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ITIL Tattle

ITIL Tattle

Blog posts on ITIL and ITSM news and best practice from the ISG ITIL Team

No friends on powder day! An introduction to heuristic traps

Heuristics are the cognitive short-cuts we employ during decision making. Heuristic traps are when those heuristic short cuts lead to undesirable outcomes which in hindsight seem hard to explain… logically.

Before continuing it is worth emphasizing that heuristics are useful in the right contexts. They allow us to not waste valuable thought processes over trivial matters – what shall I have for dinner today? They become heuristic  traps if they are employed in situations when the consequence or impact of the heuristic failing are catastrophic.

The ease of falling into heuristic traps, particularly when we are under pressure, is one of the reasons why our Major Incident Process employs Kepner-Tregoe methodology.

It is surprisingly easy to fall into a heuristic trap. See if you can identify, from the descriptions below, which you may have stumbled into…

1. Familiarity

If you do something often enough you assume it is safe. Sometimes the context can be a coincidence of individually familiar factors but the sum is actually less familiar.  It could be “I’ve driven this road once before…” and “I am used to driving at night…” and “I know how drive in winter conditions…”.

2. Commitment

We have all done it. Felt compelled to complete something because we have committed ourselves to it. It is on our todo list so just do it. This would include decisions following the “sunk-cost fallacy” – we have committed so much time, money, effort, we can’t turn back now. Pulling the plug never feels like the right thing to do, even when it is!

3. Scarcity

This is the phrase “No friends on powder day” scenario may be familiar to skiers. It relates to the scarcity of prime powder skiing that results in an unseemly rush for the pristine slopes. But any narrow window of what seems like unmissable opportunity can lull us into ignoring or dismissing other warning signs.

4. Social proof

Others are doing it, so it must be ok? This can be a really powerful heuristic because doing as others do is usually so effective. Of course, being different, and isolated has its own risks.

5. Expert Halo

We often have to put our trust in experts. But experts can make mistakes – sometimes by falling for the previous heuristic traps! You can read about the tragic consequences of expert halo in Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking:… [Syed, M., 2016. Black box thinking : marginal gains and the secrets of high performance, London: John Murray.].


Heuristics are cognitive short-cuts. A heuristic trap is the inappropriate application of a cognitive short-cut. For decisions that have high impact potential, employing cognitive short-cuts may succeed nine times out of ten but will eventually lead to a disaster. This is why awareness of heuristic traps is pushed within outdoor education settings particularly. Incident investigations involving hazards that are realised through complex interactions – for example avalanches – commonly refer to role played by heuristic traps.

Whether we have examples of incidents in the service arena resulting from a heuristic trap is left for the reader to ponder…


(Copyright 2019 James Jarvis - used with permission)

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