Example of a Social Norm Rooted in Reality


I got the idea for this article from a Sociology class report that Will wrote several years ago. He didn’t want to submit it to The Eddy Line at the time, and now that I have had more experience canoeing, I realize that it is too important not to publish. The original was not complete so I liberally plagiarized and….

As a rule, the paddling community loads canoes and kayaks onto cars or trailers with the bow facing forward. Now this may seem like a reasonable practice, after all the boat should face the direction it will travel. However, since there is no aerodynamic or other measurable advantage, a non-paddler would expect no reaction if a boat were accidentally loaded facing in reverse.

This is not the case. Most whitewater boaters know deep in their bowels that it is very unlucky to ever load boats backward. Indeed, whitewater boaters may react violently and unreasonably if they find their boats loaded in reverse. Some will even refuse to paddle a boat that has traveled backward till it has been paddled by someone else.

Like all social phenomenon, this can be viewed from a functionalist or a conflict perspective. Functionalists explain the common practice of loading boats facing forwards as providing scapegoats for a dangerous and unpredictable sport. Many paddlers rely heavily on luck, and some have been heard to say, “I’ll take luck over skill any day.”

This allows functionalists to confront mistakes by invoking bad luck as the cause. If a paddler loses face due to a really bad day on the river, he can remind everyone that his boat was loaded backward and the bad karma is affecting him. In addition, many paddlers perceive themselves as members of a close-knit group. By standardizing activities, like loading boats facing the same direction, they share common values with their “brother and sister paddlers”.

A conflict perspective, on the other hand, holds that social norms persist only if they serve to maintain some group in power. White water paddling can be a highly competitive activity. Expert boaters are always trying to out-do their peers by making a first descent, or demonstrating superior skills. The heavy emphasis of luck over skill is not so prevalent among the elite.

All expert paddlers know from experience that boats must be loaded correctly and regularly swap tales of backward-loaded boat mishaps. Discussing others’ poor choices in boat loading is both competitive and helps to maintain the social norm. In addition, skill not withstanding, when an expert boater has a bad day or makes a very bad choice he may fall back on the luck ideology and use improper boat loading as an excuse.

Just how deeply rooted is this norm? Will measured this a couple years ago during a snow storm that followed a 9 mile class V trip that had been capped by a half mile carry out straight up a steep gorge. It was during the carry out (undoubtedly due to hypoxia and hypothermia) that Will decided to determine the depth of his fellow paddlers belief.

The idea of loading his own canoe onto the car facing backwards unsettled Will considerably. While he realize that this had to be part to the experiment, he suffered a nagging fear that the river trip would end disastrously, or that his next trip would not go well. Nonetheless, he loaded his canoe and those of his companions onto the car backwards.

After all the canoes and kayaks were stacked and tied down, a kayaker realized something was terribly amiss. He decompensated, and after yelling at Will for several minutes, demanded that all the canoes and kayaks be untied and put on facing forward. Although everyone was exhausted and it was in fact snowing, they took 15 minutes to untie all four boats and refasten them facing correctly. This illustrates how deeply ingrained a social norm can be.

Now, Will’s original analysis did not include the third perspective, that boats must be loaded facing forward because of some fundamental truth. Substantial observational data exists to support the hypothesis that backward loaded boats frequently result in mishap both to the paddler as well as the entire group.

Being more sophisticated than Will, I conducted a controlled, blinded, cross-over experiment. We had been on the Big South Fork all day. It was 21:30, raining lightly (with a little sleet thrown in), and we had two hours to drive back to camp. Things were going extraordinarily well, the boats were loaded and people were otherwise occupied, so I deliberately pulled a kayak off the roof of a car and reversed it.

As we prepared to mount up for the drive back, the kayak owner noticed that her car had spontaneously locked itself with the only set of keys in the ignition and the lights had turned themselves on. Forty-five minutes later we realized we were not going to get in so we sent a car out to look for a lock smith. That’s when we noticed the flat tire, and one of the kids slipped in the mud and fell into fresh cow droppings.

As we were pulling her out, the car we had sent off came screaming back to tell us we were needed to help fight a fire that had just started in a nearby field. When we got back after fighting the fire, I confessed what I had done, apologized profusely, slipped in the mud, and then reloaded the boat.

We finally got into the car at midnight, the battery was dead, I got shocked rigging the jumpers, two sets of booties, a shirt, and a helmet were lost at the take-out in the dark. Appropriate statistical testing has shown that this sequence of events would happen by chance alone at less than .001% of all take-outs.

by William C. Reeves (The Hawk)
From The Eddy Line, April 1998