Bias

I have mulling over the question of collective biases – shared inclinations or beliefs – for a while now. I think in regards to our industry, a good example for one such a bias is the way we consider knots.

Take the Valdôtain, or the Valdôtain Tresse, for example, ask around at a trade show or another industry event how people view this hitch. You will probably get answers in the direction of that it is a sporty hitch, not very reliable, touchy-feely or that it is mainly for competition climbers. It is also often even referred to as the Suislide Hitch, which is a bit sinister! All of this enforces the bias that this hitch is somehow only borderline safe.

Back when in the early days when I was competing in tree climbing comps, I would have probably agreed with this assessment. It was what I encountered using a VT, you were constantly managing the hitch to get just that sufficient amount of friction, that sweet spot to juuuuust about hold you, yet also to feed smoothly through the hitch during ascent. Often as not, you were having to massage the hitch into position before loading it to ensure half-way reliable grab function.

For years in our basic training courses we have instructed on the basis of the Hitch Climber configuration, but of course not using the VT, as this was not seen as being a beginner’s hitch, preferring to use the Distel or the Swabish in its place.

Essentially though, all of this was acting like a self-fulfilling prophesy and was feeding the bias that painted the VT is an unsafe hitch. In terms of numbers, the Teufelberger/ treepartner/ treemagineers testing on hitches did not show this to be the case. On the contrary, in the range of hitches which were tested, in fact the VT proved to be a highly reliable hitch with good grab function, passing the test criteria (23kN/ 3 minutes) we had defined for those tests with flying colours – this is on top of the test criteria already defined for CEclimb.

All of this is of course highly dependent to how the hitch is tied. The CEclimb user manual defines a VT tied with a 90 cm eye to eye sling with four coils and four wraps. This results in a highly reliable knot – under almost all conditions. Yes, evidently it has a higher base friction, but you are not sacrificing safety for short term gain. The function of friction hitches bases upon… friction, after all (duh).

Once you start considering an issue in this way, you start to realise how the views of a group of competent people can be tainted by bias: Take the business of training on a Distel or Swabish, for instance. Truth be told, when we opened up the discussion in our group of trainers, it became obvious that the novice climbers had been struggling with these hitches as the were not grabbing reliably. In the end we decided that an appropriately configured VT offered a much more confidence-inspiring, reliable basis to train on than the options we had been using up to that point.

So it turns out that the truth of the matter is that the VT is a knot whose performance is highly dependent on how it is configured – and that the industry was using it in a way which was biased towards minimal friction and maximum slack feeding ease. Which does not make for a very reliable hitch.

This all goes to show how biases can create blind spots and group think-dynamics that are not conducive to balanced, open discussion – and therefore ought to be challenged.