Can behavioral decision theory explain risk-averse fire management decisions?

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Organizations managing forest land often make fire management decisions that seem overly risk-averse in relation to their stated goals for ecosystem restoration, protection of sensitive species and habitats, and protection of water and timber resources. Research in behavioral decision theory has shown that people faced with difficult decisions under uncertainty and decisions with multiple and conflicting objectives adopt mental shortcuts that systematically bias decision-making. Fire management decisions exhibit exactly the characteristics that are likely to trigger such mental shortcuts. Cumulative and unwitting use of mental shortcuts can lead to fire management decisions that are excessively risk-averse, to the point of jeopardizing stated management goals. It can also cause retrospective analyses of fire decisions to focus inappropriately on placing blame for bad outcomes and fail to scrutinize the quality of the decision itself. Excessive risk aversion is evident in the behavior of individual land managers, land management organizations, regulatory agencies that review land management decisions, and the general public and its agents in the media, courts and legislature. Remedies to excessive risk aversion include: (1) wider use of structured decision processes designed to counteract the mental shortcuts that plague human decision-making, (2) structural and educational changes within and between organizations to change perverse incentives that reward risk aversion and discourage adaptive management, and (3) locally focused collaborations among land management agencies, regulatory agencies, and citizens to build trust and to enhance understanding of forest management goals and practices. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.






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Maguire, LA, and EA Albright (2005). Can behavioral decision theory explain risk-averse fire management decisions?. Forest Ecology and Management, 211(1-2). pp. 47–58. 10.1016/j.foreco.2005.01.027 Retrieved from

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