Experience & Risk

Although it is clear that diving experience reduces divers’ risk of injury, experience is an imprecise term that conjures different ideas in different people at different times. In contemplating how experience reduces risk, we need to consider the following:

  • Training provides experience.
  • Practice provides experience.
  • Diving provides experience.
  • Not all experience is helpful.
  • If some factors are present, experience can increase risk.

Training Provides Experience.

As much as we like to say, “There’s no substitute for experience,” there actually is a substitute: training. And this is a good thing — you wouldn’t want to learn through experience that you shouldn’t hold your breath while scuba diving. Training lets us benefit from the (sometimes painful or deadly) experience of others, which is why it’s the first step in becoming and growing as a diver. But we must be willing to learn from others’ experience. As Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) observed, “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

Practice Provides Experience.

During training and (one hopes) outside of training, divers practice skills including emergency procedures. This practice gives us experience in controlled circumstances in which we can mess up, learn from our mistakes and try again until we succeed — without actually getting hurt. Fortunately the brain does not really differentiate between simulated circumstances and reality. When faced with the real thing, people do as they trained and practiced, and the more realistic and varied the practice, the better the responses.

This outcome assumes that you actually train and practice. Explorer, instructor and rebreather designer Kevin Gurr once said, “Practice a skill on every dive.” By that he meant an emergency skill. Following his advice is easy and takes little time. Divers can also gain experience by simulating (within the scope of their training) and managing realistic emergencies in confined water. Another instructor and explorer, Phil Short, said, “I do it when I don’t have to, so I can when I do.”

Diving Provides Experience.

Diving provides experience that’s hard to get though instruction (this is what we really mean when we say there’s no substitute for experience). By going diving we subconsciously learn normal patterns — how things are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do in different circumstances and underwater environments. When something violates our subconscious expectations, we go on alert, sometimes reacting intuitively even before a problem occurs.

There are numerous examples of this intuition in different endeavors. One example documented by cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, who is one of the primary researchers in this area, involved an experienced firefighter who led a crew into a house to fight what seemed to be a routine kitchen fire. They sprayed the fire, but it almost immediately roared back to life. Uneasy, the commander ordered his crew out. Moments later the floor collapsed as a huge undetected fire in the basement engulfed the structure; everyone would have died if they had stayed in the house.

Right after a close call, those involved often say they didn’t know how they knew something was wrong, they just did. Deeper analysis commonly finds multiple subtle pattern deviations that even trained people may not have noticed consciously, but their subconscious apparently did. The lead firefighter said he saw no threat, but he somehow knew something was terribly wrong. Later examination found that besides the fire roaring back to life, the room was much hotter than it should have been, and the men reported it was unusually quiet (the hidden fire was muffled in the basement). Unconsciously, these pattern mismatches warned the commander.

Experience will keep us out of trouble — if we allow it to. In other words, if something doesn’t feel right when diving, don’t wait to find out why. Trust your intuition, and act accordingly.

Not All Experience Is Helpful.

It’s not just the quantity but also the quality of experience that counts. We need enough repetitive experience to learn patterns, but beyond a certain point, more doesn’t benefit us.

Consider two divers, one with 1,000 dives and one with 200 dives. The first is an open-water diver who has made all 1,000 dives on about a dozen shallow tropical coral reefs, all from a boat in a wetsuit and wearing an aluminum 80 cubic foot cylinder. The second diver has about 50 dives on similar reefs, plus 40 dives in kelp, 20 dives in a cold-water reservoir, 15 dives in a river, 20 dives on Atlantic wrecks, 25 in Florida’s springs and the rest in inland quarries and off Florida’s gulf coast. The second diver is certified as an advanced open-water diver, cavern diver, rebreather diver and drysuit diver and has dived from boats and shore, including through surf. Which diver has the most useful experience that will help reduce risk, especially when visiting a new environment for the first time?

There’s nothing wrong with making a dive you like for the umpteen-billionth time, but be realistic about how much it is or is not contributing to your experience.

Experience Can Increase Risk.

Be cautious of normalization of deviance, which can be summed up as getting used to not following your training because nothing bad happens. If someone violates safe diving practices (e.g., exceeds training limits, omits standard gear, skips checklists, etc.) and nothing goes wrong, there’s greater likelihood the person will violate these practices again. Experience makes this worse, because repetition without negative consequences makes the safe practices that were omitted seem unnecessary, until the deviation becomes the new normal practice. Researchers cite normalization of deviance as primary factors in the loss of the Challenger and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Culture can magnify normalization by failing to correct the deviation or even encouraging it (“Oh, you had to do that in training, but no one really does it.”). Normalization of deviance is particularly common in endeavors such as scuba diving that tend to have redundant safety practices to account for unintended and random human error. Nothing goes wrong because a redundancy accounts for the deviation — until one day the redundant factor is accidentally omitted, too.

If you find yourself skipping things you learned to do in training (such as predive safety checks), exceeding limits (diving deeper than you were trained to or entering overhead environments without training) or omitting gear you were trained to always have (such as snorkels or surface signaling devices), you’re exhibiting normalization of deviance. If you and your buddies reinforce these behaviors, you’re in a microculture that is normalizing deviation.

Because experience can reinforce normalization of deviance, experience is only a cure if something bad happens due to the deviation (and even then some divers go right back to the unsafe practices). The cure and prevention are the self-discipline to follow your training, honesty about the safety of your diving behaviors and refusal to listen to other (sometimes more experienced) divers who encourage deviations.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2016