I’m not an engineer. Not even close. I’m one of the last people you would want to design a bridge, or a boat hull or even the tow hitch on your truck. Engineers deal with data: numbers, spreadsheets, shear tests, simulation models and other stuff. They design impeccable equipment for human kind, yet we still manage to mess up what they give us.
This bugs engineers enough they have a name for us: the human factor. Like I said, I’m not an engineer. I don’t deal with numbers. I deal with humans.
Anglers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about safety. We put on a life vest, carry the right gear, let our spouse know the plan and we’re off into the unknown. Safety is too often a back drop rather than a primary focus. First and foremost, we fish. Until we get in our own way.
The Human Factor
Engineers have developed a field to study the human factor. Experts try to understand how otherwise capable people fail to make reliable decisions. Airline pilots, military units and surgical teams have come under study, as have professional athletes and avalanche rescue teams.
It turns out to be pretty simple: ego and peer pressure can easily get in the way when we likely know better. These human factors are subtle, powerful, and often beyond our own recognition. Luckily for us though, we follow some predictable patterns when it comes to getting in our own way.
Safety instructors use the acronym FACETS to describe the forces leading to the human factor. Applied to kayak fishing, the human factor looks like this.
The hazards of our local fishing environment become dulled with familiarity. This does not lessen their potential for harm. Being comfortable around powerboat traffic does not mean it won’t hurt you.
Acceptance from peers:
This is the peer pressure category. Many of us fish alone, but we still do things we think are required of kayak anglers. Peer pressure is a potent force, subtly when no one is around or blatantly when friends shame you to stick it out as the wind kicks up. The decision shifts to satisfying peers rather than assessing our own ability.
Driving eight hours to fish makes it incredibly difficult to cancel when something goes wrong —flood conditions, late launch, or forgotten safety gear be damned. I once scolded a dude for kayak fishing a whitewater stretch without a life vest. He said he left it at home and wasn’t going to miss out on a day on the river. Then he called me a dick.
Having skilled people around can mistakenly lower the group’s collective guard. When we assume Mr. Expert has everything covered, we loosen our situational awareness. I certainly see this as a guide. My clients turn off their brains when the guide is around. It also plays out in a group of friends, when individuals subconsciously believe their buddy has them covered.
Busy fishing areas put subtle pressure on people to hurry up. Ever feel like you need to rush the launch when other trucks are lining up to unload boats? This ups the odds of forgetting key gear or losing the keys or other dumb-ass moves.
Seeing other paddlers out fishing in big waves or putting in with a storm brewing gives us subconscious permission to do the same. Social proof says: hey, they are doing it, so I can too.
All of these human factors confound the engineers who design our gear, but also confound our better judgement. Research tells us people predictably use subjective factors to make decisions regarding objective hazards. It is like using apples to assess the oranges.
There is, of course, a way to combat this. It is simple and somewhat universal in decision making: after you make your decision to put on the water or stay out in the weather, ask yourself “If I were alone out here and no one else was around, would I make the same decision?”
It is a simple attempt to strip away the subjective human factors getting in the way of good choices. If nothing else, it will make the engineers happy.
Jeff Jackson is a professor at Algonquin College in eastern Ontario and consults on safety and risk management. | Do not try this at home. Photo: Jason Arnold