Wilson, Kyle M. and Bridges, Karl (2015) Mistaken-for-Game Hunting Accidents: A Human Factors Review. Discussion Paper. HFEx Ltd..

Hunting accidents can have devastating consequences. One of the most common causes of hunting fatalities in this country, and others, are target identification failures—mistaking people for game.
A golden rule in firearm safety is to identify your target beyond all doubt. Despite this message being constantly repeated, accidents are still occurring. Hunter education and awareness about high visibility clothing have reduced accident rates, but these statistics have since plateaued. Contrary to what most people think, the hunters committing these accidents are often experienced and considered to be safe and competent. Crucially, they often believe they have, 100%, correctly identified their target.
Psychology and human factors can provide insight into how these situations might occur. When interpreting information, we rely heavily upon mental rules of thumb called heuristics. Heuristics operate outside of our conscious awareness and are utilised even more in stressful or emotionally charged situations. However, they can also make us susceptible to cognitive biases which may lead us astray—we underestimate the impact heuristics will have on our decisions. Attempts to manage heuristics and cognitive biases are often futile because we normally cannot detect them when they occur. Hunters are constantly told that they need to treat every sound or movement as human in an attempt to change their mind-set. However, given the difficulty in detecting cognitive biases, it is unlikely a hunter’s conscious management of heuristics would be consistently possible in the long term.
Cognitive biases undoubtedly occur in hunting as in most activities we do. Analyses of accidents and anecdotal reports point to their involvement, as does research showing their involvement in other critical environments, including firearms operations in the military and the police. Given the impracticality of preventing heuristics and cognitive biases from affecting a hunter’s target identification, an additional approach is required. One method to prevent mistaken-for-game hunting accidents may involve the use of objective warning systems, such as those used to prevent friendly fire in the military.
This white paper discusses four key cognitive biases which we believe play a role in mistaken-for-game hunting accidents: the availability heuristic, expectancy, confirmation bias, and optimism bias.
We also present the assertion that experience may not safeguard a hunter, and may in fact do the opposite. Other contributing factors—buck fever, poor choice of clothing, and snap shooting—are discussed in relation to cognitive biases. However, there is currently a notable lack of research on the role of cognitive biases in hunting accidents per se. As a result, more work needs to be conducted to verify the conclusions of this white paper, for which a human factors approach must be taken.

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