The expert halo

30th May 2023|3min

Experts, they know what’s right. Right? But what if you’ve only assumed they are the expert? That’s at the heart of the heuristic trap known as ‘expert halo’: you defer to the perceived expert and stop making or contributing to the decision-making process.

The role heuristics play in our decision-making can lead to dangerous situations outdoors.

Heuristics play a critical role in our lives every day, providing mental shortcuts that help our brains make decisions faster and more efficiently. This is generally a good thing, but in a harsh and unforgiving environment, making decisions through mental shortcuts can lead to a dangerous trap. 

This story is part of an ongoing series with Wilderness Magazine

Most trampers have been in a group that has a perceived leader who, if not calling the shots, is influencing them. Why are they the perceived leader? Is it because they think they know it all, are overly confident in their opinion, or just the loudest in the group? Those are not sound reasons to let one person make all the decisions. Or, maybe, they’re more experienced than you so you automatically feel they’re in a better position to lead the group?

Imagine you’re out on a tramping trip for the weekend with a group of friends. One of them has taken charge, although you’re unsure whether the group decided that, or if it just happened. You may have been on a trip with them before, or not, but you know they’ve done more tramping than you, so everyone figures they’re more experienced and better skilled for the job.

They’re keen to tackle a river crossing, but you and the rest of the group aren’t feeling so sure. However, they are adamant that it’s ‘no big deal’, and you think, ’They know better than me, they’re the expert, they have more experience’. So you keep quiet, or your input isn’t heard, and you get ready to cross.

It’s common to assume our peers know more than we do about certain topics, until proven otherwise. It’s unfortunate when that proof comes with consequences, especially if severe.

To avoid such scenarios, ensure your group has a UN Security Council veto-vote policy. If one person isn’t comfortable with doing something, that feedback should be welcomed and acted on; play the veto card if you think the situation needs more consideration or discussion.

Set this up in advance so all group members understand they will be encouraged to be open about their thoughts and feelings on the trip. This will make it far more likely that concerns will be heard, and that a robust and inclusive decision-making process will prevail. Talk through everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, and competencies. You may find the ‘expert’ is not necessarily that experienced. You may even discover some unknown talents of your own that could be handy in a pinch.

Having a leader in a group can be a good thing. But good leadership isn’t a dictatorship. Key safety decisions should not be made solely by them. Importantly, everyone should feel comfortable voicing concerns. Good leaders facilitate conversation and group decision making, they don’t dominate it.

Heuristic Traps and Mental Shortcuts

This article is part of a series on heuristic traps. There are six main heuristics that play a part in almost every outdoor incident. Knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help you stay safe. The six heuristic traps are: Familitary, Conformity, Commitment, Expert Halo, Social Proof, and Scarcity.

By Rebekah Wilson, NZ Mountain Safety Council | Header photo: Jo Stilwell