Heuristic traps in surfing are worth more than a hasty glance

If you’ve ever found yourself in over your head, it was probably a heuristic trap or three that got you there.

“Heuristics are mental rules of thumb that people rely on to make everyday decisions,” says Jessica Cornick, a social psychology PhD student at the University of California Santa Barbara. (She also happens to be a surfer.)

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“Each person’s heuristics are unique to their experiences. [They] are used unconsciously and automatically and require very little cognitive effort. Think stereotypes as an example.”

heuristic traps surfing familiarity
“On a gut level we equate familiarity with safety and well-being,” writes Wray Herbert, author of “On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits.” Photo: Courtesy of Zak Noyle/Red Bull Content Pool

Stereotypes are a great example because, as most psychologists will tell you, they are oversimplified judgments that are frequently inaccurate. Stereotypes can get you into trouble, and so can heuristics. Enter heuristic traps.

Backcountry skiers, climbers and other athletes who call the mountains their playground are often educated on the dangers of heuristic traps. Surfers? Not so much. But the same psychological forces are at play when a skier ventures into avalanche terrain as when a surfer paddles into 30-foot waves.

Here are the six most common heuristic traps (broken down by the common acronym “FACETS”) and how you’ve probably fallen into every one of them.


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“Things that are unfamiliar or foreign — people, places, ideas — may carry unknown risks, so on a gut level we equate familiarity with safety and well-being,” writes Wray Herbert, author of “On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits.”

Studies have shown that people opt for the familiar even when it’s illogical. What this means is that if you had to choose between paddling out at two breaks — one whose name you recognized and one you didn’t — you’d likely choose the familiar, even if you also knew it to be more dangerous.

We’re probably all familiar with Teahupo’o, at least on some level, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wise for us to hit the lineup.

“Not only is familiarity a maladaptive guide to what’s beneficial, it can lead to choices that actually exacerbate stress — increasing the likelihood of more poor judgments, potentially creating a destructive cycle of self-defeating actions,” says Herbert.

Acceptance (aka Mimicry)

heuristic traps surfing acceptance
Andrew Cotton in Nazare, Portugal, fully committed. Photo: Courtesy of Hugo Silva/Red Bull Content Pool
Humans are hardwired to desire acceptance and notoriety. We will do insane things in the name of looking cool — even if it’s subconscious.

Just remember this: Uncool trumps annihilated.

Commitment or Consistency

When Jamie O'Brien & Co. say they're going to group-surf the SUPsquatch, there's probably some heuristics involved. Photo: Courtesy of Tim McKenna/Red Bull Content Pool
When Jamie O’Brien & Co. say they’re going to group-surf the SUPsquatch, there’s probably some heuristics involved. Photo: Courtesy of Tim McKenna/Red Bull Content Pool
“The commitment heuristic is the tendency to believe that a behavior is correct [because] it is consistent with a prior commitment we have made,” writes heuristics expert Ian McCammon in “Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents.”

You said you were going to ride a foam-top at Pipe like Jamie O’Brien. When you show up, it’s huge, but it’s the moment of truth. You’re committed. You go, right? Wrong.

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Hesitation may be your enemy in the lineup, but it’s your ally when you’re standing on the shore. It’s easy for your brain to tell itself that things will turn out fine because you’re simply following through on your word; the decision has already been made. But awareness of shifting circumstances can save your skin, or even your life.

Expert Halo

heuristic traps surfing expert halo
Justine Dupont’s comfort zone, Hossegor, France. Photo: Courtesy of Bastien Bonnarme/Red Bull Content Pool
If there’s someone in your surf crew who’s a little older, wiser, more assertive or rips circles around the rest of you, there’s a good chance that the “expert halo” is at work. A group’s informal leader tends to make decisions for the group, and sometimes, they are critical.

If this person is, in fact, an expert on the issue at hand in said critical circumstances, then you’re golden. If she isn’t, you’re not doing anyone any favors by loyally (blindly) following her lead.

RELATED: These extreme sports consult their athletes to make the call

According to McCammon, the larger the group, the more likely the leader is to make risky judgment calls. Just something to think about when your most opinionated bud says that a sunrise session in Reunion would be fun and that he’s sure that open wound won’t be an issue.

Scarcity (also called Tracks)

A slice of perfection | Photo @morganmaassen

A photo posted by World Surf League (@wsl) on

“Adventure Sports Coaching” by Matt Berry, Jane Lomax and Chris Hodgson explains, “There is a tendency to value resources or conditions that are less common. People are likely to take disproportionate risks to be the first to ski untracked snow and this is probably true of other rare but seemingly favorable environmental conditions that present both an opportunity and a hazard such as … [a] fickle surf break going off.”

According to the book, the risk is overridden by the “sense that the opportunity is hard to gain and easily lost.” Telling ourselves that the conditions are too good to call it quits and that we’ll beach ourselves after X more waves is also part of the scarcity trap. It can lead to physical exhaustion, which increases the odds of injury.

In other words, just because Jaws is firing doesn’t mean that we need to get it while the getting’s good.

Social Proof

heuristic traps surfing social proof
Classic social-proof heuristic afloat. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Miller/Red Bull Content Pool
The social-proof heuristic trap boils down to five words: Everyone else is doing it. “In general, we rely on the social-proof heuristic most when we are uncertain and when others similar to ourselves are engaged in an activity,” McCammon says.

So, your Facebook feed is flooded with photos of friends’ “adventures” in Guerrero, and though you know that it’s earned the title of most violent state in Mexico for three years running, you’re thinking, “Seems safe on Facebook.”

But listen. You don’t need to jump off that bridge.

The problem with heuristics is that they’re automatic, so even if we’re aware of them, it’s possible to fall into one of the traps above. Still, taking an extra minute to assess whether you’re thinking clearly — especially under pressure — can help minimize risk and prevent misfortune.

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