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.

Naturalistic Decision Making

The unorthodox question is: “What do expert decision makers do naturally?”

Naturalistic approaches to psychological phenomena1,2 work to model decision making and situation awareness in real-world, as contrasted with theoretically-conceived, activities. Traditional research has long found human decision making inferior to formalized rational decision models such as Bayesian analysis or multi-attribute utility theory. Then we are urged to be rational creatures, which we very basically are not.

NDM’s (Naturalistic Decision Making) position is that real experts, working under time pressure and unreliable information, with changing goals and situations, are simply not represented by traditional laboratory models. “In the Wild”, they tend to make no comparisons of alternatives, quickly generating a workable first option based on similarity to prior situations (the experience factor), fixing or replacing it only if quick mental simulation shows significant flaws.

Experts recognize prototypical situations using cues3 and patterns that simplified laboratory experiments remove from simplified laboratory testing. Drillings and Serfaty3 refer to Daniel’s 1979 work demonstrating individual expertise as being at least as important as quantity of information, in that “the best players made as good decisions with 20% of the ground truth as did the worst players with 80%…” (p. 78). Endsley, who specializes in Situation Awareness had similar findings.

Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) model began with fire-ground commanders at fires4 , and developed further with military field commanders. This model has been tested in activities ranging from anesthesiology, nuclear power plant operation, software design, offshore drilling and jury deliberations to highway design. This diversification is important in showing that the process is universally human rather than domain-specific.

The NDM approach has generated more than 7 world conferences. The first one5 listed 8 factors of interest:

  1. Ill-structured problems
  2. Uncertain dynamic environments
  3. Shifting, ill-defined, or competing goals
  4. Action/feedback loops
  5. Time stress
  6. High stakes
  7. Multiple players
  8. Organizational goals and norms.

This list shows that uncertainty is the most general factor, since most of the factors contribute to it. It is this uncertainty, and its impact on individual interpretations of the problem they face that link NDM to Adult Learning, and also motivates simplification of a problem in most laboratory research.

A major point contributed by NDM is the argument that psychological research cannot approach real-world problems without incorporating options, uncertainty, real stakes, and change. It also strongly argues that starting from theory without first observing what naturally occurs, and trying to describe it, is fruitless.

We agree.

The training model developed at TactiCog(sm) does not start from abstract theory—it is drawn from combat-proven real-world training procedures with a combat-proven history. Our model exhibits points 3-8 of this list, and generates points 1 & 2 at the level of the participants’ experience of it.

1 Klein, G. A., Orasanu, J., Calderwood, R., & Zsambook, C. E. (Eds.). (1993). Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

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

3 Drillings, M., & Serfaty, D. (1997). Naturalistic decision making in command and control. In C. E. Zsambok & G. Klein (Eds.), Naturalistic Decision Making (pp. 71-80). Mahwah, NJ:LawrenceErlbaum Associates.

4 Klein, G. (1997). Making Decisions in Natural Environments (Special Report 31): Research and Advanced Concepts Office, U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

5 Orasanu, J., & Connolly, T. (1993). The reinvention of decision making. In G. A. Klein & J. Orasanu & R. Calderwood & C. E. Zsambook (Eds.), Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods (pp. 3-20).Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Adult Learning

Mature adult cognition is contextualized, with one foot in the abstract/conceptual and the other firmly in the concrete limitations of daily life. It is not handicapped by the signature adolescent demand that “it should be like…”. Living in, rather than denying, the strictures and complexities of the real world challenges us with frequent selection of a problem (often ill-defined, even contradictory) out of a multi-dimensional problem space. This is unfortunately a primary task that formal testing and traditional education do not prepare us for.

Selection or definition, followed by periodic re-definition, of a problem relates to Endsley’s Level-2 SA in its synthesizing of pattern from perceived elements and Level-3 SA in its projection of future actions. It is similarly reminiscent of several of Roscoe’s points (at the same link). In real life, there are frequently multiple ‘correct’ or variously satisfactory answers. This can be because they all lead to a similar-enough state, or because the simple fact of change is enough to unstick things.

As measures of adulthood, Tennant and Pogson1 wrote of the development of tolerance for contradiction and ambiguity. Similarly, in the domain of military decision making (where adulthood is essential), Schmitt and Klein2 wrote of tolerance of uncertainty. Both adult education and military training respect the importance of feedback, and/or incomplete/unreliable information. Tennant and Pogson wrote:

“Ambiguity, poor feedback, unclear problem boundaries, the vagaries of the relationships we have with others, and many other factors all combine to constitute the very loose framework of our adult experience of intelligent action in the everyday world.”ibid., p. 33

“Army Lt. Col. John Mowchan believes the United Statesis better served by not setting thresholds for response [to a cyber attack]. Maintaining ambiguity [italics added], he says, gives U.S. officials greater flexibility and keeps potential enemies guessing. He also cautions that, because the lines between various threat sources have increasingly blurred, deciding on the right response has become more problematic.” 3  Hedging is a primary tactic between individuals as between other entities.

By reading across the three areas, it can be seen that many major points of adult learning are shared with Situation Awareness and Naturalistic Decision Making.

[As an aside: you will find very different uses of the term “Adult Learning”. A very different use is at: .]

1 Tennant, M., & Pogson, P. (1995). Learning and Change in the Adult Years: A Developmental Perspective. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass.

2 Schmitt, J. F. M., USMCR, & Klein, G. A. (1996). Fighting in the fog: dealing with battlefield uncertainty. Marine Corps Gazette, 62-69.

3 Merzlak, P. (October, 2001). Editor’s Page. U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 4.

Tactical Timing

Part of reducing the cost, effort or load of an action is developing a sense of timing. Aside from literal experience in a specific field, timing practice is all around us, from sliding through a door before it closes, to catching the rhythm of a string of stop lights. A very annoying example is the person who takes pleasure in cutting off every sentence you try to say. Timing ties in with SA (situation awareness) in using the low-demand part of a situational cycle to update information. People will develop habits to avoid having to pay attention, such as heading for the shoulder on a road no matter why traffic has slowed down. Investing in a habit of scanning at a greater radius (say, of 2-3 cars ahead and behind) pays off in giving time to make an intelligent decision instead of trusting a default (often over-) reaction.

Models and model systems are all the rage right now, especially if they can have a cool acronym and be marketed. But eternal, useful ones are all around us in “public domain”. Driving in traffic (hang up and LEARN something) has plentiful variety of situation and pacing.

Learning to notice what level of cycle is critical to our interaction is valuable. In music terms, we might be most interested in the pacing per beat, per measure or per coda. Every bum-bum-bum might be too fast to even track, while biddy-bum, biddy-bum might be workable. Or we might note that the Other cycles back to a favorite tactic every third, fifth or eighth time around, or presents a signature lead-in that tells us when it’s coming. It’s all about the Δt.