Situational Awareness, but not the Archer kind?
March 4, 2014 9:48 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for lessons, exercises or examples of how one can learn to be more vigilant or to improve their situational awareness. I realize some people develop this trait naturally, but are there examples of such things being actively taught? Lessons of a law-enforcement/investigatory nature will be extra helpful, but I'll happily take other examples.

I'm writing a sequel to a sci-fi novel and my protagonist goes through something analogous to police training. I don't plan to spend much actual time showing his training, but a couple of brief "lesson" scenes would really help. (The previous book had lengthy training scenes; more of the same would drag this one down.)

The character does not need to go full Sherlock Holmes or anything, but I would like to establish that his training has made him more apt to eavesdrop, to notice small details, etc.

posted by scaryblackdeath to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Close captioning on tv. My brother and I started doing this when our 'rents got a new tv. It forced us to actively read, and still pay attention to everything lose on the screen.

Try it for a few months to see if it helps.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:56 AM on March 4, 2014

Would something like HawkEye be useful?
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:02 AM on March 4, 2014

My maternal grandfather was a fireman and public safety instructor: To this day, any place where I'm sitting down in a public venue (especially theatres and airplanes) I scan for exits and count rows to those exits (ie: if I had to find that exit in smoke while crawling, could I?) first.

High school friend's mother was a police officer, the one lesson that's stuck with me from talking with law enforcement folks about their jobs: being hyper-vigilant about parking with two exits (even if one of those is over a curb) and so can't be easily blocked in by one other vehicle.

Also, from hanging out with EMTs and ambulance drivers: Ask for your restaurant check when you order, in case you have to bail.
posted by straw at 10:02 AM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think we both know Archer works just fine in this situation.

Check out Episode 2 of Season 1, where Archer is training Cyril to be an agent. Note that it's a mock situation, so danger involved and how Archer trys to teach Cyril to be actively scanning his wereabouts while acting casual.

In your situation, you could mimic that with trainers evaluating what the agent saw doing the mock situation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:05 AM on March 4, 2014

I am not sure if this specifically fits the plot trajectory you have in mind... But if your protagonist is the mistreated party in an abusive relationship of some sort (parent/child or romantic relationship being the most powerful... Though you could try a mentor and student dynamic), your protagonist would very quickly gain the ability to sense when someone is in an "off" mood as well as an understanding of unlikely minor circumstances that might trigger an outburst. I hate to call it a form of training, but this experience could allow your character to develop excellent social skills, by giving him or her an almost supernatural gift (born of survival instinct) of knowing how even a stranger must to be treated to achieve a certain response or reaction.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 10:09 AM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could ask roommates or a loved one to tap you at random times when your back is turned. Eventually you start anticipating it. They don't have to hit hard but it heightens your awarness of when an attack might come and sharpens how you view the environment. They do the same exercise in krav maga where a few guys attack you from all angles. Another one they do is closing your eyes in a crowded room while your target shuffles somewhere and you have to run and find them.

Also if you've got the nerve you could head to an upscale supermarket dressed like a poor man/woman. The point of this exercise would be to try and identify the undercover detectives as they follow you. Nothing makes you vigliant quicker than being somewhere you're not welcome!

Last one I have is to take in a scene and close your eyes taking in every detail you can. Then scraping that memory for objects and asking yourself small questions like "how many people did I see? What clothes were they wearing" Then you compare to the scene. Observation skills make a great writer as well as a cop.
posted by CyborgHag at 10:17 AM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wonder if disaster preparedness training might be useful to you? Like, actual preparedness, not prepper paranoia.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:26 AM on March 4, 2014

I've seen a couple movies where the Grizzled Mentor Type and the Young Rookie are sitting in a public place, and the Mentor Type - without warning - makes the rookie close his eyes and then pull details about his surroundings from memory.

I don't know that anyone actually does this in real life.
posted by catalytics at 10:30 AM on March 4, 2014

To clarify my earlier comment, I didn't mean the process of preparing for a literal tornado or whatnot, but something like how to handle groups of panicked and injured people in chaotic surroundings. The Red Cross might have info/programs on this?
posted by jessicapierce at 10:34 AM on March 4, 2014

The armed forces make you do situational awareness training, or sometimes they call it risk management training. There are basic lessons like switching people to different tasks so they don't get bored or fatigued, making sure people don't get too hungry, thirsty, hot, sunburned, etc so that they're "on". Also learning to stay vigilant, communicate if something seems off, and always reply when communicated with so that people know whether the message has gotten through. Learning to speak up even when unsure is also key.

The Coast Guard calls some of this Team Coordination Training, and you might be able to find it or similar trainings online.
posted by ldthomps at 10:37 AM on March 4, 2014

It is not an exercise but law enforcement training stresses the importance of watching peoples hands and not their faces.
posted by mrdrummed at 10:53 AM on March 4, 2014

there is something i've been doing all my life which may be helpful to you. when you are walking around inside a building, you will occasionally encounter a door closing automatically in front of you. the trick is to dance through the rapidly narrowing space between the door and the jamb without fouling on (touching) either. there are two benefits from this practice, 1) it teaches you to unconsciously decide and act in fleeting situations which demand unconscious actions, and 2) it confers good luck.
posted by bruce at 11:15 AM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

My situational awareness really got developed when I was in an LTR with a person who was very security-minded, verging on paranoid. Some of it was because we were of different races (I'm white, he's black), didn't live in the safest neighborhoods, and he was always half looking out for discrimination or physical threats against us. Some of it was his upbringing and having to take care of his mom from a young age. He also had law enforcement training. Anyway, he was always observing things, pointing things out, listening to all of the conversations around us at restaurants, people watching, etc. After awhile I started doing those things too, and sometimes we would make a game of pointing out subtle details in our surroundings. I am definitely very aware of my surroundings now, although I am glad to be free of the paranoid side of it when that relationship ended.
posted by cabingirl at 11:33 AM on March 4, 2014

when i am seated in a restaurant, i like my back to the wall and my eyes on the door, a position known as the "gunfighter seat" although i don't pack heat in public. as i appear to be staring at my salad, i am yet watching you come in.
posted by bruce at 11:39 AM on March 4, 2014

I actually worked as an EMT and received training for exactly this thing.

As part of our hands-on training, we would respond to 'incidents' at various spots in our building, where force veterans would play the patient. Mostly it was a test of our abilities to diagnose/treat the medical complaints, but several of the 'patients' would get agitated and violent during the test. My most vivid memory is of completely unexpected 'angry family members' bursting through the door behind us when we were in the middle of examining a 'patient'. That one was particularly scary, as they actually physically grabbed us from behind and could easily have hurt us if it hadn't been a training exercise.

It may sound extreme, but it was, in fact, excellent training for real field situations.
posted by Ausamor at 12:24 PM on March 4, 2014

My father worked environmental/health/safety at a large US corporation. From that, I always notice the location and quantity of fire extinguishers, and I frequently glance to see when they were last inspected. I notice doors that open inwards (fire code says exterior doors must open out, to allow a crush of people to exit a building). I notice the AED [Automated External Defibrillator] units at airports and convention centers, even if I don't know how to use them.

If you know anyone who's ever dealt with OSHA, you might ask them. I know they can be extremely rigorous around standards and have eyes for noticing very small details.
posted by Dilligas at 1:17 PM on March 4, 2014

The TV show Psych has a lot of flashback scenes where Shawn's dad puts puts him in situations to train him to be observant.
posted by at at 3:01 PM on March 4, 2014

Lifeguard and lifesaving training covers a lot of these skills. Lifeguards are trained to cover their zones by constantly scanning for signs of potential casualties. Lifeguards are trained to look for the early signs of someone in distress before they are actually in distress. They have SOPs which include risk assessments so they know what the dangers are already and how likely they are to occur and are extra aware of those areas or situations. Much of this training becomes deeply ingrained. For example, I became so accustomed to scanning the water wherever I went (whether on duty or not) that even today, 6 or 7 years since I've worked as a lifeguard, I'll rarely stand with my back to a nearby body of water.

Lifesavers on the other hand (ie trained individuals who happen upon a life threatening situation and are not paid to protect people) are trained to use objects around them as rescue aids, they are trained to assess the situation before acting, assess the type of casualty and how likely they are to struggle while being rescued and to apply the appropriate level of caution when approaching, assess the likely dangers they may face in getting to the casualty and trained to develop an action plan based on the minimum viable risk to themselves and other non-casualties.

Training for Lifeguards and Lifesavers consisted of a combination of theoretical and practical training. The theory gave the know-how - what to look for, how to develop a plan etc - and the practical training (other than skills training) involved creating a lot of different scenarios that tested the rescuer to correctly assess the situation and rapidly develop and effect a rescue plan.
posted by TwoWordReview at 3:19 PM on March 4, 2014

Best answer: I'm looking for lessons, exercises or examples of how one can learn to be more vigilant or to improve their situational awareness. I realize some people develop this trait naturally, but are there examples of such things being actively taught? Lessons of a law-enforcement/investigatory nature will be extra helpful, but I'll happily take other examples.

I've studied emergency preparedness a bit in grad school, and risk assessment was something we were specifically taught. We were also taught specific things to look for w/r/t basic intelligence gathering, security, etc. The class I'm thinking of was called Homeland Security, and it was crosslisted between the public policy program I'm in and a public management program for active military that's run through our university. That class was maybe a third to a half civilian and two thirds to a half military, but there was some overlap; some civilians were former military, former law enforcement, current DHS employees, etc etc etc.

IIrc, the basic equation we used was: Risk = Vulnerability * Motivation * Damage. The idea is, you want to lower any one of those three variables in order to lower risk. In general, I would say that it's often easiest to make people not want to hurt you, next easiest to mitigate what damage they can do if they do hurt you, and hardest to make yourself less vulnerable -- though it's obviously context-specific. You also have to weigh lowering the risk against lowering utility. For example, if you want to make a building secure, you can fill it with concrete so that nobody can get inside -- but then the building has no utility. Etc.

We studied that stuff by sitting in a classroom and having lectures and discussion, just like in any subject. We also had some security professionals come in and do presentations, and we read things like various studies and sims other orgs had done. We ran a couple tabletop sims ourselves, and had a formal debate or two, as well as the usual memos and papers.

Some professions that are very into security and in which professionals are trained in risk assessment are: intelligence, military (lots of overlap between intelligence and military, too), lawyers, public health workers, people with lots to lose (like banks, very rich people, etc).

I think there's a difference between high situational awareness and high levels of vigilance. A lot of people in/from the military have high situational awareness, for example, in that they're very good (through training, practice, and talent, I think) at reading people/situations. They might know how to realistically estimate a risk, and they might be good at figuring out ways to up utility without raising risk by much. Frankly, I'm not sure how they're taught those things, though I know that some of it is literally about being told techniques that work or signs to look for (those are things we went over in class as well). Having very high vigilance is different; it's more like, seeing threats everywhere. You can have both high situational awareness and high levels of vigilance, of course, but they don't entirely overlap and high vigilance isn't really a skill the way that high situational awareness is, it's more like a survival mechanism. The people I know who have the most obvious high levels of vigilance are actually people who have been through prison. That kind of mindset can cause a lot of torment and paranoia, and isn't actually constructive unless you're in a situation in which there literally are threats everywhere (ie, in prison, maybe). High levels of vigilance are likely to make you overestimate threats, which might lead you to respond to them in counterproductive ways (whereas situational awareness is meant to make you better at estimating and responding to threats/opportunities). A lot of people I know who have trouble with over-vigilance also focus too much on the "vulnerability" part of the equation and don't do enough to, for example, mitigate damage -- because they're focused on survival, rather than on cutting their losses or coming out on top. They often seem as though they have blinders on, and I wouldn't say that they're actually more observant than anyone else -- it's just that they have outsized reactions to some of what they do observe. That kind of vigilance is not something a person would be formally taught (except by an absolute psychopath), it's a response to trauma.

So I would actually say that training would largely consist of classroom teaching and sims of various kinds, and that it would be more about *which* things to keep an eye out for and how to interpret and use them (albeit those things might be things most people are oblivious or that are very subtle), and maybe how to respond to them, than it would be about taking in *everything.* Of course, that's just based on what I was taught, so other people might have learned differently.
posted by rue72 at 4:59 PM on March 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Try tests which challenge two orthogonal skills at once.

I'm reminded of Will Smith in Men in Black, when what seems to be a test of reflexes on a shooting range turns out to actually be a test of judgment. ("this snarling beast guy, he's not snarling, he's sneezing.")
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:46 PM on March 5, 2014

« Older Can an iPad that's been turned off be tracked?   |   Research showing that *any* office rearrangement... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.