting process. Concerns about blame, complaints or punishment can be present. Often the reporting system is designed to be a complicated process. Peer pressure and concerns about reputation remain. Managers may see a cost in work interruption. Conversely, the individual reporting may see a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. Often there can be a lack of recognition and feedback.

Given the platforms we currently have for near-miss reporting, we can consider how our individual interactions affect other individuals and the community as a whole. Until we are willing and able to overcome the urge to publicly feed our own egos through second-guessing, criticizing and ridiculing, we’ll never achieve a true culture of safety. We can be part of the solution by helping to create and maintain an atmosphere where sharing information is more important than our own egos.

Listen, analyze and provide advice or solutions

We can do this by listening, analyzing and providing constructive, educated advice or solutions. Resist the need to be heard and stand on the soap box. There is time to listen and time to be heard. Recognize those opportunities. We all have opinions; however, the key is to understand when sharing them is benefiting others and not just feeding our own egos and positive feedback loops. Thumbs-up means very little to the industry in the big picture. Think of how far we could propel safety culture and community if our prime motivation was based on more than just our own need for the dopamine hits and recognition.

I’d like to leave you with another gem of wisdom from the avalanche community. It comes from Drew Hardesty, an avalanche forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center. In an 11-minute segment from Drew’s blogcast, “Shame and the Social Contract,” Hardesty discusses the importance of being open about incidents and near misses and how he believes we can cultivate a culture of learning and transparency. I agree with him and would encourage you to take 11 minutes and listen to this short blogcast:

About the writer

Stephen Connally, Virginia Certified Arborist and a Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP), is owner and operator of Adaptable Aerial Solutions LLC, a six-year TCIA member company based in Suffolk, Virginia. He also is Electrical Hazard Awareness Program (EHAP) certified, an NCCCO Articulating Boom Crane Operator, an instructor for Ascension Group Northwest and Crane Safety Climber School, a research climber with The Center for Conservation Biology and The College of William and Mary, a captain with Norfolk Fire Rescue (ret.) and a Commonwealth of Virginia Paramedic (ret.)

This article is based on his presentation on the same topic during TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to TCI Magazine online at Under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.


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