While the research effort behind Situational Awareness is relatively new, the concept is not. Sun Tzu referenced it in Art of War, and the term situation awareness was used in American military aviation as early as World War I. The term situation awareness (commonly termed situational awareness outside of academia) continued to develop in military aviation circles throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars and was later assimilated into human factor psychology in the 1990’s, mostly revolving around military aviation and nuclear power plant operation.
There is a close connection to SA and the Boyd Cycle, commonly referred to as the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop. The Boyd Cycle, named after U.S. Air Force Colonel, DoD military strategist, and mid-20th century fighter pilot John Boyd is well adopted in military circles and has been earnestly adopted in American law enforcement training, but perhaps not accurately interpreted. The Boyd Cycle attempts to explain what occurs in the human brain regarding the recognition of [potential] threats (part of SA) and applying the appropriate response to them.
Situational Awareness is a complex topic, and for that reason will be discussed here in parts over at least two blogs. It would be easy to write 1,000 words about SA, referring to it very superficially, and calling it a day, but the topic is too vital and important to the reader to do such a disservice. Given that the concept has been used over such a broad range of fields and is commonly misunderstood, it’s best to approach it from a clean slate, understanding its origins and usage and determining the impact that it has for the average individual.
Situational Awareness was understood and used by humans long before it was researched and studied. The earliest reference was in a military context during the time of Sun Tzu. He would not be the last military strategist to consider it. The term has also been applied to various other fields, such as aviation, nuclear power plant operations, and anesthesiology (of all things) but it is not surprising that the origin of Situational Awareness is uniquely military.
The term and concept addresses a uniquely human psychological trait which includes self-awareness. It is possible that other animals, like wolves and bears, have a similar adaptation to SA, which may be a part of instinct. I say that only to make the argument that SA is perhaps instinctive in humans for survival.
That would bring us to the point where we understand that perhaps SA applies to more than just someone who has chosen to be a soldier or police officer, but is also applicable to each of us in our daily lives.
Psychologists have found application for SA outside of military command and control, but those fields are defined as high risk/high stress jobs, and while the world of a soldier and that of a nuclear facility technician may seem very different, the psychological approach to problem solving under stress is likely similar. We’ll touch on this again when we discuss specific and general training.
The goal of understanding SA then is to develop training to help humans function effectively and efficiently in those environments. Our goal is to pull as much as we can from SA and apply it to daily life, which can sometimes become immediately and unexpectedly violent.
A lot has already been said about SA, but I haven’t really defined it yet. This is where SA gets complex. While the likes of Sun Tsu and Colonel John Boyd and their contemporaries had an understanding of SA at a practical level, actually using it without even having named it, modern psychology has extrapolated a large amount of research information on the topic and as researchers will do, have developed competing definitions and models to “help to understand” it.
They range from broad to specific, complex and wordy, to simply stated. For example, Dr. Endsley’s widely referenced definition is broad in defining SA as “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” Sorathia’s definition, perhaps in an attempt to be “academic”, is a little wordy, defining SA as “a state achieved when information that is qualitatively and quantitatively determined by given configuration as suitable for assumed role is made available to stakeholder by engaging them in to appropriate information exchange patterns.”
I have found the most simple definitions to be the best to initially grasp the concept of SA: “the ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation including friendly and threat situations as well as terrain” (Dostal, 2007); “keeping track of what is going on around you in a complex, dynamic environment” (Moray, 2005); “what you need to know not to be surprised” (Jeannot, Kelly, & Thompson, 2003); and “knowing what is going on so you can figure out what to do”. (Adam, 1983)
Clearly there are many perspectives about SA, and the differences in definitions resulted from unique perspectives. At this point though, you may be wondering so what?
None of this information is meaningful unless it has application. None of it’s interesting to you unless it has application to you. So, asking so what is valid.
This blog is far from even touching the surface on all of the research literature available on SA and its many facets. It is a growing field of study, but ultimately must have a basic existence in the human psyche. After all, Sun Tzu was aware of it and used it in his military exploits.
Stay tuned for Part II of this post, where we’ll get down to brass tax about SA, and how it applies to you.
– The Aikiology Staff