Situation Awareness

Real human function is most notable for its high adaptability, flexibility and complexity. At our best, we naturally sift through what would be TeraBytes of data in moments, acting on the very few bits that really matter. Solving most real problems involves pattern recognition (often involving expert field knowledge), saying “Something odd here!” early enough to do something about it.

Situation Awareness (SA) is a current label for being alert to surroundings and having some responses in mind. SA became a funded research field first in combat and civilian aviation because a single pilot or air traffic controller (ATC) may have split-second responsibility for millions of dollars and hundreds of lives. But it extends to many other occupations and many situations of daily life—wherever consequences of a mis-judgment are unacceptable.

Stanley Roscoe’s psychology work during WWII led to his definition of SA1 as an ability to:

  • Attend to multiple information sources,
  • Evaluate alternatives
  • Establish priorities,
  • Estimate probable outcomes for different courses of action,
  • Work on the highest current urgency without losing sight of the bigger picture,
  • Reorder priorities as situations change
  • Act decisively in the face of indecision in others.

This definition can be applied equally well to any field of activity. It could even be said to define an effective human being.

Mica Endsley’s work in information systems design led her to a definition2 that specifically leaves out decision and action as being separate from awareness. Her definition specifies 3 levels of processing:

  • Level 1: Perception of the Elements in the Environment,
  • Level 2: Comprehension of the situation based on a synthesis of disjointed Level-1 elements in light of operator goals,
  • Level 3: Projection of future actions of those Elements, at least in the very near term.

Contrasting but valid definitions like these are good examples of Adult Learning, in being the primary stage of defining a problem out of a complex problem space. Both definitions involve command of a complex system of rules, selective management of attention and working memory, and making quick accurate predictions. Tracking multiple information streams and multiple response alternatives under changing priorities places high demands on executive function, as well as expert field knowledge to support pattern recognition.

Many of the domains where expertise has been traditionally studied, such as chess, music or physics, tend to emphasize focused rather than distributed attention. Our approach at TactiCog (sm) is to study, and prepare people for, situations requiring distributed attention in high-speed, high-consequence, highly-interactive situations.

Three further points are important in supporting the validity of our approach:

  • “experts are more likely to consider other players’ perspectives in their decision making,”3
  • “an expert commander has a mental model of the tactical situation that differs in measureable ways from that of a novice,” 4

And of particular interest:

  • “it is not immediately obvious why a psychomotor task should be related to SA…”5

Seems pretty obvious to us at TactiCog (sm).

1 Roscoe, S. N. (1997). Predicting Human Performance.Quebec: Helio Press, Inc.

2 Endsley, M. R. (1995). Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems. Human Factors, 37(1), 32-64.

3 Lipshitz, R., & Shaul, O. B. (1997). Schemata and mental models in recognition-primed decision making. In C. E. Zsambok & G. Klein (Eds.), Naturalistic Decision Making (pp. 293-303).Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

4 Serfaty, D., MacMillan, J., Entin, E. E., & Entin, E. B. (1997). The decision making expertise of battle commanders. In C. E. Zsambok & G. Klein (Eds.), Naturalistic Decision Making (pp. 23-246). Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

5 Endsley, M. R., & Bolstad, C. A. (1994). Individual differences in pilot situation awareness. International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 4(3), 241-264.

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