Thursday, March 5, 2015

Developing Situational Awareness Part 2 (200th Post)

I talk a lot about situational awareness and paying attention. Especially pertaining to defense and security. I talk to my family about it until they have tuned me out. I want them to know and understand what situational awareness is and what to do to develop it. In this series we’ll talk about and try to explain situational awareness in more detail and how to develop it further.
To help understand this awareness we’ll use the OODA loop which we all use every day. As we go through out our day we Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. In competition or combat the one who goes through the OODA Loop correctly the fastest, usually wins. The second point is Orient.
Being more observant isn’t enough to master situational awareness. You have to know what you’re looking for, and then put that information into context so it has meaning and becomes actionable. That’s where the Orient phase comes into play.
The Orient step provides three things to help us achieve situational awareness: 1) baselines and anomalies for our particular environment, 2) mental models of human behavior we should look for, and 3) plans of action depending on our observations.
You should be establishing a baseline wherever you go. Every environment and person has a baseline. A baseline is what’s “normal” in a given situation, and it will differ from person to person and environment to environment. For example, the baseline at a small coffee shop will usually entail people reading a book or working on their computer or speaking in hushed tones with their friends. The baseline at a rock concert would be loud music and people looking at the stage while either jumping up and down to the music or swaying their bodies to the beat.
We establish baselines so that we can find things out of place. Anomalies are things that either do not happen, that should, or that happen and shouldn’t. Anomalies are what direct our attention as we take in our surroundings and what we need to focus on to achieve situational awareness.
So to orient yourself, establish baselines so that you can direct your attention to anomalies. How do we do that on the fly? Ask yourself these questions every time you enter a new environment:
Baseline Questions: What’s going on here? What’s the general mood of the place? What’s the “normal” activity that I should expect here? How do most people behave here most of the time?
Anomaly Question: What would cause someone or something to stand out?
We can’t pay attention to everything all at once so that makes it impossible to obtain complete situational awareness. The human mind can only handle so much information at a given time. Thus in the domain of personal safety, where things unfold quickly and seconds are often the difference between life and death, how we direct our attention is extremely important.
So we need to focus on a few things at a time that provide the most bang for our attention buck. And we do that by relying on heuristics. Heuristics are quick and dirty problem-solving and decision-making mental shortcuts our minds use to figure things out when minimal information is available and time is limited. Decisions made from heuristics aren’t always perfect, but in the context of your personal safety, they’re usually good enough.
There are six domains of human behavior that soldiers use on the battlefield in order to quickly determine whether someone is a friend or foe. To get an idea of what civilians should look for in everyday situations, the most important category of clues is what is called kinesics, an area of behavior that involves people’s conscious and subconscious body language.
Within the domain of kinesics, three behaviors of body language are of particular interest for situational awareness. They are: dominance/submissive behavior, comfortable/uncomfortable behavior, and interested/uninterested behavior.
Dominance/submissive behavior. Generally, most people try to get along with others, so for the most part people act in accommodating and submissive ways. Dominant behavior is an expression of the fight response and often manifests itself in gestures and postures that make a person look larger to intimidate ‘smaller’ individuals into submission. Smaller vs. bigger here doesn’t just apply to physical size, however, but also relates to relative positions of power.
Because most people get along to get along, dominant behavior often constitutes an anomaly. The person displaying it deserves more attention. If someone acts in a pushy, authoritative, or overbearing way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a threat; context matters. You’d expect a boss to act dominant in relation to their employees and the employees to act submissive to their boss, but seeing extreme dominant behavior exhibited by a customer towards an employee isn’t as common. That would be something to watch and keep tabs on.
Comfortable/uncomfortable behavior. Most people are going to look relatively comfortable in most situations. Think about a bus or a subway ride — passengers generally appear pretty relaxed while they stare out the window or read a book. If someone looks uncomfortable, that’s an anomaly that warrants extra attention, but it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a threat. They could be distressed because they’re late for work or maybe they just heard some bad news about a relative. Again, it’s just something to keep your eye on.
A common display of uncomfortable behavior you’ll see from individuals up to no good is that they’re always “checking their six.” This is when a person looks over their shoulder to see what’s behind them or generally scans their surroundings. People who are comfortable generally don’t do this because they don’t feel any threat. So if you see a guy looking over his shoulder a lot when he should be standing there aloof, that’s an anomaly that should get your attention.
Now obviously, “checking your six” is something that situationally aware good guys do too. If you’re doing it right, it shouldn’t be noticeable to others, but it takes practice, and some guy with his head on a swivel might still be green. But until you verify that through further observation, be suspicious.
On the flipside, someone acting comfortable when everyone else is uncomfortable would be an anomaly. One of the ways law enforcement was able to identify the Boston Marathon bombers was that they noticed in surveillance footage that the men looked relatively calm while everyone else was running around in a panic. The reason they looked calm was because they knew the explosion was going to happen and thus weren’t surprised by it, while everyone else was caught off guard.
Interested/uninterested behavior. Most people aren’t paying attention to their environment. They’re too caught up in their own thoughts or whatever they’re doing. So individuals who are showing interest in a particular person or object that most people wouldn’t be interested in is an anomaly that warrants further observation.
These three body language behaviors establish baselines for every situation in which we find ourselves and allow us to direct our limited attention towards things that are potentially more important and/or dangerous. If a person’s behavior across these behaviors fits the baseline for that particular circumstance, you can pretty much ignore them. If their behavior doesn’t fit the baseline, they’re an anomaly and you should observe them more closely.
Other Behavioral Threat Indicators
Besides the above three kinesic behaviors, law enforcement and military are taught to look out for a couple other behaviors that could apply to civilian situations as well:
Shifty hands. Military and law enforcement officers typically check the hands first on any person with which they’re engaging. This is for two reasons. First, checking the hands of a person ensures that the person is not holding a weapon and is not preparing to strike. Second, hands often telegraph hidden nefarious intentions. People who are concealing something they don’t want discovered, like a gun, knife, or stolen object, will often touch or pat that area on the body where that object is concealed, as if to ensure the object has not been lost or is still hidden from view. This is actually common with those who concealed carry at first. They may be trained and legally licensed, but the human thing to do is to check.
“Acting Natural.” It’s difficult to “act natural” when you’re not completely focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing. People “acting natural” will appear distracted and over- or under-exaggerate their movements. Insurgents in Afghanistan will often try to act like farmers, when they’re in fact attempting to collect information on U.S. military patrols. Soldiers and Marines are trained to look for these “farmers” who appear to be trying too hard.
This is what to look for so you can act accordingly. Everything should be observed in context so that your orientation will be correct. If you can observe and see anomalies then your orientation can be focused on perceived threats until they prove to not be threats.
Next we’ll talk about options for making decisions.
Semper Paratus
Check 6
Burn
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