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How to Design for Effective Situation Awareness and Operator Response to Abnormal Situations

Kahneman has written about fast and unconscious thinking (a.k.a. system 1), versus conscious and slow thinking (a.k.a. system 2). We use mental short cuts in fast and unconscious thinking to make it through the day. We do this simply because it’s exhausting to maintain a continuous conscious stream of thought for any significant length of time. (Think back how mentally taxing it was when you first learned to drive. Now the process is unconscious.) Unconscious thinking usually leads to good outcomes (or our race would not have survived for long), yet it makes us vulnerable to systematic biases (mental traps) that arise from their use. This can pose serious problems for operators when responding to abnormal situations. Proper operator response requires situation awareness, which consists of 1) what? (becoming aware of the problem), 2) so what? (interpreting and diagnosing), and 3) what now? (projecting into the future).

Most decision making and task execution takes place in the subconscious mind. (People spend 95+% of the day in the subconscious state.) Unfortunately, our subconscious mind is more prone to systematic error and bias in decision making due to the use of mental shortcuts. This is the trade-off for fast and effortless thinking. Our subconscious mind is reviewing its stored pattern library looking for matches. If no match is found, it kicks out to our conscious mind. Our conscious mind is essentially in hot-standby, ready to engage only when a problem has been detected by the unconscious. But the transition between the two takes effort, and the conscious mind is slow and laborious.

The three elements of situation awareness are best performed by the conscious mind. But due to the problems addressed above, it makes sense to evaluate how we might improve decision making using our subconscious minds. It takes time and practice to develop skill-based intuition. Yet for certain rare and hazardous events there may be no operational experience related to responding to such an event. Therefore, developing habits related to safe operation should be developed. Designing for effective situation awareness and operator response to abnormal situations can be addressed by considering the following four techniques:

1. System design

2. Developing skill-based intuition

3. Creating safe habits

4. Using “nudge theory”


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